BALTIMORE – Sen. Paul Sarbanes said Friday that he will not seek re-election in 2006, ending three decades in the Senate and opening a scramble for his seat that could dramatically restructure state and federal races next year.
Sarbanes, a reliably liberal Democrat who was first elected to the Senate in 1976, said it was “just the right time” to quit, after serving “long and well and honorably.”
“When I got into public office, it wasn’t my ambition to stay there until they carried me out,” the 72-year-old Sarbanes said. “It’s not as if I just got to the Senate and I am leaving.”
Within minutes of his announcement, at least two Democratic House members said they would consider seeking the vacant seat in 2006 and two more said later in the afternoon that they were also “seriously considering” it.
“Every Democratic member of the House” from Maryland is a potential successor now, said pollster Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
“I think a lot of people” will be considering the open seat, Gonzales said.
Democratic Reps. Ben Cardin of Baltimore, Chris Van Hollen of Kensington, Al Wynn of Mitchellville and Dutch Ruppersberger of Cockeysville all said yesterday that they had been urged to run and would consider it.
Other potential successors include Kweisi Mfume, the former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a former congressman from Baltimore. On the Republican side, possible candidates being mentioned included Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin of Queen Anne’s County, who ran unsuccessfully last year against Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
“This is a political earthquake,” said Blair Lee, a political columnist for the Gazette newspapers. “It ends up being the musical chairs of Maryland politics.”
It is the first time since 1986 that a Senate seat from Maryland will be open. Sarbanes said he announced his decision well in advance of the 2006 election in part “to give others who are interested an opportunity” to campaign.
He did not endorse any particular hopeful Friday.
“There are a number of strong candidates,” Sarbanes said, adding that he did not want to put a “spotlight” on any one candidate in particular.
Many said they were caught unawares by Sarbanes’ announcement.
“Believe me, when I woke up this morning I had no idea this was going to happen,” Van Hollen said.
Cardin said he had been encouraging Sarbanes to run again, and that he had not even had a chance to talk to his wife before announcing he would “seriously look at” the seat.
Although Friday’s announcement was sudden, Sarbanes said he had been thinking about the decision for a few years. He dismissed rumors that poor health propelled his decision to retire, saying his health is fine.
Sarbanes made a point of saying that he still has 22 months left in office, and he vowed “to be as tough and effective of a U.S. senator as I can.” He said he would use his last months in the Senate to focus all attention on challenging the Bush administration’s “radical agenda,” particularly its plans to reform Social Security.
Sarbanes cited deficits, excessive tax cuts and program cuts as issues he wanted to focus on at the end of his political career.
The mood was light-hearted, with the normally serious Sarbanes cracking jokes about his low-key profile in office, a characteristic that led some to dub him the “stealth senator.”
“One on the most powerful weapons in the military is the stealth bomb,” a smiling Sarbanes said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.
The five-term senator credits his Greek immigrant parents for instilling in him the values of public service. He was born on the Eastern Shore and attended Wicomico High School, before going on to Princeton. He was named a Rhodes Scholar, and got his law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sarbanes was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates from Baltimore in 1966 before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970.
After three terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1976.
In Congress, Sarbanes was known for voting liberally. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he introduced the first article of impeachment in proceedings against President Nixon.
Sarbanes may be best-remembered as the co-author of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which is aimed at curbing corporate fraud. He is currently the senior Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.
Sarbanes was reflective Friday about the state of American politics, citing a “meanness” today and noting that he and his staff kept to the high road and never engaged in tactics aimed at sullying the names of other candidates.
Sarbanes said he was also disappointed that the focus of candidates today seems to be “90 percent on running and winning” and 10 percent on politics.
“We run for office in order to do things,” he said.
— CNS reporters Elizabeth A. Weiss and Kevin W. McCullough contributed to this story from Washington.
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