WASHINGTON – Even before Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey interviewed to work for U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes in 1994, he was confident he had the job — after all the two shared Ivy League alma maters.
“I thought that would be a real feather in my cap,” Ivey said. “Then he says, ‘Princeton and Harvard, not bad — but where’s Oxford on there?'”
Sarbanes, 74, was jokingly referring to his days as a Rhodes Scholar, but the colorful exchange gave the young lawyer a snapshot into how particular the senator can be about those who serve him.
Yet, in doing so, Sarbanes, who is retiring, has shown an obvious ability for spotting talented individuals, considering many of his staffers gained plenty of political prestige after they left his service.
Sarbanes, D-Md., whose five terms make him the state’s longest-serving senator, has, in essence, amassed an “alumni association” — former employees who have gone on to or are seeking political careers on either the state, federal, or local level.
Ivey, a former staff member on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the Senate Whitewater Committee, spent two years with Sarbanes.
“He’s a brilliant man with unsurpassed integrity and he was very open to discussion within our offices about strategy and how to process policy,” Ivey said. “I’ve tried to replicate a lot of things he’s done.”
Sarbanes says he wasn’t out to build a living legacy, but just wanted to hire people with a natural affinity for working hard.
“I take a keen interest in my staff,” he said. “Whatever their endeavor, you want personal integrity, you want competence, you want ability, and of course with public policy issues, you have to have an ability to develop consensus and to shape policy.”
Perhaps the former Sarbanes staffer who has had the most political success is U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, who worked in the 1980s on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Sarbanes held a seat. Van Hollen called the work challenging because the senator provided close oversight.
“If you’re a staff member working for Senator Sarbanes you better do your homework,” Van Hollen said. “He was someone who got into the details himself.”
Among the Sarbanes “alumni” are former Chief of Staff Marvin “Bud” Moss, now a member of the Board of Supervisors in Fluvanna County, Va.; Greg Pecoraro, a former staffer, now a member of the Westminster City Council in Carroll County and a Democratic National Committee worker; Darryl Kelley, a former legislative assistant, now a delegate from Maryland’s District 26 from Fort Washington; and Peter Murphy, Sarbanes’ Southern Maryland field representative, who now is running for House of Delegates.
It’s not unusual for Senate or House staff members to move up to a political career, but Sarbanes’ has shown a knack for hiring the right kind of worker, analysts and observers said.
“(Staffers becoming politicians) is fairly common but it’s enhanced by his stature and his longevity. Both of those are measures of his influence,” said Ron Walters, a politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Those familiar with politics have said Sarbanes’ staff is highly organized, extremely qualified and gifted at raising money — typically the toughest part of campaigns.
Sarbanes is a talented politician and he is not hiring these individuals by accident, said Hedrick Smith, whose book “The Power Game,” analyzes Washington politics.
“He is a legislative craftsman so he hires people who are interested in the process,” Smith said. “The strength is that he leaves behind a cadre of staff members who helped him, supported him, and have gone on themselves to lead successful careers.”
Murphy, who has spent the last three years representing Sarbanes in southern Maryland, is such an example. He gives part credit to his involvement with the senator for why he is running for the House of Delegates in District 28, which includes Charles County.
“Public service is not that much of a choice,” he said. “If that’s how you’re wired then that’s how you look at it and working for him has really brought those things to life for me.”
Not surprisingly, those working in government have an advantage when starting political careers. In Congressional races, nearly 4 percent of the candidates come from current staffs, and nearly 15 percent wind up winning, according to a 1994 study by Paul Hernnson, a politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who looked at races from 1978 to 1988.
The idea of staffers going on to successful political careers extends beyond just Sarbanes, he said.
“People who have worked for Congress as aides, sometimes as interns, have tremendous advantages when they decide to run for Congress or seek political appointments, so they have a really good potential post,” he said.
Moss, Sarbanes’ chief of staff from 1978 until 1995, attributes his tenure to the fact that he and the senator shared political philosophies.
“It was pretty clear cut that he had known I was comfortable with him and he’d be comfortable with me,” he said.
Critics say that Sarbanes’ staffers’ success is an example of a party stranglehold on the state, critics said.
“The Democratic Party has had a monopoly here in the state of Maryland for 40 years so it would make sense that the senator has seen elections of family, friends and other aspiring politicians,” said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.
Hernnson sees this trend more positively.
“In the state of Maryland, most of the voters are in the Democratic Party, so most of the political talent is naturally going to be attracted to the Democratic Party,” he said.
There can be a downside to the political circle, said Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that promotes honest government.
“It’s almost like an apprenticeship program, isn’t it?” she said. “You’ve got talented people who have been exposed and they’ve got expertise, but they’ve also developed an insider mentality and developed connections. The playing field is not level.”
Sarbanes’ political connections in fact begin closer than his own office. His brother, Anthony, is president of the Wicomico County Council. His son, John, is running for the House of Representatives in the 3rd Congressional District.
“You learn a set of skills that can be very helpful to you if you want to go into public office,” John Sarbanes said. “At the same time you can see the demands it plays on you.”
Aaron Klein, another staffer from the Banking Committee and running for the House of Delegates in District 20, said the behind-the-scenes work for the senator motivated him to run for state office.
“Annapolis is much a more member-driven legislature (than Congress) and there’s a tremendous opportunity to give back to my community by having the legislative skills I’ve learned,” he said.
However, should Klein encounter any fellow former Sarbanes staffers running against him, his campaign might turn out tougher than expected. Then again, that is probably how the senator would have wanted it.