WASHINGTON – Sen. Paul Sarbanes is fond of telling a yarn about how the word “idiot” came from the Greek “idiotes,” or a person whose only concern is for himself.
While he might be embellishing a tad — according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “Idiotes” describes “one in a private station; a layman; an ignorant person” — the story’s implications about public service stuck with his oldest son.
And so John Sarbanes, 44, the Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, has spent much his life — er — trying not to be an idiot.
So far, so good.
Since graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, Sarbanes, who lives in Towson with his wife, Dina Sarbanes, and their three children, has tunneled into education reform, health care, public advocacy and, most recently, politics.
Sarbanes, chairman of the health care law practice at the Baltimore law firm Venable, Baetjer and Howard LLP, says he’s always had an affinity for politics, but his calling to public service — not necessarily public office — inspired his career decisions.
“When you grow up in a political family, you don’t plan on political fortune; you do the best you can to be engaged. An opportunity may come or it may not, but either way, I wanted to be engaged in public policy issues,” says Sarbanes.
He’s put that into practice representing non-profit hospitals and senior-living providers for the past 16 years and in his recent seven-year stint as a liaison to Baltimore City Public Schools for Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
“I think the things I’ve been involved in have prepared me very well to do the job I’m seeking. But that doesn’t mean I did them because I was seeking the job,” Sarbanes says.
His political opportunity arrived last year when Rep. Ben Cardin freed the 3rd District seat with his bid to replace Sarbanes’ father, who is retiring this year.
“I was surprised when he asked me whether I thought it was a good idea for him to run,” said Warren W. Hamel, a Venable partner who met Sarbanes in the late 1970s at Princeton University. “I really never had the view that he was especially interested in running for office. But at another level, it makes perfect sense.”
Hamel, a former federal prosecutor, enthusiastically supported Sarbanes’ decision, and in August 2005 Sarbanes asked him to be the chairman of his campaign.
“He has an awful lot of what his father has: that is integrity, honesty and thoughtfulness,” Hamel said. “And he really has the fire in the belly. He’s angry about the direction in which this country is headed.”
Sen. Paul Sarbanes represented the 3rd District — a paint splatter on the map that drips into parts of Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, as well as Baltimore City — for three terms before shifting to the Senate in 1977.
The family name, and the gravitas it presumably affords, was a peg for criticism during the eight-way primary, and now, as the general election nears.
The other man seeking the job, Annapolis-businessman John White, also a first-time candidate, has said he’s “running against a name,” portraying Sarbanes as privileged and out-of-touch with the district.
Sarbanes’ friends and co-workers, though, say his name has been irrelevant to his professional successes.
Jennifer Pelton, development director at the Pubic Justice Center, an advocacy group that offers legal services in Maryland and around the Mid-Atlantic region, says Sarbanes might as well have “been a Smith” during the 15 years he sat on the center’s board.
“He was a very successful fundraiser because of his commitment to the issues we represent — not because his last name is Sarbanes,” says Pelton. “He’s a visionary in a way that he can think big and also see the impact that his work has on other people, and I think that’s a rare gift.”
Sarbanes brushes aside his opponent’s criticisms that he’s hitching a ride on his father’s name.
“I feel like you could be defensive if you didn’t have confidence in your ability, but if you’ve been slogging away in the trenches like I have for 18 years, it’s like, whatever,” Sarbanes says. “If (voters) see my professional experience, and attach the name to that, and it makes them feel more comfortable, that’s great.”
As to his upbringing, Sarbanes is the first to admit he’s been fortunate. Reared in Baltimore with his younger brother and sister, Sarbanes, like his father, graduated from Princeton University in 1984, and then studied law and politics in Greece for a year on a Fulbright Scholarship before starting in on his law degree at Harvard.
“I’ve had wonderful opportunities, but I’ve never taken them for granted,” Sarbanes says. “I only have to skip one generation back to the time when the story of the Sarbanes was of immigrants who came over here and had nothing.”
But skip forward again to the inaugurations, to meeting Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey as a 13-year-old, to seeing your dad’s name in the newspapers day after day — “You have a sense that part of the commitment (of being part of a political family) is being out in the public and projecting out into the public, and that’s obviously a different kind of life,” Sarbanes says.
His daughter, Stephanie, 15, and two sons, Nico, 13, and Leo, 8, might soon have a taste of such a life.
When Sarbanes lived with his parents, his father used to commute home every night, one of the advantages of working close to home, says Sarbanes.
But if anything gives him pause about politics, it’s this caveat the elder Sarbanes volunteered years ago: “He once said that you only have enough private time to spend either on your family or on your friends, so you have to choose, and he chose the family — and that’s certainly my impulse too.”