Josh Kurtz: A Conversation With Ben Cardin

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Poised to become Maryland’s senior senator in the next Congress with the looming retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), Sen. Ben Cardin (D) is increasingly confident that he’ll also be serving in the majority come 2017.

“Definitely,” he said in a recent interview, ticking off the Democrats’ expanding list of pickup opportunities in the fall.

Democrats need to flip four seats -- five if they lose the White House -- to be back in control of the Senate. Many nonpartisan analysts believe there is a good chance of that happening. Donald Trump is only part of the reason why.

With 30 years in Congress under his belt, Cardin has proven he can be effective in a variety of roles – and while serving in both the majority and the minority. And regardless of whether the Democrats are running the Senate chamber next year, Cardin may have several appealing options to ponder.

He’s currently the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and wouldn’t that gavel be a nice reward for a lifetime of public service, if the Democrats are back in the majority?

Cardin might also have the option of being the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee or the Small Business Committee. But Cardin doesn’t want to think too much about that now.

“It’s no sense getting too far ahead,” he says.

Yet Cardin, the leading protector of the Chesapeake Bay in Congress, leaves no doubt that EPW holds a special appeal. 

"I think EPW is a great committee," he said. "Great jurisdiction. A jurisdiction that really lines up with the interests of my state."

But none of these decisions will be made in a vacuum, despite the Senate's traditional adherence to seniority rules.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the ranking member on Environment and Public Works, is retiring after two-dozen years in the Senate. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is next in line, but he must weigh whether or not he wants to give up his post as top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee – and hasn’t indicated one way or another. Cardin is currently the third most senior Democrat on the Environment panel.

One obvious variable is whether Democrats are in the majority or the minority in the next Congress. Another unknown is the preferences of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the presumptive Democratic leader after Nevada Sen. Harry Reid retires. He will want to have some say on what his leadership team will look like.

Then there is the legal case against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who Cardin replaced as the top Democrat on Foreign Relations after Menendez was indicted on corruption charges in 2015. If Menendez is exonerated, he could try to lay claim to his former status on that panel -- even though Cardin was given full ranking member responsibilities, without an interim tag slapped on.

Cardin is content with the possibilities and has tried not to think too much about what lies ahead. He says he has had "zero conversations" with Schumer on the topic and doesn't want to discuss anything with Carper until the November elections draw closer.

Although they aren’t saying so publicly, most environmental groups would probably prefer Cardin in the top slot on EPW. Cardin has a 91 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, while Carper’s is 81 percent. Carper also has a robust chemicals industry in his state that he needs to take care of.

For his part, Cardin says he and Carper are “close friends” and notes that his colleague “has never turned me down” when he’s asked him for help on matters affecting the Chesapeake. He also points out that if Carper becomes the chairman or ranking member of the Environment committee he’s “going to need, as Sen. Boxer needed, strong lieutenants” on the panel.

Just as Cardin is bullish on the Democrats’ chances of recapturing the Senate, he predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the White House election “comfortably.” He expressed confidence that the American voters would conclude that Trump is “not qualified” to be president.

Cardin said he met recently with Robert Mugabe, the controversial and somewhat erratic president of Zimbabwe, and found himself being dressed down for Trump’s incendiary statements and lack of qualifications.

“If he’s lecturing to me about Donald Trump, that says a lot,” Cardin mused.

Asked if he’s ever met Trump, Cardin laughed and said he can’t recall doing so. “Isn’t that funny?” He says he figures he’s probably been in the same room with the reality TV star at a big reception in Washington, but can’t say for sure.

Closer to home, Cardin has more praise for another Republican, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

“You have to admire his ability to move an agenda forward,” said Cardin, who has seen only three GOP governors during his 50-year political career.

Cardin said Hogan has been very collaborative with the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation on matters like Maryland’s attempt to bring the FBI’s proposed new headquarters to Prince George’s County, and said he was highly impressed by the presentations state health officials made during a recent public discussion of the Zika virus. He also said he was pleasantly surprised that Hogan this year signed a “progressive” piece of legislation expanding access to family planning in the state.

“I want all of my leaders to succeed, regardless of party,” Cardin says.

But he also says Hogan has “made some mistakes, in my view” – and he can’t help hiding his bitterness about the governor’s decision to kill the proposed Red Line in Baltimore. That decision negated a lot of hard work by the congressional delegation to secure federal funding for the transit project, and Cardin believes it will have a serious negative effect on the Baltimore region’s economic and public health.

“That’s gone for a generation,” he lamented of any expectation that the state can receive an equivalent amount of federal funding for some other project. “It was a critical building block” for Baltimore that’s forever gone.

Cardin said it’s too early to talk about Democrats’ prospects for defeating Hogan in 2018 and that it’s too early to talk about another critical election that year that could affect the state’s overall political dynamic: his own.

Cardin will be 75 years old on Election Day 2018. He’s as healthy and vital as ever, and is, arguably, at the pinnacle of his power. And the state is certainly going to feel the loss of the unique and formidable Mikulski in the short term.

Through March 31, Cardin had a respectable $774,000 in his campaign account – a solid building block if he wants to seek a third term in 2018. The senator says he’ll huddle with his family shortly after November to decide whether to run again.

Cardin says control of the Senate will not factor into his decision – he figures he can be effective and enjoy the work whether or not he’s serving in the majority. He sees a commitment to run as an “eight-year decision” – the six years he would presumably serve plus the two years it would take prior to the 2018 election to crank up his political operation.

But that decision can come later: “We haven’t passed 2016,” he says.


Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.