U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes shocked the political world — and his constituents — when he made a surprise announcement this fall that he won’t run for reelection next year.
By the time the 61-year-old Democrat’s term is up, he’ll have completed 18 years in Congress, representing communities largely in the Baltimore suburbs. He’s focused his career on improving health care, restoring the quality of the Chesapeake Bay and improving voting and political engagement.
He’ll leave Congress with some of that work undone, as his Freedom to Vote Act — which calls for an end to partisan gerrymandering and making Election Day a holiday — is stalled for now in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Sarbanes is hopeful his bill will find success after he leaves office, and has lined up colleagues to carry on the fight.
The Baltimore Banner caught up with Sarbanes in between meetings and votes to talk about his years in Congress, his fight for democracy and what comes next.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Banner: You seemed to surprise everybody with your announcement that you wouldn’t run for reelection. Can you tell me a little bit about how long you’ve been considering this and how you came to the decision?
Sarbanes: When I first came to Congress almost 18 years ago, I didn’t at that time think that I would finish out my career in Congress. I always expected that there’d be at least one other chapter in my career on the other side of that.
In that sense, the time was right from my standpoint to go pursue that other chapter. More recently, that came into focus that this would be the term where I would finish out and then go do something else.
It’s not like there was some “aha” moment. It’s more that I generally had felt that I would go in a new direction at some point in my career, and looking back on what will be 18 years in Congress and being at kind of a natural break point in my life, career, age, etc., this seemed to be the right time to do it.
Banner: Since you arrived on Capitol Hill in in 2007, what are some of the ways that the House has changed both for the better and maybe for the worse — which is maybe what it looks like to folks who are watching from the outside lately?
Sarbanes: I think it’s certainly the case that the acceleration of social media as part of our political ecosystem has not been good for civil discourse out there in the country. And then that gets translated into any place where you’re having a discussion about tough issues of public policy or political questions. It just makes the conversation more intense, more polarized, more antagonistic.
That’s the nature of how these social media platforms operate. They like to promote conflicts more than constructive conversation and deliberation. That’s definitely something I’ve seen over the last 18 years, and it seems to accelerate with each passing day.
The effect of that is it undermines an environment where you can sit down in a kind of dispassionate way, and sort through tough issues with your colleagues — really think them through and try to arrive at consensus or compromise on important public policy issues. So it just means it’s a tougher environment in which to have deliberation and make public policy.
Now, having said that, we’ve still been able to achieve some remarkable things. I’m very proud of my work on the Affordable Care Act. ... I’m proud of the work that I’ve been able to do on advancing the Chesapeake Bay and protecting the bay, working on issues of the environment generally.
I was the original author of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. And we’ve seen that that’s made a huge difference to so many graduates across the country who want to pursue careers in public service and now can get that opportunity to have their loans forgiven.
And then working on the democracy issues — in a way, that effort has gained a kind of momentum to it from the reality of the current environment that we live in.
Banner: And with the Freedom to Vote Act, that’s some unfinished business you have with Congress. House Minority Whip Katherine Clark is committed to carrying that forward. What does it say, though, about our current political climate that those reforms haven’t been able to get all the way across the finish line yet? Is that concerning to you?
Sarbanes: It’s frustrating. I think it reflects that we have this anti-majoritarian rule in the United States Senate, which says you need 60 votes to get anything done. And that’s the filibuster rule.
We had a majority of Democrats in the House that supported this bill in the last Congress. And we actually had a majority of Democrats [in the Senate] ... What we didn’t have was that support for addressing the filibuster so that you could actually get the bill to the floor.
So, on the one hand, I’m very gratified that we had the numbers. We had a majority of the House, a majority in the Senate, and a president who all supported this legislation. The stumbling block, the thing that was frustrating, is this antiquated, obsolete, anti-democratic procedural rule that continues to exist in the United States Senate which says you have to go get a supermajority if you want to do anything meaningful on legislation.
Banner: I know you’ve made this a focus ― election fairness and access and gerrymandering. You’re in the unique position in that the 3rd District was one of the most gerrymandered districts. Then it got redrawn and you got drawn out of your district when the latest maps came out. What was that like for you when you saw those maps and said: ‘Oh, my house [in Towson] is really far from my district’?
Sarbanes: I’ve been an advocate of redistricting reform from the very beginning. And that’s an important component of the Freedom to Vote Act. So I very much believe that we need a more independent and objective process for drawing congressional districts across this country. And I supported that, knowing that it would presumably have an effect on my own district in Maryland.
Now, the way districts are drawn, is they tend to be drawn depending on which party has the sway in a particular state. In some places, there’s independent commissions that draw them. But there isn’t a uniform standard and that’s what we need to get to.
In any event, when the redistricting was all said and done in Maryland, my district changed substantially. It’s much more consolidated than it was before, and I think that’s fair and reasonable. There were ways they could have done that without drawing me out of my own district, for sure, but that’s how the maps fell in the end.
And it is a little bit disorienting to not live in your district. That’s always the preference and I kind of view that as an important thing. So yeah, that’s a little strange.
To be very candid, I don’t think it affects my ability to represent the people of this district. ... But it’s certainly more comfortable to live in your district, and I don’t have that currently.
Banner: You’ve got a little more than a year left in this term. What else is on your priority list that you want to get done before you end your career in Congress?
Sarbanes: As I said, keeping the efforts on democracy reform bubbling so that they can be pulled back to the front burner if things go well in next year’s election. And so I’m certainly going to maintain the focus there and looking forward to teaming up with Katherine Clark and other leaders in our caucus to make sure that focus is very intense over the next year.
I’ve spent a lot of time on health care issues and my background is in health care. I’m going to continue to press forward on that. I’m particularly interested in how we deliver those kinds of services to young people, again, particularly in schools. I’ve led on that initiative, with school-based health centers.
Relatedly, understanding that the stress and mental health challenges and issues that are coming at people across the country generally — but certainly, the ones that are facing our young people are intense. Making sure that we’re providing proven strategies to respond to those mental health care needs in every possible way that we can. I think there’s an opportunity for bipartisan work on those kinds of initiatives.
And then I’m always focused on the environment, the Chesapeake Bay, addressing climate change, with all of the existential dimensions that it’s bringing to bear right now. I’m very hopeful that Sen. [Chris] Van Hollen and I can be successful in this Congress in getting the Chesapeake National Recreation Area authorized so that the National Park Service can step in and help support and provide its expertise and experience to a whole array of important sites across the Chesapeake Bay region that really highlight and lift up and promote access to the bay for millions of people who live in the watershed, and millions of other Americans and visitors to our our region.
Banner: I don’t know if you plan to get involved and endorse anybody, but certainly a lot of people are running or considering running for this seat. Do you have any advice or insight for people who want to be in Congress?
Sarbanes: First of all, I’m encouraged by the people that are expressing interest. I think it’ll be a good field of candidates. And one of the reasons I announced now is to give people an opportunity to consider it carefully, because I was hoping that a good group would step forward.
My advice in terms of running for Congress is just: Keep it real. You know, be yourself. Be authentic. Meet people where they are. Demonstrate a genuine appreciation for the challenges that they’re facing every day just in their own lives with their families. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.
People just want a decent quality of life. And our job is to look for every possible way to support that. And if you project and communicate that’s why you’re interested in serving in Washington, I think that’s received very positively.
And then in terms of advice for whoever that person is who is successful and comes to represent the 3rd District, the three guiding principles for me, from my 18 years of service have been: Listen carefully to your constituents. .... don’t just pay lip service to that notion, but actually listen.
Number two: Maintain your integrity in the job. I think that’s super important. People may disagree with you on particular issues, but if they believe that you are trying to carry out the duties of your office with integrity and candor, I think that’s an important part of the equation.
And then the third piece is work as hard as you can at the job. Show people that you’re committed to really working on their behalf.
I think if you fulfill those three principles, number one, your constituents will appreciate you regardless, again, of whether they agree with you on every issue. And number two, you probably wind up having a pretty good positive impact when it comes to public policy and affecting the lives of the people you directly represent, as well as people across the country.
So if you stick close to those principles, you project that that’s the kind of congressperson you want to be as you’re campaigning, and then if you’re successful, you stay committed to those principles in the job, then I think you’re on the right path for a successful career here.