I was at an old fire hall in Ferndale, at a meeting of an old Democratic club.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin was coming to the well-established club to talk but was late. He spent the day on the road, chatting with elected officials in Annapolis, making appearances and meeting with constituents.

Ferndale was the final stop on his itinerary. The clock was pushing 9 p.m. when Maryland’s junior senator rolled through the side door of the little red-and-white building. He looked tired.

What did he say? I don’t remember — just the party line. Democrats this, Barack Obama that, and darn those rascally Republicans.

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Ah, simpler times.

I’ve long since reassessed that night. Cardin said the expected in front of the 25 silver-haired Democrats who needed zero incentive to be there. They were the choir, and he was preaching to them.

The senator could have canceled and gone home to bed in Baltimore. Instead, he finished his day in Ferndale and gave those waiting for him what they wanted — a bit of predictable, reliable and true-to-himself Ben Cardin.

I’ve been thinking about that night since the 79-year-old Cardin this week announced plans to retire, setting up a rare scramble for an open Senate seat representing Maryland in 2024. A handful of candidates are already running, and more will come before summer turns to fall.

Sure, there are issues to consider. Some are national, but some are unique to Maryland. Cardin is a leading advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, and none of the candidates on the horizon have any record reflecting a similar focus.

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At this point, it’s more important to consider character than issues.

Do we need an ideological hero, strong and fresh from the fight? Or do we need someone who shows up in Ferndale when asked?

There’s a comparison to be made between Washington and Annapolis, where the Maryland Senate is both similar and a contrast to its counterpart 26 miles away. Success requires a bit of statesman- or stateswoman-ship.

“You need someone who can be a consensus builder because there are so few votes,” said state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat and one of the most successful legislators in the State House.

But Annapolis is also an intersquad scrimmage, where the everlasting, one-party dominance means the two sides in every debate might disagree over the details of a solution but not the definition of the problem.

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You need to be a Democrat to be considered seriously as a viable U.S. Senate candidate here. The last Republican to represent Maryland in the Senate was Charles “Mac” Mathias, a liberal Republican when there was such a thing two generations ago.

Doug Mayer, a strategist who worked with former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, is realistic about the chances of his party putting a winning candidate forward.

“I’ve never been a Debbie Downer, but it’s a federal election, it’s a presidential election year with Donald Trump likely on the ballot. This ain’t a good opportunity,” he said. “It’s just not.”

Maybe what we need in a senator, then, is an independent thinker. If Democrats are moving to the left, and Republicans are lost in their own hard-right victimhood mythology, is there someone who sees a middle way?

I like that idea. I also see the perils of creating another self-styled independent U.S. senator like Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin, or Joe Lieberman. If everyone refuses to pick a side when the barbarians are at the gate, then the barbarians win.

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This is a fact. The next senator from Maryland must be a prolific politician, someone who can raise enough money to win.

A successful campaign for Senate in 2024 is going to cost at least $20 million, maybe more. U.S. Rep. David Trone, the wealthy liquor store owner who largely funded his successful 2018 campaign in the 6th District congressional race, has reportedly said he’s willing to spend $30 million in a Senate bid.

Mr. Smith can’t go to Washington anymore with that kind of hurdle to clear.

Then there is the dynamic of history.

Chris Van Hollen beat Donna Edwards in a rumble between members of Congress from the D.C. area to take the Democratic nomination seven years ago, a brutal match that really served as the general election. Maryland’s power party, a champion for diversity and equity, missed an opportunity to elect a Black woman senator even if Van Hollen has proved to be a steady, influential figure.

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Then came Wes Moore, who last fall was elected Maryland’s first Black governor. He’s not just an isolated figure, either. The state now also has an India-born lieutenant governor, a woman comptroller and a woman Speaker. The leadership in Annapolis is looking more like the population of Maryland.

If Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks runs, would that represent more progress? She’s a popular Black politician in one of the state’s largest counties. Is progress defined by who wins in 2024?

The Senate, being an institution, cherishes its history. Portraits of its most-heralded members adorn the chamber. The late Ted Kennedy is there, as is 19th-century statesman Henry Clay.

I’ve never particularly thought of Clay as one of the best. He was responsible for the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which set the pattern for allowing one state into the union as “slave,” to balance the addition of another as “free.”

Clay was actually speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time, but he was the architect of the plan that was ultimately approved by the Senate.

And while it allowed the expansion of slavery as the country spread West, it also kept the union from dissolving into armed conflict 40 years before the Civil War.

I was at Clay’s house in Lexington, Kentucky over the weekend. It wasn’t a pilgrimage, I was in town for a wedding and it was a pretty spot to walk my dog.

If Clay, as flawed as his legacy is, was a great senator because he kept the union together when that seemed impossible, maybe he offers inspiration for Maryland’s choice next year.

Maybe what Maryland needs in the Senate is someone who is there when needed, a consensus builder and someone we can rely on to keep us from flying apart

Maybe this time, however, we can do it without something like a Missouri Compromise that sells our souls to solve the issues that divide us.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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