U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat representing suburbs stretching from Columbia to Annapolis, announced Thursday that he won’t seek reelection in 2024 after nine terms in Congress.

In a statement sent by his office, Sarbanes said he’s feeling drawn to exploring other types of public service that are outside of politics, such as working with nonprofits and volunteerism. He declined an interview request.

“Stepping away from Congress voluntarily — whether it’s at the eighteen-year mark as in my case or at any point — is not an easy thing,” Sarbanes said in the statement.

He said it’s always possible to make the case to “press on to the next election,” especially given the country’s many challenges. But Sarbanes said he has confidence other Democrats will carry forward with “strength and unity of purpose that bodes well for the future.”

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Sarbanes said he’ll remain focused on his work in Congress for the remaining 14 months of his term. In his statement, Sarbanes thanked his supporters and constituents.

One of his top priorities, the Freedom to Vote Act, may not see action with the House under Republican control. The bill aims to improve voter registration access, promote voting by mail and early voting, address partisan gerrymandering, enhance disclosures of money spent in elections and promote transparency in digital campaign ads.

Sarbanes has been the lead sponsor in the House, and he said he lined up U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, to take over sponsorship of the bill after he steps down.

Clark described Sarbanes as a “fierce defender of democracy” and praised his work on elections and ethics issues.

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The 3rd District has morphed over the years Sarbanes has been in office. It was once infamously described as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state” during a lawsuit challenging the legality of the district lines. Sprawling through Baltimore and its suburbs in odd directions, it was considered one of the worst-gerrymandered districts in the nation.

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Following political and legal battles after the 2020 Census, the boundary lines were shifted to a more compact district that includes all of Howard County, a sliver of Carroll County and a large stretch of Anne Arundel County. In creating a geographically cohesive district, the new map put Sarbanes’ own home in Towson out of the district.

Sarbanes told the website Maryland Matters this year that he spent significant time getting to know his new district, holding 75 community meetings and three telephone town halls.

“The most important thing is, I’ve been on the ground, meeting constituents and trying to take care of them,” Sarbanes told Maryland Matters in August. “If they live in my district, I’m going to respond to them, and I think we have a good track record in that regard.”

A Harvard University-trained lawyer, Sarbanes was first elected to Congress in 2006. The 3rd District seat was open that year because then-Rep. Ben Cardin was running for U.S. Senate to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes — the father of John Sarbanes.

The congressman said his father inspired him to serve in politics. “Within my own limitations, I’ve strived to meet the standard of thoughtfulness and integrity that he brought to public service,” Sarbanes said in his statement.

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After winning his seat in Congress in 2006, Sarbanes had relatively easy reelection bids. In 2022, Sarbanes defeated Republican Yuripzy Morgan 60% to 40%.

A surprise announcement

Sarbanes’ announcement surprised many in Maryland politics, coming on a day when the House of Representatives resumed voting and working after being stalled while Republicans struggled to name a new speaker. At 61 years old, Sarbanes is only slightly older than the median age of House members of 57.9 years.

U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, who represents a neighboring district, said Sarbanes pulled him aside on the House floor Thursday to tell him the news.

“We were all shocked,” he said. “I thought he was coming over to ask me if I was leaving.”

U.S. Rep. Glenn Ivey from Prince George’s County said he got a call from Sarbanes just hours before the public announcement. When Ivey saw him on the House floor later, he said Sarbanes seemed “upbeat.”

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Democratic colleagues quickly began to heap praise on Sarbanes in interviews, statements and social media postings.

Ruppersberger spouted flattering descriptions of Sarbanes, calling him deliberate, thoughtful, measured — qualities he said are needed in Congress.

“He’s very passionate about issues related to good governance,” Ruppersberger said, nodding to Sarbanes’ work on campaign finance reform and championing accountability and transparency.

Ivey called his colleague talented, hardworking and respected. “He’s a workhorse, not a show horse,” Ivey said.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, left, speaks with U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes inside the Estiatorio Plaka in Baltimore’s Greektown during its grand opening. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Cardin said he was sorry to learn that Sarbanes won’t run for reelection. “He stands for transparency and honesty in elections and the way our system of government operates,” Cardin said.

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“John’s guiding principle has always been to put Marylanders first and I know that he will continue to give his all for the Third District,” U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore said it was “bittersweet” to hear Sarbanes’ news. He served with Sarbanes and his father at different times and said the family has a strong record of public service.

“We’ll be losing a patriot,” he said. Mfume called Sarbanes “a fierce advocate for government reform” and also a “champion” for the Chesapeake Bay.

U.S. Rep. David Trone said in a statement that Sarbanes is “a man of strong integrity who got into politics for the right reasons.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said Sarbanes “is the kind of American we need more of,” while Howard County Executive Calvin Ball called the congressman “an incredible friend, partner, and advocate for Howard County.”

Sarbanes’ departure creates an unexpected open seat in Congress. Although the district somewhat favors a Democratic candidate, the skew is not as pronounced as it was before the last round of redistricting.

The 3rd District is the second of Maryland’s eight seats in the U.S. House expected to be open in 2024. Trone is leaving his 6th District seat, which runs from Montgomery County to Western Maryland, to run for the U.S. Senate seat that Cardin announced he will step down from rather than seeking another term.

This article has been updated to correct Rep. Katherine Clark’s home state.