U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin will not seek reelection to the U.S. Senate after three terms, ending a career in public service that spanned more than half a century and opening up a potential scramble among politicians to replace him.
“I’ve had a great run,” said Cardin, a Democrat. “Next year will be 58 years in elected office. It’s been the honor of my life.”
Even with his 80th birthday looming, Cardin said he feels great and that he’s doing good work for the people of Maryland. But he acknowledged that running for reelection would be a commitment of nearly two years of campaigning, followed by six years of serving.
“Recognizing at the end of the next term I’d be 87 years old, it’s a factor,” Cardin said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner. He said he’s looking forward to spending the last two years of his term focused solely on issues important to him, from helping small businesses to improving health care and promoting human rights.
Cardin’s first electoral win was in 1966, when he joined the Maryland House of Delegates representing Baltimore at age 23. He rose to become the youngest speaker of the House, serving from 1979 until 1986. His portrait hangs in the House chamber in the State House in Annapolis.
In the 1986 election, Cardin won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the Baltimore region. And after 20 years there, Cardin won election to the U.S. Senate in 2006, following the retirement of longtime U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.
Cardin was reelected to the Senate in 2012 and 2018.
Cardin’s office noted that he’s won 36 straight elections. But the senator jokes he actually got into politics earlier, serving as secretary of his class in the eighth grade. He also was vice president of his graduating class at City College High School in Baltimore and a senator at the University of Pittsburgh.
Speculation in political circles that Cardin would retire ramped up in recent months, when his fundraising report for the first quarter showed he’d taken in only about $15,000. His account has just shy of $1 million in it, according to federal reports.
Cardin was raised in a close-knit Jewish family in Baltimore, with grandparents who immigrated from Lithuania and Russia. Cardin has said that immigration officials likely changed the family’s name from “Kardonsky” to “Cardin.”
The Cardin family has a lineage in politics: The senator’s father, Meyer Cardin, and an uncle, Maurice Cardin, both served in the House of Delegates. And the senator’s nephew, Jon Cardin, currently serves in the House of Delegates representing a Baltimore County district.
In his career on Capitol Hill, Cardin has worked on issues including Chesapeake Bay restoration, improving access to health care and national security.
In a five-minute video posted online Monday, Cardin and his wife, Myrna, traced his career and tied it to concepts in Judaism that inspired the senator, including tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (helping the less fortunate).
“In legislating, to me it’s important to listen. Listen to my colleagues, work with Democrats and Republicans, be willing to work hard, being willing to recognize that you don’t know everything but wanted to get results,” Cardin said in the video.
He recalled the effort to expand dental health care for children following the death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy in Prince George’s County who died in 2007 from an infection stemming from a tooth that needed to be extracted.
Cardin said in the interview he plans to finish out his term focused on protecting small businesses, improving the health of the bay, helping Baltimore City and expanding access to telehealth, mental health and behavioral health services.
“I still have a lot more work to do during these last two years,” Cardin said.
The Washington Post once described Cardin as “a mix of professor and the nice guy next door, with a finely honed political edge.”
Past campaign ads have had the theme “My Friend Ben,” showing Cardin in a doctor’s office, at a public works job site and on an airport tarmac. The doctor says in one ad that Cardin is so helpful, “it’s like he’s in here with us.”
The ads close with the line: “He’s my friend, Ben. I hope he’s your friend, too.”
Cardin currently serves as chair of the Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Finance Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. He is co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.
In April, Cardin was nominated to move to the Judiciary Committee to replace California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose absence due to illness has delayed confirmation votes on President Joe Biden’s judicial appointments. But Cardin’s appointment was blocked by Republicans.
“He’s had a very long career he’s been involved in so many issues,” said David Karol, associate professor of government at the University of Maryland, noting the senator’s involvement with pension reform, global sanctions, and health care and environmental issues. “He’s had an impact on Maryland for a long time.”
Nationally, he played an important role in expanding Medicare benefits, expanding retirement account benefits and reforming the IRS.
Karol described him as a “legislative workhorse” — a cautious and “not especially colorful” politician. But that cautiousness helped afford Cardin a long career, Karol said.
“He has this remarkable record of being in elective office since LBJ was president and there’s not that many people who can say that,” Karol said. He added: “He’s avoided scandal, which is not something you can say of all Maryland politicians, especially from the Baltimore area.“
Over the course of his career, Cardin said he’s learned how to listen and when to compromise and when to hold fast to one’s priorities. “The art of listening is so important and it’s an art that needs to be improved today,” he said.
As an example, when Cardin was the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, he said he sought the counsel of both a very liberal delegate and one who was quite conservative.
“Neither one of them had a monopoly on what was right,” he said.
Through his career, Cardin said he’s also seen a positive shifting of attitudes towards women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. No longer is politics the sole province of white men.
While that evolution has been healthy, Cardin said he’s seen an unhealthy evolution on “a new enemy of our democracy: misinformation.”
Too many politicians are embracing “no holds barred” tactics that jeopardize democracy, he said.
“I don’t think we’ve recognized how dangerous misinformation is and how we can counter it,” he said.
As soon as Cardin’s decision became public on Monday, tributes started pouring in from Democratic colleagues and admirers.
“Senator Cardin is driven by an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of Marylanders, advancing social justice, protecting our environment, and promoting human rights at home and abroad,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who has served alongside Cardin for years in Washington and Annapolis.
Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said that “few have fought harder or achieved more for Marylanders” than Cardin.
“For over 50 years, Maryland has benefited from his tireless work across our communities, this state and this nation,” Gov. Wes Moore said in a statement.
Though Cardin was upbeat about the last chapter of his career in elected politics, he said he will miss the job once it’s over.
“I’m going to miss being where the action is on policy development and having a seat at the table, and the education I get being present in hearings and briefings,” he said.
He’s not sure what will come next, but expects opportunities will be forthcoming. “I’m going to follow my passion and find other ways to serve,” he said.
Cardin’s term is up in 2024, setting up an open election for his seat that’s likely to be competitive.
Cardin isn’t picking any favorites, but said: “There’s plenty of talent in our state to occupy this seat.”
The names of several Democratic politicians have been floated as potential candidates, including Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, U.S. Rep. David Trone, Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
Republicans are likely to have their eye on a chance to win the seat, especially given that the party hasn’t held a U.S. Senate seat from Maryland since the late Charles “Mac” Mathias Jr. retired in 1987.
Former Gov. Larry Hogan has been lobbied to run, but has publicly said he’s not interested in serving on Capitol Hill.
“Obviously, Senate seats don’t come open very often in Maryland. Being a Democratic senator is almost like a seat in the House of Lords — if you have it, you have it almost for life, and your commute isn’t bad,” said Karol, the University of Maryland professor. “It’s very much sought after, and I think that’s what we’re going to see.”
This article has been updated. Baltimore Banner reporter Sophie Kasakove contributed to this article.