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Records in House define Maryland Democrats

The strengths of front-runners Benjamin L. Cardin and Kweisi Mfume for the Democratic Senate nomination lie in their House accomplishments.
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Two Baltimore Democrats joined the House of Representatives on the same day in 1987. For nine years together in Congress, they usually voted the same liberal line. Both rose to prominence and influence.

But Benjamin L. Cardin and Kweisi Mfume carved sharply distinct profiles from the moment they arrived on Capitol Hill. The former became a bipartisan dealmaker on a powerful committee with oversight of tax, trade and health-care law. The latter took on urban housing and economic issues and became a major voice for black Americans in Congress.

Mfume left soon after the 1995 Republican takeover to become president of the NAACP. Cardin expanded his reach on the Ways and Means Committee and ranks fourth among its Democrats.

The many contrasts in their House careers suggest that the front-runners for their party's nomination in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) would make different senators in style and substance.

Cardin pursues "a classic insider strategy," said Christopher Deering, a political science professor at George Washington University. "Here's a guy who knows where the power is."

Cardin said in an interview at his Baltimore County campaign office that he is "very quietly" preparing a bid for the Senate Finance Committee -- the chamber's counterpart to Ways and Means -- if he is elected. "It's known to people in the Senate that I want to be on the Finance Committee," he said. But, he said, he is focused first on the primary Sept. 12 and the election Nov. 7.

Mfume, 38, "has got fairly consummate political skills" and would gain immediate national attention if elected, said Ronald Walters, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. "When you're one of the few blacks in the Senate, you're a celebrity," Walters said, noting the spotlight on Barack Obama (D-Ill.), now the chamber's only black senator. "They are expected to carry a great deal of water for minority populations all across the country. People want to see, feel and touch them."

Mfume's legislative niche is not as clearly defined as Cardin's. But he names three Senate committee assignments that would appeal to him: Foreign Relations; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

In the House, Mfume served on two committees his entire tenure: Small Business and Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs. He used his positions to support minority-owned businesses and promote equal housing opportunities.

For instance, Mfume helped secure an amendment to the 1991 Civil Rights Act that extended protections to Americans working for U.S. companies abroad.

When first elected, Mfume said he tried to stay flexible when he was a junior member. "I didn't know what doors would open and where they would lead me," he said in an interview at his Baltimore campaign office.

In his early years, Mfume sought to win over senior lawmakers who didn't know what to make of the former City Council member with an adopted Swahili name. (It is pronounced kwah-EE-see oom-FOO-may and means "conquering son of kings.")

At one hearing, Mfume recalled, a veteran representative, Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), butchered his name. When Mfume took his turn at the microphone, he seized an icebreaking opportunity. "I want to thank 'Chairman Enunciation' for the opportunity to speak," he said, drawing laughter.

Mfume made a point of sitting next to Rep. Claude D. Pepper (D-Fla.) in the House to absorb Pepper's knowledge from a half-century of service in Congress and his recollections of the segregated South. "I was kind of a fascination to him," Mfume said.

In December 1992, Mfume's moment came: He captured the chairmanship of an enlarged and emboldened black caucus. The post gave Mfume the ear of the White House in President Bill Clinton's first two years in office and a platform to push a liberal domestic agenda backed by a bloc of more than three dozen black House Democrats.

Mfume's caucus turned heads in 1993 when it mobilized to stall the House leadership's efforts to approve a line-item veto for Clinton. Then the caucus stood up to the president himself, declining an invitation to meet with Clinton at the White House amid a furor over a civil rights enforcement nomination.

Such muscle-flexing helped the caucus influence major legislation enacted in Clinton's first term. On the budget, Mfume pushed to protect Medicare funding, increase tax credits for lower-income families, and bolster nutrition and immunization programs for needy children. On crime, he backed a ban on assault weapons.

On trade, however, Mfume opposed Clinton. He voted in 1993 against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mfume drew fire from some quarters after he declared that year that black lawmakers had entered into a "covenant" with the Nation of Islam to solve problems in the black community. In 1994, the caucus distanced itself from that position after an aide to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan made statements condemned as anti-Semitic.

Mfume's role shrank when his two-year chairmanship ended, and Republicans took over Congress. He was trounced in a late-1994 bid to become Democratic Caucus chairman. A year later, he accepted an offer to lead the NAACP. By February 1996, he had left the House.

Cardin's climb
Cardin arrived in Congress with one main goal: Get on Ways and Means. Starting in late 1986, he laid siege to the committee. "I had a plan," he explained.

He rounded up support from the delegations of Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states. He persuaded business leaders to put in a word for him. He wrangled a meeting with Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), a coup for a freshman. And he allied himself with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who sat on the committee. Cardin, then 43 and a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, pitched himself as a government finance expert.

Cardin knew he wouldn't get onto a top-tier committee as a freshman. But he wanted to be first on the waiting list. The chance came in his third year. After Gephardt rose to majority leader in June 1989, Cardin slipped into the Ways and Means seat he vacated.

"It wasn't even contested," Cardin recalled. "I had it sewn up."

The move forced Cardin off the Judiciary and Public Works and Transportation committees. But the vast Ways and Means jurisdiction more than offset the loss of those assignments, enabling him to guard Maryland's interests in tax, trade and health-care issues. For example, he secured a measure to protect the state's unusual system of Medicare reimbursements for hospitals.

Like Mfume, Cardin was a reliable vote for Democratic priorities such as gun control, civil rights legislation, minimum wage increases and abortion rights. Like Mfume, he opposed the 1991 resolution to authorize the use of force against Iraq. (He also opposed the 2002 resolution that led to the war in Iraq.) And, like Mfume, his influence rose after Clinton was elected.

In 1993, Cardin gave Clinton a key vote to help pass NAFTA over organized labor's opposition. In 1994, Cardin helped craft Democratic legislation to answer Clinton's call for universal health-care coverage.

As the Ways and Means health subcommittee labored over the ill-fated bill, Cardin unexpectedly sided with Republicans to support a cap on medical malpractice damages. He also pushed to ease health-care expenses for small businesses.

Although the Clinton health-care initiative died, Cardin's stature grew. He was named a Democratic transition leader when Republicans took over the House. He helped lead a bipartisan ethics investigation into allegations that House Speaker Newt Gingrich had abused tax laws, resulting in a historic vote in 1997 to reprimand the Georgia Republican.

During the Clinton and current Bush administrations, Cardin teamed with Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) -- now the White House budget chief -- on tax and retirement savings measures that became law. One restructured the Internal Revenue Service. Another allowed greater worker contributions to retirement accounts and overhauled pension rules. Portman-Cardin became a rare bipartisan brand in polarized Washington. But generally, Cardin has opposed President Bush on tax cuts, trade bills and other key issues moving through Ways and Means.

'Gutsy guys'
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), another veteran from the Class of 1986, said Mfume and Cardin were known for their quick grasp of policy and sharp political instincts.

He described Cardin as "a very, very solid and respected legislator" and Mfume as an "incredibly energetic, gutsy guy. Leads with his heart."

"Both Kweisi and Ben are totally capable of handling complicated issues on their feet, thinking on their own, distilling them to their essence," he said. "There are a lot of people around here who can't."