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Q+A

Benjamin Cardin

Uli Loskot

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 12/15/2004

After easily defeating Republican challenger Robert Duckworth in last monthís election, Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-3rd District) is about to begin his 19th year in the U.S. Congress. A perennial toe-dipper in gubernatorial waters, the Stevenson resident may finally make a bid for Robert Ehrlichís job in 2006. Then again, maybe he wonít (again). ďI accept the criticism that I am pragmatic,Ē he said during an interview last week in his Roland Park office. A moderate Democrat who represents his traditional Jewish base in Northeast Baltimore, as well as chunks of more conservative Anne Arundel County, Cardin sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and the newly formed Select Committee on Homeland Security. He talked with City Paper about Iraq, Social Security, and Hanukkah bushes. (Gadi Dechter)

City Paper: So, youíve just won your 10th election to the U.S. Congress. Has the thrill of winning pretty well worn off by now?

Ben Cardin: Thereís nothing like election night, when you take a look at a precinct and you see all these people who have voted for you. Itís very humbling, actually. So, no. Itís very exciting. Iím looking forward to Jan. 4 when I raise my hand and take the oath of office and serve in the greatest democratic institution in the world. To me, that excitement is very much like my first election.

CP: Have you already started campaigning for the next one?

BC: We never stop campaigning. The campaign office is open, people are still calling, and weíre still collecting some of the campaign contributions that we thought we were going to collect. And weíre starting a structure for two years from now. Now, I donít want to mislead you. I never make a decision about a re-election or what Iím running for this far in advance of an election, but our campaign structure is in place and will stay in place.

CP: All the talk about who will be the Democratic candidate for governor in 2006 is about Mayor Martin OíMalley and Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan. Times were when gubernatorial speculation ritually focused on Ben Cardin. Have you missed your opportunity to be governor of Maryland?

BC: No, I donít think I have. I donít want to create any speculation, because that would be wrong. But I think I have lots of choices, and Iíll make a decision in the next couple of months as to what Iím going to do in 2006.

CP: Since the election, thereís been a lot of liberal hand-wringing about the will-to-power of social conservatives from the heartland. And yet your major legislative accomplishments are born of a long-term partnership with a pro-gun, pro-death-penalty, pro-prayer-in-school, anti-flag-burning, anti-affirmative-action, anti-abortion congressman from Ohio.

BC: Oh, Rob Portman. (laughs) I was thinking, Who is this person youíre talking about? Iíve worked with Rob Portman on pension issues, savings issues, on tax issues where philosophically weíre together on what weíre trying to achieve. Rob Portman and Ben Cardin both believe that more Americans need to save more money. They need to save money for their retirement. They need to save more generally. And weíre particularly sensitive to younger workers and lower-wage workers. I find that refreshing, that I can have a partner on the Republican side who agrees with me on those issues and is willing to work in a bipartisan way.

CP: Are you uncomfortable being partner to someone with Portmanís moral and social agenda?

BC: I fight him on that. There are many times that heíll speak on the floor and Iíll speak on the other side of the issue. And I will try to stop him from accomplishing what he has set out to do. Thatís being a mature legislator. If you canít work with legislators one day and fight them the next day, you shouldnít be in the legislature.

CP: The president has said that partial privatization of Social Security is a chief goal of his second term. Your own survey of constituents shows a small majority wants to be able to invest a percentage of their Social Security payments in private retirement accounts. Why do you remain opposed to any privatization of Social Security?

BC: Well, first of all, I think if I frame the issue in the way that I hope I can frame it, the majority of people in the 3rd Congressional District will oppose what the president is trying to do. Of course, we need to see his proposal, and Iíll wait to see it before I make final judgment. But I think if you take money out of Social Security to set up private accounts, you weaken the Social Security system. The problems with Social Security are not that great. They can be corrected by relatively minor adjustments in the system. Now what I strongly supportóand this is part of the work Iíve done with Rob PortmanóI strongly support private accounts to supplement Social Security. And I think thereís where youíre going to find a common agreement among all my constituents. Social Security was never intended to be the sole security for a personís retirement.

CP: What about means-testing to reduce payouts for the wealthy?

BC: Social Security is not a welfare program. Itís a social program. All Americans should participate in it, and your benefits should not be diminished because of your income.

CP: Given the current situation in Iraq, do you regret voting to appropriate money for the war?

BC: Oh, no. No. If anything, every time I look at a soldier who lost his life and know that in part it was because we didnít have the appropriate equipment in Iraq, Iím sorry we didnít appropriate more money. Iím proud of my voting record. I voted against giving the authority that [the president] used [to go to war] and I voted for the support of our troops. I think that is the appropriate role Congress should play.

CP: How many Iraqi civilians have died in the war?

BC: We have that number, I just donít know the exact number.

CP: You have that number?

BC: Well, we have a range number. I have beenómaybe itís classifiedóI have been in briefings where that numberís been given out. I just donít remember.

CP: Can you give us a ballpark figure? Because there was recently a study conducted by several Johns Hopkins University researchers that put the number of civilian dead as high as 100,000, which seems surprisingly high. (ď100,000,Ē Mobtown Beat, Nov. 17)

BC: I remember us questioning the numbers at different meetings that Iíve been at. I just donít recall what those numbers were. I know that U.S. policies have been very much targeted to try to keep the loss of life to a minimum. And I must tell you, as much as I disagree with the way the president has proceeded on this war, I believe the U.S. military has been extremely sensitive to life, and I applaud their efforts in Iraq.

CP: Tonight is the second night of Hanukkah. How did you celebrate the first night?

BC: What I did on the first night was vote in Congress. But I had a real thrill. My family called me at six oíclock. And my four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter knew all the prayers to light the first candle, and I sat there and participated on the telephone. I had to do it by telephone, because we voted at about seven last night on the intelligence bill.

CP: Do you have a Christmas tree at home?

BC: No.

CP: Hanukkah bush?

BC: No.

CP: Who on your staff gets to call you Ben?

BC: Everybody.

CP: No one calls you Congressman?

BC: No.

CP: Not even the interns?

BC: (annoyed) No. Ben. Thatís my name.

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