Volume 14, Issue 43 ~ October 26 - November 1, 2006

Senator Who?

Will It Be Sen. Cardin, Sen.
Steele or Sen. Zeese?

interviews by Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly editor

A real Senate race comes along in Maryland only once or so in a generation. You’d better grab this one as it flies by.

When Sen. Paul Sarbanes declared that he would not seek re-election, he set in motion a spirited quest for the rare political opening. As the longest serving Maryland senator ever, Sarbanes, a Democrat, was a quiet champion of liberal issues. Now, as we choose a successor, we’re investing in the legacy the new senator will leave for our children.

Observing U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, the Democratic nominee, can be as exciting as watching corn sprout ears. But Cardin, 63, a member of Congress since 1987, has a reputation as a consummate legislator and a bipartisan operator who has mastered the trickiest of budget details, not to mention Roberts Rules of Order. Fellow congressman Steny Hoyer, a connoisseur of politics, calls Cardin “the finest lawmaker I’ve ever served with.” In Maryland and in Washington, the two have served together for four decades.

Cardin should have a grip on the business of lawmaking. He was elected to the General Assembly at age 23, one of the brightest lights to emerge from the Jewish neighborhoods of northwest Baltimore. By age 35, he was House Speaker in Annapolis.

The Republican, Michael Steele, was Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s running mate in 2002, thereby becoming the first African American to hold statewide office in Maryland. Steele has never been independently elected to office outside his party and has no constitutional duties other than handling tasks given him by the governor.

Among those, he has chaired the governor’s Commission on Quality Education in Maryland, which made some 30 recommendations last year, among them expanding tuition waivers for budding teachers.

Steele, who turned 48 last week, is known as a charismatic charmer devoted to conservative principles, including opposition to abortion. Perhaps his biggest splash as a candidate was an ad in which he appeared not with political associates but with canine pals, warning that enemies were about to begin attacking him, even saying that he hated puppies.

“For the record, I love puppies,” he said.

Kevin Zeese, 51, has the distinction of representing a spectrum of political beliefs in this campaign. The candidate for the Unity Campaign for Peace, Justice, Democracy and Prosperity has been nominated by three parties: the Green Party, the People’s Party and the Libertarian party. A disciple of Ralph Nader, he’s the outsider battering the gates to, he says, let the people in.

Ben Cardin

Democratic candidate

U.S Representative Cardin, 63, of Baltimore, has represented Maryland since he was 23, in the Maryland House and in Congress.

Bay Weekly What have Marylanders told you they care about in this election?

Ben Cardin They’re concerned about the direction we’re heading. They want to see priority placed on the problems of ordinary families: good schools for their children, affordable health care, good jobs here in America and knowing they’re going to be secure from terrorism and external threats. That’s what they’re looking for, and they don’t believe the federal government is doing that today. They think the priorities are wrong. What I hear is: Change what’s happening in Washington, take care of our concerns; get our nation where we can provide universal health care. Change the policy in Iraq; bring our troops home.

Bay Weekly Tell us about an influence that brought you to this race.

Ben Cardin I was elected to the General Assembly when I was very young as a law student. My father [Meyer Cardin, a former delegate and judge who died last year at 98] told me I had accomplished at age 22 [when he won The Primary] a position people work for a lifetime. “Don’t waste a moment,” he said. “You can really make a difference in people’s lives.”

In my first years in the General Assembly, I was able to get things done for communities. A ball field had no backstop so the children could not use it for Little League. It was a local issue; I was a state legislator. But I called the mayor, and the mayor talked to me and I got a backstop built.

I realized I could get things done and make a difference. That’s guided my life. I don’t like to waste any time. I like to do things that really help people who need government’s help.

Bay Weekly What will be your principal focus in the Senate?

Ben Cardin Universal health coverage, energy independence, a stronger commitment to our environment, making education a national priority and moving this country in a different direction internationally.

Bay Weekly What committee memberships would you seek?

Ben Cardin I need to first get elected, look at what opportunities are available, and that, in large measure, depends on how many new senators there are. I have devoted almost my entire career in Congress to the House Ways and Means, dealing with health care, taxes, trade, social programs and Social Security.

Bay Weekly Do you believe global warming is a real threat?

Ben Cardin Absolutely. Here I think we can do two things at one time. I’ve introduced legislation so we can become energy independent. In doing that, we become fossil-fuel independent so our energy needs are met with alternative and renewable energy sources. Better conservation … better transportation with more use of mass transit … more efficient automobiles: All that will have a dramatic impact on global warming. So I think we can take care of a national security issue with energy independence and at the same time be a leader in reducing greenhouse gasses and their effects on global warming.

At the same time, I strongly urge the United States to reengage the international community, get back into Kyoto [the United Nations international treaty on climate change] and become a national leader on reducing global warming.

Bay Weekly How do you get to work today?

Ben Cardin My car is pretty efficient, but not a hybrid. We all should be in hybrids. We all should be getting the same CAFE [federal fuel-efficiency standards requiring 27.5 mpg for passenger automobiles and 20.7 mpg for light trucks and SUVs] standard of at least a hybrid car. We need to double the CAFE standards, and I have introduced legislation to do that.

Bay Weekly What is your alternative to fossil fuels?

Ben Cardin Down in Berlin, I visited a biodiesel plant. This is one person on his own who decided to start a biodiesel plant, the only one in Maryland. He got the oil byproduct from seed crushed as feed for poultry, and he has helped solve our energy problem by developing an alternative fuel.

He has a good product. You can use 100 percent biodiesel and get better efficiency, and it’s cleaner to the environment. But if I’m driving a diesel truck in Baltimore, I have a hard time funding a pump with biodiesel. Every gas station that serves diesel should serve biodiesel. These are the types of policy changes that can make a difference. Not one in itself, but together they all help us move toward energy independence and fossil-fuel independence.

I think it’s important for individuals to be part of the solution. But I don’t expect it can be solved by individual, voluntary action. You really need policies in government that make transit more convenient and less expensive. It’s really a government responsibility.

Bay Weekly How has your position on the war in Iraq evolved to your recent vote against staying the course?

Ben Cardin I opposed the war in the beginning. I have been critical of the president’s management of the war throughout.

I’ve always wanted to see the U.S successfully complete its mission. It’s becoming difficult to see how that can be done. We need to be bringing our troops home. Their presence is counterproductive, with a climate for greater terrorism being turned against us.

We need to engage the international community to look at the status of Iraq, hopefully negotiate a cease-fire with the militias that are now in civil war. We need to get the international community to help us train the Iraqi security forces and use nongovernmental organizations to deliver humanitarian aid.

If we continue to do what the president says, to stay the course, we’ll continue to see loss of life, costs to the America taxpayer and counterproductive results.

Bay Weekly Powerful political action committees have contributed some $681,000 to your campaign. At the very least, PAC money buys access. How are Marylanders to know that you won’t be unduly beholden to those who financed your run for office?

Ben Cardin I ask Marylanders to look at my track record in Congress. I’ve stood up to the pharmaceutical, oil and insurance companies. I’ve introduced legislation for fair pricing of prescription drugs. I’ve supported consumers over insurance companies on health insurance. I’ve supported energy independence over the oil industry. I always put people first in every decision I’ve made. I will continue to do that, and contributions will not affect my judgment.

I wish we didn’t have to raise money. I wish we had public financing of campaigns. But the Republican Party has bragged about putting $15 million into Maryland. So I have to be competitive and raise money, and I try to do it in a way consistent with the way I conduct my public life.

The overwhelming amount of money I’ve raised in my campaign — 85 percent — has come from individual contributors. Ten thousand people have contributed to my campaign, and most of them come from Maryland.

Bay Weekly What difference will it make to you if, at the same time you’re elected, Democrats regain control of the Senate?

Ben Cardin We will be able to control some of the agenda-setting in Washington. With Republicans controlling not only the White House but also the House and Senate, if we want to have an investigation of this administration’s abuse of powers, we cannot. If we want to vote on the floor of Congress to express ourselves on Iraq, we can’t. We can’t even offer an amendment to a bill. So being able to have a Democratic majority in the House and Senate would be huge in allowing Democrats to have an impact on the agenda of Congress.

But the key is for Democrats and Republicans to work together. You need to work across party lines to get things done. I’ve done that all my career, and that’s why even in this Congress, major legislation has been enacted with my name on it.

Bay Weekly What legislation?

Ben Cardin For one, expanding the opportunity to save for retirement through 401k accounts.

Bay Weekly What can you do for us that your opponents can’t?

Ben Cardin Experience in knowing how to get things done and the independence to stand up to the president.

Michael Steele

Republican candidate

Steele, 48, of Landover Hills, is Maryland’s lieutenant governor.

Bay Weekly What have Marylanders told you they most care about?

Michael Steele Schools, their neighborhoods, the environment. That doesn’t mean they’re not concerned about the war in Iraq and other national issues. But in many ways, this is a local campaign, and at the end of the day, their concerns boil down to everydayness of life and issues people confront. So it’s really for me sort of a natural progression of what I’m doing as lieutenant governor, having good conversations where people open up and respond.

Bay Weekly Tell us about an influence that has shaped you for this race.

Michael Steele The ideal of public service has always moved me, which is why I wanted to be priest. It’s the commitment of giving of myself and working with people in a way where I’m not coming into their lives making grand promises but taking a moment to be quiet and listen. That’s the ideal that draws me into this; it has to be greater than the ugly side of politics, name calling and empty promises.

My political mentor and the father of affirmative action [in President Richard Nixon’s Department of Labor], Art Fletcher, taught me a lot about creating tools to empower people. Don’t accept the status quo — poverty and being disenfranchised at the polls or economically or politically — but do something about it. So I look a person in the eye and say this is what I’m going to do, and then I go do it. I may not always do it well, but I always make my best effort and make sure that if it can be improved, we do.

Bay Weekly What will be your principal focus in the Senate?

Michael Steele Trying to marry up federal resources and initiatives with what we’re doing in Maryland. At the same time, to focus on empowerment-related areas, education, health care and putting in place tools to lessen the burden on families educating kids, augmenting resources like Pell grants and our historically black colleges.

Bay Weekly What committee memberships would you seek?

Michael Steele Some of that is determined by leadership, and if that leadership is Democratic, I may be sitting in a broom closet. But I’d certainly look at Banking because I’d like to see our state maintain its strength and economic viability.

The environmental committee, too, to focus attention not just on Chesapeake Bay but on other waterways that are polluted and forgotten, like the Anacostia. If we’re not about the business of cleaning that up, it doesn’t matter what we do in the Bay if one of its sources is still polluting.

Agriculture is another area, for we need to assist farmers as much as we can so we don’t lose our farms to development. You never hear anyone see a strip mall and say that would make a nice farm. When it’s gone, it’s gone and we not only lose a way of life, we lose a means to feed ourselves as well a source for meeting our energy needs.

Bay Weekly Many in your party have dismissed global warming. Do you believe it’s a real threat?

Michael Steele I do. It’s beginning to smack us a little bit in the face. I’ve studied enough science and natural history to understand yes, our planet is doing its thing. There are cycles and somehow the earth responds. However, there’s no doubt in my mind we humans can accelerate the cycles through our mismanagement of resources. So l think it is something we’d be foolish to dismiss.

But I’d also be careful not to get to the Chicken Little stage of the sky is falling and come through with draconian measures that may in the long run exacerbate the problem or impact different areas.

Bay Weekly Is it time for government to start controlling emissions of carbon dioxide as a major greenhouse gas?

Michael Steele You’re doing fine till you put those two words together: government and control. What we need to do, the proper role for government, is after having conversations with very smart people, to set safe standards. Then government has to help industries make the adjustments.

I don’t know of anyone in business who deliberately wants their product to pollute the air. What has to be struck is the appropriate balance so that in our effort we don’t overload one side or the other. You don’t want pollution standards so tough you can produce a car or cola but no one can afford it.

Bay Weekly What is your alternative to continued reliance on fossil fuels?

Michael Steele Wind, solar, nuclear, ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels. We have the capacity to take the garbage from this meal [he is eating an omelet topped with salsa at Double T Diner in Annapolis] to burn and turn into energy, yet we don’t. Why? If it’s an option, given where we are in the world today, we should be looking at everything on the table.

Bay Weekly In making war in Iraq, have we taken the right direction against terrorists that threaten America?

Michael Steele I believe we have. We’ve pursued a strategy that fights the battle where they are as opposed to the streets of Baltimore or Easton.

I’m hoping to articulate from the Senate floor — and work on both sides of the aisle — toward a course correction that starts by directly engaging the Iraqi government into taking responsibility for what happens on the ground building up this democracy. We didn’t sign on to become a police force but to engage in an initial military action and set the groundwork for a constitutional election, which they had. Now it’s time for that government to run things.

Bay Weekly Are we safer today than we were on 9-10?

Michael Steele Yes. There have been no attacks since 9-11. We’re demonstrably safer. I’m offended by those who say we’re not safer than when an Al Qaeda cell operated out of Laurel before 9-11. We’ve been able to put in place security measures that have at least given us the safety of enjoying our Bay, ball games, conducting our business. But we should not presume to have solved our problem or diminished it.

Bay Weekly What’s your plan for bringing our soldiers home?

Michael Steele Not immediately or 17 years from now, I’m talking about setting into motion a strategy that lessens the footprint of American soldiers on the ground in Iraq as the footprint of the Iraqi military and government increases.

Bay Weekly What’s your assessment of where this war went wrong?

Michael Steele We’re engaging in a counter-insurgency using conventional means, and that’s not appropriate.

Bay Weekly While we’re on life-and-death subjects, you oppose the death penalty and the right to choice …

Michael Steele I don’t oppose anyone’s choice. I just have a value system that chooses life.

I’m a pro-life Roman Catholic, and I value the life of an individual. However, those issues are largely state issues now, because the Supreme Court ruled and they’re the law of the land. Maryland has its own laws on the books, and I swore to uphold them as lieutenant governor.

On the death penalty, I think when the opportunity comes to give an individual on death row a chance to fight for his life when there’s [new] evidence to believe he didn’t commit the crime, always give him that. I think you should have that chance to save your life.

Bay Weekly What difference will it make to you if, at the same time you’re elected, Democrats regain control of the Senate?

Michael Steele None. I work with them every day. I’m from Maryland.

Bay Weekly What can you do for us that your opponents can’t?

Michael Steele I think I bring a different vision. My opponent [Ben Cardin] represents old Washington and going along to get along, a time that has passed.

I see a problem, and I act. I don’t want to go to the Senate to retire or be a backbencher. I want to be on the front line, look Marylanders in the eyes and say we’re going this way folks. We need that energy now. I’m tired of excuse-making, of saying [and he shakes his hands back and forth] I voted this way, then had to go that way.

This is a shot to go in and shake thing up a little and say this is what we should be doing.

Kevin Zeese

Candidate of the Green, Libertarian and People’s parties

Citizen lobbyist Zeese, 51, is founder and director of the national anti-war group Democracy Rising.

Bay Weekly As you campaign, what have Marylanders told you they really care about?

Kevin Zeese First, the things that don’t come up: I never hear about gay marriage or choice; immigration rarely comes up. People are most concerned about economics: their own family finances and the debt the government is in. The other high priority is the Middle East and the war. Energy and environment are the third, and I see the three as very related.

Bay Weekly Tell us about an influence that brought you to this race.

Kevin Zeese My own experience in 30 years working in D.C. Even when I had the facts and the majority of the public on my side, people in power ignored us. They listened to the money, not people. Finally, it came through my thick skull that I needed to get involved in electoral politics. The people who are in power need to be challenged if they’re not going to listen to people. We can’t solve our problems through the two status-quo parties because they’re just too connected to special-interest money.

Bay Weekly In 30 years, have you won any?

Kevin Zeese I’ve had success. I also work on issues in Annapolis. I co-founded True Vote Maryland, the largest citizens group in the country focusing on a paper trail for electronic voting machines. We’ve worked for three years now, and I think we’re finally going to make it this time as it becomes obvious electronic machines are not working very well. We have Doug Duncan on the Democratic side and Bob Ehrlich on the Republican side both saying vote absentee, and they’re right.

Bay Weekly What will be your focus in the Senate?

Kevin Zeese My planks are peace, justice, democracy and prosperity. The two issues would be economic policy and foreign policy to end the Iraq War rapidly and responsibly.

On the economic side, I want to see us come up with a system where workers can keep more of their tax dollars. I have a tax plan where the first $100,000 is federal income-tax free. I also support health care for all. I’m not talking about building on the wasteful system we have of private insurance but a single-payer system.

I also have plans to change $300 billion a year in corporate welfare into taxpayer investment. I also want to work for free college education, which would cost about $47 billion a year, about one-sixth of what we give to corporations.

Bay Weekly Give me just one example of how we give that much money to corporations.

Kevin Zeese We give pharmaceutical companies money to research new drugs through the National Institutes of Health. When they find new drugs, we protect them with monopolistic laws. Then we have laws that don’t allow us to bargain for best price, forcing us to pay three times as much as people in other countries do.

Bay Weekly What committee memberships would you seek?

Kevin Zeese Senate Finance because that’s where money issues are determined, and that’s the bottom line for every issue. For example, if Congress refused to fund any more of the stay-the-course approach, we’d see the Iraq war end.

Bay Weekly As a third-party candidate, you wouldn’t have many colleagues in the Senate.

Kevin Zeese In Vermont, retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords is an independent. Bernie Sanders [the congressman likely to replace him] is also an independent.

Bay Weekly Would you have much clout? How would you persuade them to give you a committee instead of a broom closet?

Kevin Zeese It will be a closely divided senate. My vote will not be a guaranteed vote for either party. Cardin and Steele, you know where their votes are going to go. My vote they have to get, so I’m going to negotiate the best deal for the people of Maryland. If they want me to caucus with their party, what are they going to give me, starting with committees?

Not being connected to the two parties actually will make me more effective for the American people. I’ll be a truth teller.

Bay Weekly Do you believe global warming is a real threat?

Kevin Zeese It’s real and a real threat to Maryland especially. The three-meter rise predicted when Greenland starts to melt into the sea will have a big impact on the Shore, Baltimore, Annapolis. We have to deal with it urgently, and that requires us to end our addiction to 19th and 20th century fossil fuels and move toward clean, sustainable energy.

Bay Weekly What do you drive campaigning around the state?

Kevin Zeese A Honda Civic hybrid. Now Toyota’s come up with a hybrid plug-in. You plug your car into your house and drive the first 100 miles on all electric. In my town, Takoma Park, there’s a house with solar on the roof and very efficient utilities where the energy meter runs backward. Plug in the Toyota in that kind of a house, and you have totally clean energy.

Bay Weekly Is it time for government to start controlling emissions of carbon dioxide as a major greenhouse gas?

Kevin Zeese No question, and there are things we can do. I can give you a 10-year plan to move toward a sustainable approach.

On the Eastern Shore, and in red parts and blue parts of the state, people are ready to break our addiction to fossil fuel. For climate change, air and water pollution, national security and the economy, we need to break our addiction.

Bay Weekly How should the federal government do this? Of course we’ve had projects like the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb.

Kevin Zeese I think a better example is JFK’s [our 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy] go to the moon. The advantage we have over JFK is we know how to do it. We have the resources, technology and the people to support it.

First we need to recognize that in three states, according to the federal government, there’s enough wind energy to provide electric for the whole country. As well as wind, there’s tidal energy, geothermal, solar — so you can turn every house into a producer, not a user.

Bay Weekly What is your first step?

Kevin Zeese Stop subsidizing the oil industry. The $25 billion a year the federal government gives to the oil industry, we need to gradually reduce and shift instead toward sustainable energy. The first step is leveling the playing field, so sustainable energy can compete.

Bay Weekly Not only are you a Green Party candidate, you were also Ralph Nader’s press secretary in the 2004 presidential election. What do you say to voters who might like your positions but shy away because of the Green vote deficit that helped elect President Bush?

Kevin Zeese I don’t think that’s an accurate description. A researcher at the University of Wisconsin said Nader helped [Democratic candidate Al] Gore more than he hurt him because of the new voters he brought out. In the last month, as Gore started sounding like Nader, about half of the Nader new voters went to Gore.

Bay Weekly Now, why should they vote for you?

Kevin Zeese The only way you can get what you want is by voting for what you want. Think of yourself as a historical actor. Your vote really matters as to the direction of our history.

Put yourself in 1850, when the issue was slavery. The two parties both supported slavery. Small abolition parties gained [strength] until by 1860 they evolved into the Republican Party, and the most successful third-party president in history was elected, Abraham Lincoln, and slavery came to an end.

Just as those two parties [the Whigs and the Democrats] profited from slavery, the two parties today profit from corporate control of government.

Fifty years from now, do you want to be able to say I voted to give the country back to the people?

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