Josh Kurtz: Maryland’s Next U.S. Senator Is…

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By Josh Kurtz: 

Thirty years ago, when the wife of the longtime mayor of Milwaukee ran for Congress, a columnist with The Milwaukee Journal imagined the mayor pacing the floor at night, worrying about who would be more important if she was elected.

Fortunately for him, she lost.

But I was reminded of this thinking about the ascension of Tom Perez to secretary of Labor in President Obama‘s cabinet. Who’s more important now: Perez or Doug Gansler?

Both wanted to be attorney general in 2006. Gansler made it, after Perez, thanks in part to Gansler’s machinations, was disqualified from the ballot.

Here’s a more tantalizing question: Who will be more important in the future -- Gansler, if he’s elected governor in 2014, or Perez if he becomes a U.S. senator some day?

Yes, it’s time to add Tom Perez to the ever-growing list of prospective future Maryland senators. Not that there are going to be any openings any time soon.

When Paul Sarbanes announced in 2005 that he’d soon be ending his 30-year run in the Senate, five of the state’s six House Democrats at the time publicly contemplated running for his seat. The only exception was Steny Hoyer -- then, as now, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

One by one, the ambitious congressmen -- and they were all men -- decided to stay in place, except for one: Ben Cardin, who had already been in the House for 20 years and had been an elected official for 40. And he succeeded. Now, of course, Cardin is into his second term as senator.

As soon as Cardin was elected, the state’s political insiders started compiling a list of “next” U.S. senators. Needless to say, all are Democrats.

The top two names right after the 2006 election were Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who had pondered entering the race to replace Sarbanes, and Sarbanes’ son John, newly elected at the time to represent the state’s 3rd Congressional District -- which had produced Cardin, and the elder Sarbanes, and the state’s other senator, Barbara Mikulski.

In John Sarbanes’ case, he could run for Senate and many voters would assume he was already the incumbent. And even though he’s a Baltimore guy (with a district that conveniently touches all the population centers of the western shore), his family has deep roots on the Eastern Shore. Van Hollen seems to have it all: policy and political chops, boundless energy, media savvy, and a certain fearlessness (a willingness to take on incumbents and Kennedy’s in his prior races).

Early in Martin O’Malley’s first term as governor, some people pegged him as a prospective future senator. It was clear he had national ambitions, interests and contacts, and he’s always been close to Mikulski -- stoking speculation that she might want to tee up her seat for him at some point.

But of course, O’Malley has now made it clear that his ambitions rest at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. So consider him a scratch in the Senate sweepstakes, for now.

Other names have since been added to the list of prospective senators: Rep. Donna Edwards made it as soon as she knocked off an incumbent congressman, Albert Wynn, with a nimble and guerilla-style campaign. Talk about fearless. Edwards quickly became a heroine to progressives near and far.

Rep. John Delaney joined the list as soon as he dropped $2 million of his own money and beat the Democratic establishment candidate in the primary last. He’ll surely get bored as a junior member of the minority in the House, the thinking goes -- and he’ll be able to bankroll a statewide campaign.

Some people suggest Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake might be a prime Senate contender sometime down the line. She may be more wired to be a legislator than an executive. And after wrestling with the city’s intractable problems, the madness of Capitol Hill may seem like a relief. Rawlings-Blake is already rising in national politics, having recently become secretary of the Democratic National Committee.

Now Perez legitimately deserves a place on the list. His resume is as well-rounded as any of the other potential contenders -- including time on the Hill as an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy. The Labor Department isn’t the sexiest or most visible cabinet agency, but serving there will put Perez in close touch with key players in the Democratic base, and will endear him to Obama and the president‘s allies.

So here are six very legitimate potential candidates for Senate. They wouldn’t necessarily all run if there was a Senate vacancy in the not-too-distant future, but they’d probably all consider the race.

But here’s the problem: Edwards is 55 years old. Van Hollen is 54. Sarbanes and Perez are 51. Delaney is 50. Rawlings-Blake is 43. And Mikulski and Cardin aren’t going anywhere.

Mikulski is next up for re-election in 2016, when she will be 80. Cardin is up again in 2018, when he’ll be 75. Both are good bets to run again.

So by the time there’s another Senate vacancy in Maryland, many of these would-be senators will be eligible for Social Security -- unless someone wants to take a chance and challenge an incumbent.

If that doesn’t happen, we may have to look to a younger generation. My daughters are 19 and 17. Under the current set of political circumstances, they may have a better shot of being Maryland’s next senator than Delaney, Edwards, Perez, Rawlings-Blake, Sarbanes or Van Hollen.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.