Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) says he has an urgent message: it can happen here. Although calling himself an optimist by nature, Sarbanes sees the potential for a move toward a totalitarian system in the United States.
Sarbanes, 56, who is running for reelection in the 3rd District that he has represented since 2007, recently met with Jmore’s editorial board to discuss the 2018 midterm elections on Nov. 6.
Jmore: What do you sense is the mood among voters these days?
Sarbanes: People are starved for decency, and they’re against all of the corruption and the special interest groups. The Democrats have an opportunity to push for something different – and for accountability. … There is a hunger to get back to honesty and ethics. [There is] an awareness that special interests and big money have taken over, that the oil and gas industries are calling the shots, that the tax policy favors the big money crowd.
The public sees that Republicans are not interested in oversight of the executive branch. The Republican Party no longer knows who or what it is, and Republican congressmen and senators are cowed. … The levels of corruption are worse now in this pay-to-play culture. [President Donald] Trump didn’t drain the swamp, he only made it worse. We need to restore faith and trust in the government. … If we don’t trust democracy and ourselves, it will be easier for the Russians to come in and disrupt things.
We seem to be living in times when there are at least two Americas.
It’s not good to have two Americas. Trump revels in bringing a hot poker to the cultural wounds of our country, and people feel powerless. I trust that the voters and electorate will do the right thing if they have all of the information.
What do you advise to help voters stay focused and optimistic?
Don’t get too cynical. Most people I meet still believe that government can be a good force in their lives. They believe the system can be cleaned up. … Democrats have a plan, and we hear you.
What’s your take on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous? Can he beat his Republican rival, Gov. Larry Hogan, who’s so far ahead of him in the polls and financial resources?
He’s a compelling candidate when he tells his story. He has a path to victory because of Trump and because Maryland is so heavily Democratic. But he must get his message in front of the people. We need a day-one governor, someone who acts fast. [Maryland Attorney General] Brian Frosh is a good example. He stands up fast and pushes back hard from day one. Marylanders have an appetite for something stronger than Larry Hogan when it comes to health care, immigration policy and gun policy. Also, he hasn’t invested enough in education and teachers.
And Larry Hogan gave a body blow to the city of Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death [in April of 2015]. The governor should have pushed forward with the Red Line [light rail line project]. That kind of leadership would have given a kick to the economy of the city. That’s what Baltimore needed but didn’t get from Larry Hogan. … People are ready for a more energetic agenda.
What about Israel?
I’m very committed to Israel’s security and to a two-state solution. But there’s a lot of soul searching going on in the Jewish community about the relationship of the U.S. and Israel, and about Israel’s policies. There is foundational support, but people are trying to figure out how to make the relationship between our two countries flourish. … Republicans have been more willing and helpful to use Israel as a wedge issue on the hill, and that’s having an effect on what had been consensus support in Congress. It’s a tricky time.
I agree with moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but I think it was done at the wrong time. The move should have been part of a broader set of solutions as part of negotiations. But this president does not have a level of commitment to a two-state solution. This president does not think or act strategically. He’s impulsive. It’s one thing to be disruptive, another to be destructive. I believe, for example, that the Iran nuclear deal was good to have in place, to lock down those issues. But he pulled us out.
I’m also really troubled by the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement [against Israel]. It can become a magnet that pulls in elements that really don’t have Israel’s best interests at heart. It’s got a very dangerous dimension to it.
What keeps you up at night?
Here’s the scary thing: whatever Trump and his allies were willing to sacrifice to get power, they will sacrifice much more to retain power. They will seek to make sure they hold onto power in 2020. If you start to sacrifice the democratic institutions to get power, which is happening, you cut corners here, turn a blind eye there. Then, you start down the road to a more authoritarian bent, you get more used to it. It can happen here.
What can be done?
I’m chairing the Democratic Reform Task Force, a plan to make members of Congress more accountable to their constituents. House Resolution 975 already has 160 signatures. After the election, we hope it will pass and go to the president for his signature. The plan creates a new standard for those in charge and gives everyday Americans more power.
It advances political reforms that 1) empower the American voter, 2) strengthen our nation’s ethics laws, and 3) fix our broken campaign finance system. Among the strategies needed to bring about these changes are automated voter registration, eliminating partisan redistricting, decreasing the influence of lobbyists, requiring presidential candidates to disclose their income tax returns and leveraging small donations to empower campaigns.
What can everyday Americans do?
Vote, of course. And realize that there are an amazing number of Democratic candidates of the highest caliber we’ve ever fielded all across the nation. This includes an unprecedented number of women, many more than ever before. These are quality women candidates who are crossing over from other sectors.
There is likely to be a “blue wave.” Help build it by getting more Democrats elected. Take Pennsylvania, for instance. In its history, it has had seven women elected to Congress. Now, four women are congressional candidates. … But the “blue wave” can crash against partisan gerrymandering, and that’s not easy to overcome. So use phones to canvass voters in other states. And go door-to-door in Pennsylvania, ask people about Trump: Is he looking out for you? What do you think of his behavior? Are people in his cabinet helping you? Do the tariffs and the tax bill benefit you? People appreciate that attention. Tell people, “You had the power to make him president. You have the power to make him give it up.”
Do you believe Trump will be a two-term president?
I don’t know. … We must figure out why some people feel disrespected and respond to that. We need to restore faith in our democracy. We have to believe we can unify behaviors. … We will bring in the hazmat team to clean up the government. So it’s time to call out the cavalry. We need to restore sanity before it’s too late. Give us the gavel. The stakes could not be higher.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.