By Leslie Krowchenko, Special to the Hellenic News of America
A mere five weeks before the 2018 elections that determined control of the U.S. Congress for the next two years, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found approximately one-third of registered voters did not know the name of their party’s candidate for office.
Fortunately for John Sarbanes, name recognition has never been an issue.
Sarbanes, the son of the late U. S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, has served in Congress since 2007 representing Maryland’s Third Congressional District (MD-3). His father, the first Greek American senator and second longest-serving in the Old Line state’s history, held the same seat from 1971-1977.
“The example of my father was an inspiration to pursue elected office,” he said. “Within my own limitations, I’ve strived to meet the standard of thoughtfulness and integrity that he brought to public service.”
A man of Maryland roots, Sarbanes was born and raised in Baltimore. He received a B.A. in 1984 from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and studied law and politics in Greece on a Fulbright Scholarship.
Upon earning a J.D. from Harvard Law School, Sarbanes returned to the home of the Orioles and Ravens, practicing law for 18 years with a firm in the city. He served for seven years with the Maryland State Department of Education, clerked for the federal district court and worked with the Public Justice Center. Since childhood, he has attended the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore.
“My family taught me that service to the community is one of life’s highest callings,” he said. “That value certainly influenced me to become active in volunteer and non-profit work early in my career and helped lead to my decision to run for public office.”
MD-3, which includes Annapolis and its surrounding counties, has been a successful entry onto the national scene for several local politicians. Paul Sarbanes won the seat in 1970 following two terms in the state House of Delegates. His decision to run for Senate six years later opened the spot for Baltimore City Council member Barbara Mikulski; following her 10 years in Congress, the two served together in the Senate. Ben Cardin, also a former member of the House of Delegates, assumed Mikulski’s house seat in 1986.
Cardin ran successfully for the Senate seat twenty years later when the elder Sarbanes chose to retire and his son sought the Congressional nomination. Facing three opponents, he received 31.9 percent of the primary vote and captured the general election by a nearly two-thirds margin. In similar fashion, he has been reelected eight times with no substantive opposition.
Sarbanes has had the opportunity to work on a number of important issues during his 17 years in the House. As co-chair of the Task Force on Strengthening Democracy, he assembled the For the People Act, which he described as “a historic reform package to clean up the culture of corruption in Washington and return to government of, by and for the people.” It passed the House in 2021, but was blocked by a Senate Republican filibuster.
“My most consistent effort has been leading democracy reform through authorship of the act,” he added. “This legislation seeks to ensure that every American has a voice and a vote in our democracy and that our government officials are responsive to the public interest – not the special interests.”
Harkening to his days with state public interest organizations, Sarbanes is also proud of his role in helping create the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The effort aids in alleviating student debt burden for individuals who want to pursue meaningful, rewarding careers as teachers, first responders, civil servants or working in the non-profit sector.
Sarbanes served on the Committee on Energy and Commerce during the passage of the Affordable Care Act and as the county navigated the COVID pandemic. Committee membership has also allowed him to work on many targeted efforts to support school-based health centers, lower prescription drug prices, safeguard a strong health care workforce and respond to mental and behavioral health crises.
On the environmental front, Sarbanes has been part of a Maryland team operating to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay. His passion has included inspiring the next generation to take ownership of climate issues, empowering them to become environmental stewards with legislation such as the No Child Left Inside Act, which bolsters and expands outdoor environmental learning experiences.
As a member of the Congressional Hellenic Caucus, Sarbanes strives to bring renewed focus on key diplomatic, military, and human rights issues affecting Greece, Cypress, and the United States. The importance of service to the community was a value his father learned from his parents – first-generation immigrants who came from the Laconia region of Greece in the early 1900s – and one he subsequently instilled in his children.
“The opportunity to assist the Greek-American community in advocating on important issues has been at the center of my time in Congress,” he said. “I have worked with a fantastic group of individuals and organizations that have prioritized those issues and an outstanding staff whose belief in public service has fortified me.”
Sarbanes recently announced he would not seek reelection in 2024. He noted his decision to spend nearly two decades in Congress was motivated by his family’s commitment to finding the most effective way to serve and the change will allow him to apply his skills and talents in different facets, including a service component.
“Years ago, I coined the phrase ‘Hellenism in the Public Service’ to describe this commitment. From my own involvement in such efforts, I have gained a deeper appreciation that philotimo (“love of honor”) is not about the position you hold or the title you have – it’s about the big and little ways each of us can improve the lives of others,” he said. “That is what led me to seek elected office and what now inspires me to give back in other ways.”