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Rep. John Sarbanes says he’s staying on the ‘democracy team’

He may not be running again, but he’s still bullish on an elections overhaul

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., speaks at a 2021 rally in support of his proposal to overhaul voting access and money in politics. He has been “toiling in those vineyards” for years, he says now.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., speaks at a 2021 rally in support of his proposal to overhaul voting access and money in politics. He has been “toiling in those vineyards” for years, he says now. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

When the new Congress is sworn in next year, it will be without a Sarbanes in its ranks for the first time in 54 years. Rep. John Sarbanes is moving on from politics, ending a congressional career that began in 2007 — the same year his father, the late Paul Sarbanes, retired after serving 36 years in the House and Senate.

Sitting down with Roll Call in his quietly lit office last month, the Maryland Democrat said he’s leaving to follow the magnetic pull of “the next opportunity,” whatever that may be, rather than feeling repelled.

But there’s one part he won’t miss. “There’s more of a performative dimension to being in public office than there used to be,” he said.

Sarbanes will leave without seeing the most prominent legislation he introduced, Democrats’ proposed elections overhaul, signed into law. He still believes it could happen, after “toiling in those vineyards” for years.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Why are you calling it quits at the end of this term? 

A: Well, it’s more that I’m thinking about the next opportunity. I always had in mind when I came here that there would be something on the other side. I didn’t think serving in Congress was going to be my last gig. 

I feel you should make life decisions and career decisions for positive reasons. Like, it should be a pull factor, and that’s very much what’s operating here. 

Q: What’s next? Are you done with politics altogether?

A: The part of this job I like the most is the interaction with constituents, with community groups, people who are making change on the ground. And so whatever I do, I want that to continue to be part of my day. 

I’m not going to do any more elected office. I’ve valued and appreciated the privilege of being able to serve in that capacity, but I grew up in a family that defined service in lots of different ways. 

Q: You’ve led some big proposals to overhaul campaign finance laws and expand voting access. A few years ago, you sponsored the For the People Act, which passed the House but not the Senate. Now you have a similar package, the Freedom to Vote Act. How are you feeling about that?

A: I’m absolutely convinced we’re gonna win that fight. When we win it, I don’t know. We could win it in ’25 if things line up. I’m committed to staying on that team — that democracy team, if you want to call it that — for as long as it takes. 

Most of the people who are actually pushing this thing forward are not in elected office. They’re not members of Congress. They’re parts of citizen groups, democracy organizations and other coalitions that have kept this thing upright for so many years. 

The key is you plan for the next window of opportunity, and you’re as ready as you can be. Unfortunately, the Republican leadership have made it clear in the last few years that they’re not interested in real reform. Sometimes they pay lip service to it.

Q: Do you really think there’s a chance of it happening anytime soon?

A: This reform has to come out of the Democratic corner, and I think that only can happen if we have gavels in both chambers and someone in the White House who’s willing to sign a bill if we can get it done. 

I do want to emphasize that while the Republican leadership here has leaned hard against it, if you go out into the country, what you discover is support for every part of this bill. It’s ballot access, it’s redistricting reform, and it’s big money disclosure. It cuts across the political spectrum. These reforms are very popular, and they will make democracy work better for everyone.

We’ve heard that message on the Democratic side, and I’m excited that [House Minority Whip] Katherine Clark has agreed to take the Freedom to Vote Act baton. Having someone at the leadership table who’s got that deep sense of ownership around the bill reflects, frankly, the investment our leadership has made. 

This has been a priority now for three Congresses in a row, and it just keeps going. I mean, [Minority Leader Hakeem] Jeffries designated it as the No. 1 Democratic bill in this Congress, which is HR 11. [Majority Leader Charles E.] Schumer on the Senate side made it S 1. We obviously work in lockstep with Terri Sewell who leads on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is HR 14

Q: Looking back at your time on the Hill, what are you most proud of?

A: Obviously, the democracy piece has been front and center for me. I feel like I was toiling in those vineyards years before some of those issues were getting the attention that they’re getting now. 

I feel really good about the work we did on public service loan forgiveness. I authored the legislation years ago that allows graduates who have student debt but go into public service to earn complete forgiveness of any federal loans they may have after 10 years. There were glitches at the Department of Education along the way, but the Biden administration’s done a good job of sorting those out.

Health care was my field of interest and work before I came to Congress, along with education, and I’m proud of leading the charge on school-based health centers. And participating in major achievements like the Affordable Care Act and being on the Energy and Commerce Committee when that was all happening is something I’ll remember for a long time. 

Q: What about regrets?

A: If there’s a regret, it’s not about what I’ve been able to pursue here. It’s that the environment has deteriorated generally, in terms of polarization and partisanship. I think members of Congress have a responsibility to try to address that, but we also face the reality that we’re now living in a society that’s very much in conflict with itself, and that is going to spill into any chamber where you send representative lawmakers, by definition. 

So that’s a bigger challenge, and it’s not just a challenge for Congress. I think boosting civic engagement and civic life has to be a responsibility of everyone, not just elected officials. 

Q: What will you miss about being in Congress, if anything? 

A: I expect that I’ll miss the hustle and bustle dimension of the place. There’s something energizing about that, for sure. And I’ll miss people who share my philosophy of public service, which is, keep your head down, do good work, don’t look for credit. 

I always tried to step back before I anted up for the next two years and really think carefully. Am I making the kind of contribution here that matters? Is this the best use of the skills that I have at this stage of my life? Because you ought to think intentionally about that sort of thing before you then go to voters and ask them to send you back for another term. 

I’m gonna be 62 in a couple of months. That’s a good time to be thinking about whether you can have another chapter and make an impact. So that’s why I have a smile on my face. People will look and say, “Oh, you’re just glad to get out.” And it’s like, “No, I’m excited about the next thing.”

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