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Race for Senate Heats Up: Bongino Vs. Cardin

Oct 03, 2012 06:27PM ● By Anonymous

By the time Bongino hit high school in his native New York City, Cardin was already in Congress and his portrait—with a full head of dark hair—was already hanging, as it still does today, in the House chamber in Annapolis.

Now, 68, gray, portly, and balding after 45 years in elected office, Cardin is seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate, which would give him a cool half-century in public life.

“Enough already,” says a lean and hungry Bongino, who wants to put a stop to Cardin’s career.
“What has he done?” Bongino asks, a question which frankly puzzles Cardin, who can point to a long list of legislative accomplishments.

Bongino, a Severna Park resident, put a stop to his own career as a Secret Service agent to run. “I left everything to do this,” says Bongino, who gave up a government pension and promising career after 11 years on the job, including more than four protecting the president. (He has even received an endorsement from Sarah Palin.)


Bongino’s quest has gained him more national notoriety than local fame. Bongino, 37, fully recognizes that he’s got a compelling life story, and he tells it well. After he quit the Secret Service last year, he immediately grabbed the attention of Fox News and CNN, has been on national radio with Dennis Miller and Glenn Beck, and has been featured on MSNBC and ABC News. He had a very visible role in last year’s Discovery Channel series Secret Service Secrets. But if you don’t listen to conservative talk radio in Maryland, you perhaps have never heard his voice, with its more-than-a-hint of native New York accent. And local newspapers have been fairly dismissive of his challenge to Cardin, he complains.

Bongino was raised in poverty with his two brothers by a single mother in New York City. “I grew up dirt poor,” he says, with “baloney and Cheerios for dinner.”

He became a NYPD cop for four years, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, joined the Secret Service, traveled to 27 countries, helped break up a fraud ring, and got an MBA from Penn State.

Bongino likes and respects Obama and his family personally. He was one of the agents walking beside the presidential limousine as it inched up Pennsylvania Avenue for the parade after Obama’s 2009 inauguration. “It was special moment for me,” Bongino says, recognizing the history-making event.


But he strongly disagrees with the policies of the man he would have taken a bullet for. As Bongino works Metro stops in the D.C. suburbs in the early morning, he asks voters three fundamental questions: Do you think the government knows how to spend your money better than you do? Do you think government bureaucrats should be making decisions about your health care? Do you think people should be allowed to choose the schools their children go to? Bam-bam-bam. In the 20 seconds he’s got to make his pitch, he finds a lot of people agree with him on taxes, health care, and school choice. “You’re one of us,” he tells them to their surprise, on three issues that set him far apart from Cardin. There are dozens of others, but Bongino clearly represents the conservative wing of his party and can relate to the TEA party wing as well, Taxed Enough Already.

Cardin and other liberal Democrats are not what they seem to be, he says. They profess to help federal workers, but do nothing to restrain the spending that will eventually require massive cuts in the federal bureaucracy. They say they are for the children of the inner city, but refuse to permit more school choice through vouchers. They say they are for jobs, but continue to support rules that favor high-paid union labor on federal construction, limiting the number of construction jobs.

“All he does is talk,” Bongino says of Cardin. Based on his personal campaigning at Ravens and Redskins games, parades, and Metro stops, Bongino believes few people know who Cardin is as opposed to Sen. Barbara Mikulski. “I haven’t seen the man anywhere,” Bongino says.


Cardin admits he hasn’t paid much attention to Bongino’s attacks, although he promises to debate him in the fall, as he does with his opponents in every race. The Republican’s charges come as a bit of a surprise to Cardin, as he squeezes in a phone interview on his way to Washington.

His calendar is typically full of public appearances, and unlike other liberal Democrats, Cardin does not shy away from conservative talk radio, where he holds his own and calmly explains his positions to callers who are typically unhappy with his views and his votes.

In the campaign, “I’ll point to a lot of things I’ve been able to get done,” Cardin says. Those things include expansion of preventative health care, small business procurement, help to homeowners, and a long string of other accomplishments on foreign relations, the environment and a dozen other issues. “I’m proud of my record.”

Cardin finds his constituents prefer many aspects of the Affordable Care Act—called Obamacare by the right—especially coverage for adult children and pre-existing conditions. But Maryland’s junior senator admits it’s “a very difficult environment” to campaign in, with a major recession threatening the jobs and savings of his constituents, and a long, protracted war in Afghanistan—which he opposed, by the way.

Cardin can’t do much about his very different life story, one that fairly screams career politician. As a third generation Marylander, it was a life of comfortable and stable middle class privilege in Baltimore’s Jewish community. Ben met his future wife Myrna in elementary school; Dan met his wife Paula, a Columbian immigrant, on a blind date. The son of a Baltimore judge, Cardin got on the ticket as he finished law school (first in his class), and it’s been a steady rise ever since, solid but cautious, with the outcomes seldom in doubt.

Cardin’s 54 percent win against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in 2006 was the closest election he’s ever had in his political career, except for his even closer call in the primary that year against former Congressman Kweisi Mfume, 43 percent to 40, winning by less than 20,000 votes. In the April 3rd Democratic primary, he received 74 percent of the vote with a weak challenge from a Prince George’s County state senator, C. Anthony Muse. In that primary, he got four times as many votes as Bongino did, who won with 33 percent against Richard Douglas, a man equally as unknown.


Bongino is aware of the challenge. “We know we have to outwork this guy,” Bongino says. “I know I’m not going to out fundraise Ben Cardin.”

Hardly. Cardin, as you might expect of an incumbent, has raised $15 for every dollar his challenger has brought in—$4 million versus $266,000. At the end of March, the senator had $2 million on hand, while the Republican had a paltry $29,000.

Bongino is hoping that volunteers are going to give him an edge, and in June, he already had 1,500. In late May on a weekday afternoon, his campaign headquarters on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park was buzzing with activity. He has already handed out more than 25,000 palm cards. “It’s gotta matter. It’s been making a huge difference,” picking up volunteers and supporters.

While a novice candidate, Bongino has seen the inside workings of campaigns before. He served on the protection details of three presidential candidates, and for Hillary Clinton’s Senate race in New York, traveling all over the state with her.

But he concedes, “You can’t win a statewide campaign by shaking hands. You can’t knock on every door.” Bongino estimates he’s made contact with 500,000 Marylanders “skin to skin, eye to eye.” Bongino also said he paid particularly close attention to the race Republican Scott Brown won against Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts to fi ll the seat of the late Teddy Kennedy. Brown was far behind for much of the race, and then started to close quickly, which brought a rush of funding.

That’s what Bongino hopes will happen this fall. Bongino is boosted by other believers in his chances, but at the moment that does not include three well-respected national political analysts. Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs, the Rothenberg Political Report, the Cook Political Report, and Larry’s Sabato’s Crystal Ball all rate Cardin’s seat among eight that they say will stay solidly and safely Democratic.

Bongino points to a January poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing of Annapolis that found just over half of Maryland voters (51 percent) approved of the job Ben Cardin was doing. (Only a third 32 percent disapproved, with a lot of no opinions.) And while Republican Party leaders are strongly backing Bongino, some concede privately that Cardin has few enemies and will be nearly impossible to beat.

Bongino hopes to beat the odds. “At some point people want representatives who can relate to their own struggles,” he says. “They want to say: He’s one of us.”

Len Lazarick is the editor and publisher of a news website covering state government and politics.