Maryland momentum

Cardin’s retirement sets off scramble for open Senate seat

Several prominent Maryland Democrats are likely to run for Cardin’s seat

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U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) presides over a hearing about the recent rise in antisemitism and its threat to democracy in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on December 13, 2022, in Washington, DC.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) announced on Monday that he will not seek reelection to a fourth term, kicking off what is likely to be a competitive and expensive Democratic primary campaign for a rare open Senate seat in the heavily Democratic state.

In an emotional video announcing his retirement when his term ends in 2025, Cardin spoke with his wife, Myrna, about how the Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) have guided him in his nearly six decades in elective office. The 79-year-old Cardin, who is generally not viewed as a partisan firebrand, has a reputation as a staunch advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship. 

The race to replace Cardin may be a test of whether the next wave of Democratic legislators in Maryland will be as reliably pro-Israel as their predecessor. 

“Ben Cardin is one of those elected officials that when he retires, I think people in the Jewish community actually are sad, and feel like he’s a member of our family,” said Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. 

No one has officially announced an intention to run for Cardin’s seat. But among those considering it are Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who has hired political staff for a potential run, and Rep. David Trone (D-MD), who has reportedly told people close to him that he would spend up to $50 million of his own money on the race. Other possible candidates include Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a progressive who led the second impeachment proceedings against former President Donald Trump in January 2021; former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD); Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando; former Congressman John Delaney; and Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski.

“I haven’t heard any serious statewide candidates about whom I have concerns about the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, told Jewish Insider. Myrna Cardin is a past president of the Baltimore Jewish Council. 

Libit contrasted the current slate of potential candidates to the 2016 Senate Democratic primary between now-Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), a progressive who at times clashed with the Jewish community in Maryland. 

“I think that was one where there were concerns by some members of the Jewish community,” Libit added. 

In Congress, Trone and Raskin are both vocal about Israel, but approach the matter differently. Trone is aligned with AIPAC, while Raskin is generally more in tune with J Street

Raskin “is more progressive on Israel than David [Trone]. I think [Trone] is more moderate. So that’s one thing to distinguish,” Halber said. “Both are friends, but where Jamie [Raskin] may buck AIPAC more, David is, I think, much more centrist and that comes out in his positions.”

Raskin is Jewish, and Trone, whose wife is Jewish, is raising his children in the faith. 

Raskin was the opening keynote speaker at J Street’s annual conference in Washington earlier this year, and has been critical of Israeli policy at various points in recent years. 

Following last week’s vote on a resolution commending the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding and the Abraham Accords, Raskin circulated a letter, promoted by J Street and Americans for Peace Now, claiming that Israeli judicial reform efforts would undermine Israeli democracy and “strain” the U.S.-Israel relationship.

In 2021, Raskin cosponsored then-Rep. Andy Levin’s (D-MI) Two-State Solution Act, which would have condemned Israeli settlements and placed restrictions on Israel’s use of U.S. aid.

He also joined a letter urging the administration to consider alternatives to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism that allow more space for criticism of Israel, including ones that designate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and double standards targeting Israel as not inherently antisemitic.

In 2020, Raskin signed onto a letter describing the Israeli government’s demolition of a village in the West Bank, which the Israeli military claimed was illegally constructed in a firing range, as “a serious violation of international law” and a “grave humanitarian issue.”

Raskin, as a member of the House select committee on the Jan. 6 insurrection, took the lead on the committee’s efforts to probe the role of antisemitism in the attack as part of the inquiry into the extremist groups involved.

Raskin has not indicated publicly whether he will run, and a spokesperson declined to comment. The four-term congressman announced last month that he is in remission from diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. 

Trone is among a group of vocal supporters of the Jewish state in the moderate wing of the Democratic Caucus, as well as a co-chair and founder of the Abraham Accords Caucus. His Total Wine & More chain is also the largest retailer of Israeli wine in the U.S., and he has been outspoken against the BDS movement, including the description “From Judea, Stop the BDS Movement,” on the web listings for some wines produced in the West Bank. 

In the past year in Congress, Trone has supported anti-BDS efforts as well as calls for the European Union to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, for the U.N. Commission of Inquiry investigating Israel to be shut down and for the U.N. to fire Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese, as well as efforts to combat antisemitism domestically.

He also expressed concerns last year about the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. In 2019, Trone joined a letter urging Democratic leadership to take action in response to comments by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) that invoked antisemitic tropes.

Trone is a major donor to AIPAC and also gave $1.5 million last year to support the Hillel at Furman University, his alma mater. A spokesperson for Trone did not respond to a request for comment. 

Alsobrooks has led the majority-Black Prince George’s County since 2018. The county, Maryland’s second largest, has a much smaller Jewish population than Montgomery County or Baltimore County. But she has a good relationship with Jewish advocates in the Washington metropolitan area. In December she spoke at the D.C. JCRC’s annual legislative breakfast, and shared how her parents and grandparents worked alongside Jewish activists during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 

“Growing up, it was conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that the Jewish community was with us every step of the way,” she said at the meeting. 

Alsobrooks traveled to Israel in 2019 with a delegation organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, a nonprofit associated with AIPAC. 

“She has become more familiar with the Jewish community in recent years and understands our priorities and concerns. She’s been a strong voice against antisemitism and hate,” Behnam Dayanim, a lawyer and an activist in the Orthodox community in Montgomery County, told JI.

In a statement released on Monday, Alsobrooks thanked Cardin and said he “served selflessly and worked hard for all of us,” but did not share her future plans. A spokesperson for Alsobrooks declined to comment.

“I hope [Alsobrooks] runs for the seat,” said Susan Turnbull, a Jewish community leader and Democratic activist who in 2018 was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. “I think having been involved in local politics for decades, it’s time that Maryland has more women in our federal offices.” 

Alsobrooks is term-limited and will not be able to run for reelection to county executive. 

Jawando, the Montgomery County Councilmember, told the publication Maryland Matters in April that he was considering a run for Cardin’s seat. “Should Sen. Cardin decide to retire after his years of service, I’ve certainly been encouraged to consider ways for me to continue my service, and that’s something I’m thinking about,” he said. 

Last year, Jawando was a leading critic of a Montgomery County Council resolution that condemned antisemitism and affirmed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism. A compromise version of the resolution, which was drafted to incorporate some concerns from critics of the IHRA definition, passed unanimously. 

“I stand firmly with the Jewish community and unequivocally against antisemitism,” Jawando said during the public debate about the resolution, and pledged to support it. “I do so soberly, acknowledging that no matter what the outcome today, harm will be done. I want to express my dismay in the process that led us to today’s vote.” Other critics of the final resolution included the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Democratic Socialists of America. 

“I think he needs to engage in more outreach to the mainstream Jewish community,” said Halber, who worked with local Jewish leaders to draft the compromise resolution. 

A spokesperson for Jawando did not respond to a request for comment on Monday night. 

Maryland’s primary election is set for May 14, 2024. 

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