WASHINGTON, DC – John Peter Spyros Sarbanes is making a name for himself in Congress the same way his father, retired Senator John Sarbanes, did in 1971 when the latter took office: by focusing on the country’s critical issues and making sure he is hearing what his constituents have to say.
During an interview with The National Herald, he began with his perspective on the recent elections. “Obviously it was a big night for the Republicans, but it was also a big night for cynics…the turnout was the lowest since 1942.”
He noted that “Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, there is a perception that Washington and Congress in particular have tuned them out…and are catering more to special interests and big money interests.”
Congress must say to America: “we are going to reform the system to give you back your voice so that we can get those things done that are important.”
Sarbanes is focused on campaign finance reform as part of the solution, and he also continues champion issues of concern to the Greek-American community. He is outspoken about Turkey’s recent threats against Cyprus and Greece.
Turkish ships are still violating the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus, and Sarbanes said it is fair for Greek- and Cypriot-Americans to feel disappointment “that the Obama Administration and the State Department have not been more forceful and sustained in their condemnation of the behavior of Turkey.”
He said “I would have also liked to hear that behind the scenes there was greater pressure being brought to bear.”
The U.S. has been naive, he said, about how Turkish President Recep Erdogan deals with the U.S. and allies like Greece and Cyprus.
“I think Turkey conducts itself in a very transactional way. I never thought its alliance with the U.S. was values-based. It’s strategic and transactional.”
And that is fine, he said, as long as Washington is clear-eyed and deals the same way with Ankara.
“If that had been more of our posture over many years, we would have been more successful in putting on two separate tracks the geopolitical conversation and the conversation about human rights and religious freedom. Turkey has always been able to deflect the second item by pulling the strategic considerations into the conversation.”
He added that the United States has also not fully appreciated what a boon it would be for its interests to have a unified Cyprus.
He believes, however, that “the bloom is off the rose” for Washington policymakers who had long been infatuated with Turkey, which presents golden opportunities for the community and groups like the Hellenic Caucus and the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance on Capitol Hill with whom Sarbanes has a leading role.
“They are now seeing in Turkey what we have been cautioning about for years.”
POLITICS BEGINS AT A HOME
The Sarbanes home was a political environment, but “but the overarching message was a sense of civic engagement,” of being engaged in the life of one’s community.
“My grandmother Matina, who was an immigrant, embodied that in Salisbury, MD… She was always helping somebody and making the restaurant she ran with her husband Spyros available to people, and she instilled that in me.”
Sarbanes never met his grandfather, but he knew of his commitment to American democracy and its roots in Greek democracy. “My father picked up that set of values,” he said.
The tradition continues in the home Sarbanes and his wife, Dina, created for their children, Nico, Stephanie, and Leo.
His late mother Christine, a Classics professor, reinforced the family’s educational foundation. Sarbanes fondly recalls her taking him and his brother Michael, an attorney who is now a science teacher, and his sister Janet, who is a writer and teaches at the college level, to the library where would check out 10 or 15 books – which would be read out loud during dinner.
It was an approach that got him to Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
After emphasizing the teaching genes his siblings inherited, he acknowledged that being a congressman has a teaching element. “No question about it, you have to translate complicated issues in a way that is meaningful to the public and connect them to what’s happening in Washington, which frankly is increasingly difficult.”
He also knows the private sector and its issues well. Before Sarbanes ran for Congress he worked for the law firm of Venable LLPin Baltimore from 1989 to 2006, where he was chair of health care practice.
He said Congress’ challenge is to re-engage with people who have separated themselves from the political conversation. “Decent well-meaning Americans have left the Agora…Unfortunately, he said “when good people flee the town square, the extreme elements rush in to fill that vacuum, which creates more noise and more disenchantment on the part of the public and that feeds on itself.”
One of the things he believes must be acknowledge is that “the deck is stacked against them” by special interests, and that “big money interests have outsize influence over the way policy gets made.
“The money now cascades into the political process, and it’s not just [the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision about] Citizens United but the system that preceded it that allows direct contributions into campaigns coming in primarily from PACs and high donors.”
He introduced the “Government By the People Act” which is backed by 160 Congressional cosponsors and an unprecedented coalition of more than 50 national organizations which would create a small donor matching system that would amplify the voice of the average citizen.
Sarbanes also agrees that a better job must be done to convey to the public what the government is doing for the middle class, and to rebuild public trust in government in general.
But the Democrats have a lot of work to do on their own message
“There is a lot of self-examination going on after the last election…We have to speak consistently to people about what it means to have a fair shot at the American dream and how we build a strong middle class, and the anxieties so many Americans have about their economic future.”
Democrats need to get them to know they understand, and that they have solutions, he said; for example, encouraging manufacturing.
Dow CEO Andrew Liveris’ book Make it in America is compelling reading, Sarbanes said, and he re-iterated its messages that “manufacturing was the highest economic multiplier of any job that you can create,” and the importance of “the pride than comes from being able to make things.”
He constantly visits both traditional and advanced manufacturing businesses in his district, such as a fascinating 3-D printing facility.
There is a lot Congress must do, so Sarbanes returned to the situation in Washington. He explained that what has changed is that members of both parties can no longer sit across a table and “have a conversation on the merits of an issue,” balancing constituent and national interests, and compromising based on merits and substance.”
Sarbanes says a new lens looms over their actions: “What would my money people think if I made this or that concession…and that has gummed up the system of policymaking.”
He told TNH “in 1982 Bob Dole said if we ever get to the point where everyone has a PAC on Capitol Hill, we will never get anything done.”
Sarbanes is fighting against that.
But American citizens can also get things done. Sarbanes’ initiative “Hellenism in the Public Service,” encourages civic engagement and philanthropy by shining a spotlight on the diverse ways that Greek-Americans are giving back to the broader community.