By SAMUEL STEVENS
Maryland Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen gave a historic question-and-answer town hall in the assembly hall of Salisbury University’s Academic Commons on Friday.
The meeting marked the first time both of Maryland’s senators visited the city together.
The discussion stressed bipartisanship and practical governing, without delving into controversial issues in great detail. A moderator posed questions to the two senators and they did not allow questions from the audience.
The diverse crowd came from the SU campus community as well as the local area. SU President Janet Dudley-Eshbach gave opening remarks to kick off the town hall.
“This is indeed a great day for the entire Eastern Shore,” Dudley-Eshbach said. “And particularly if I may say so, Salisbury University.”
She stressed the importance of civic and community engagement to the university’s goals as well as commending Van Hollen and Cardin for representing Maryland.
“To have such honored, and well-spoken, and ethical senators here representing the state of Maryland, how fortunate are we?” Dudley-Eshbach said.
She further praised Cardin and Van Hollen, calling them two of the nation’s finest public servants.
Mayor Jake Day announced that Cardin and Van Hollen participated in the ground breaking ceremony for the Salisbury amphitheater and river walk.
“We are so proud to be that destination, and to be a destination for many visitors,” Day said.
The mayor issued a proclamation honoring both Cardin and Van Hollen for their service and putting on the town hall event. He declared the day Senators’ Day in the city.
Before speaking about the topics for their discussion, Cardin took time to recognize Dudley-Eshbach’s career at SU.
“She has fully integrated Salisbury University into Salisbury,” Cardin said. “Putting important facilities into the city so that it’s seamless.”
After the opening speeches, the senators delved into the question-and-answer session. They began by explaining their duties as senators, and their role as a bridge between the state and federal levels of government.
“The senate truly is a unique body,” Cardin said. “It is meant to be a body that will act as a check and balance not just on the executive branch of government, but on the legislative branch as well.”
He cited Senate’s rule requiring a supermajority for controversial legislation as an example of their role, in addition to advocating for the interests of Marylanders.
“To be a voice for the international community, America represents so much hope for people around the world,” Cardin said of his role in government.
He also saw the Senate’s role as holding those in positions of authority accountable, both in the U.S. and around the world.
Van Hollen expressed his gratitude for his position.
“I’m very grateful to be able represent our state in the United States Senate along with Ben Cardin,” Van Hollen said.
Both Cardin and Van Hollen served in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate. The rules of the upper house incentivize lawmakers to work on a bipartisan basis, rather than the simple majority rule of the House.
Van Hollen brought up the recent failure of immigration reforms not clearing the sixty vote threshold as an example of the need for cooperation to pass legislation in the Senate.
“We work very hard during the debates and during the process of putting together legislation—like the budget—to make sure that we’re focused on the interests of the people of Maryland, and every part of Maryland including the Eastern Shore,” Van Hollen said.
The senator emphasized the interaction between the local community and the federal government through local airports and the Port of Salisbury.
Another aspect of federal-local cooperation Van Hollen brought up was making college education more affordable through student loans and Pell Grants.
“Yes, we legislate for the country, but we also are very focused on trying to make sure we represent the interests of our state and all parts of our state,” he said.
The discussion moved on to cover the news media in the current political landscape. Van Hollen praised the wide range of sources available for those trying to stay informed, yet noted the more problematic aspects of this wealth of news.
“You would think that with the proliferation of different news sources maybe that would necessarily bring more information, and more balanced views to people,” Van Hollen said. “But what we find is a great paradox.”
Van Hollen raised concern over the increasing polarization of media consumption, leaving people unwilling to engage with different points of view.
On the other hand, Cardin suggested it was important for people to sometimes take a break from watching the daily news cycles.
He emphasized that people should focus on specific issues they care about, rather than the news of the day. He said that legislation he had worked on with Senators Robert Corker and John McCain on foreign policy issues was completed, but went unreported in the daily news cycle.
Senator Cardin’s focused on the importance of cooperation within the body, using the recent immigration reform as an example. His emphasis was on bringing senators from both parties together to come back from a failed piece of legislation.
“It’s not one member, but it’s all of us working together and listening together and trying to get things accomplished,” Cardin said. “Most members of the United States Senate want to get things done.”
Both Van Hollen and Cardin are two of only a handful of legislators that can work and live close to their constituency.
Van Hollen discussed his advancement on Capitol Hill, as he began his national political career as a representative in the House, and now heads the Senatorial Election Committee.
Despite starting in the House, he praised the small size of the Senate allowing its members to make a statement if they want to, something that would not happen in the much larger lower house.
Cardin was asked about a possible goal in the past of being elected governor, but explained his political development in greater detail.
He recalled his background as the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, but said he had aspirations to be a U.S. Senator. Following the retirement of Salisbury native Paul Sarbanes, Cardin ran for the seat and won.
“I’ve never looked back,” Cardin said. “I love legislating.”
He reiterated he had no plans to run for governor, despite rumors in the past.
Continuing on the theme of unity, Cardin emphasized putting campaign rhetoric aside to govern, and trying to listen to people from all parts of Maryland.
“We all need to listen to each other, and by doing that we can have policies that are going to be in the best interests of all of us,” Cardin said.
He brought up the gap in agriculture and environmental concerns, and that cooperation and compromise could strike a balance between the two.
Van Hollen praised the diversity on the Eastern Shore and its different ways of life, from agriculture and fishing, to new innovation. He echoed Cardin’s calls for bipartisanship in order to improve the country, bringing up his working with Representative Andy Harris to ensure the Chesapeake Bay gets federal money for its protection.
Both senators discussed the possibility of off-shore wind power coming to the Eastern Shore, helping Maryland become a leader in clean energy. The projects are still under review with the Department of the Interior, and Van Hollen said that he and Cardin would make sure Congress was not an obstacle to the new infrastructure.
Cardin brought up America’s energy self-sufficiency despite the amount of energy resources exported, and said that the wind projects would help further this.
The last major topic of the event concerned gerrymandering in the state.
“Congressional redistricting is going to be political any way you do it,” Cardin said.
Cardin supported districts that kept communities together and did not stretch them for political ends, while recognizing the reality that any redistricting would have political consequences.
Van Hollen advocated for non-partisan redistricting, based on models such as Iowa’s “quasi-judicial” process for line drawing or a bipartisan process similar to California. He supports legislation for national non-partisan redistricting.
“I’m for every state having to adopt a non-partisan approach,” Van Hollen said.
The last issue brought up was on the importance of NASA in Maryland, both on the Eastern Shore and in Prince George’s County. Van Hollen said he wanted to battle moving the Wallops Island operations elsewhere.
The conversation concluded with another call by the senators for increased bipartisanship and less polarization.
“We have to achieve bipartisan results in the Senate,” Cardin said.