Thoughtful unknown takes on Bentley in 2nd District

On Maryland Politics

October 31, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

MARYLAND'S DEMOCRATIC PARTY dominates statewide offices and the legislature. But in the 2nd District House race, neither the state party nor its Baltimore County organization were willing to back a challenge to the three-term incumbent, Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. Neither was party leader Gov. William Donald Schaefer eager to find opposition for the state's senior GOP office-holder. Schaefer and Bentley actually have a cozy political relationship based on mutual respect.

So Bentley isn't leading any Republican charge against Schaefer. And the governor hasn't campaigned for the Democrat who is opposing her. The party nominee, Ronald P. Bowers, may be this year's best, most thoughtful unknown.

Bowers, 58, is a retired federal worker and father of four, grandfather of two. He worked for the Social Security System, 10 years in budget management and 15 in planning and general management. Over the last several years, he has studied Bentley's performance and became "disillusioned" with her voting record. He believes that she is "not representative of most people in this district, and certainly not me."

Yet only when he learned no major Democratic candidate had filed against Bentley did Bowers enter the race. "If someone like [former Baltimore County Executive] Don Hutchinson had come

along, I would have dropped out," he said. Since 1986, when Bentley defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend 59 percent to 41 percent in a then unprecedented $1 million plus campaign, big-name Democrats have shied away from the GOP incumbent.

Bowers will have to depend on the electorate's throw-the-rascals-out mood to score an upset or even a respectable showing. Unlike Bentley and most incumbents, he refuses to accept contributions from political action committees or even open their mail. Bowers take only personal campaign donations. He's been reduced to a shoe-string campaign that has spent less than $2,000. So there are no big signs, bumper stickers or mass mailings. Instead, the candidate attends political forums and other such meetings sponsored by various community associations.

He is critical of the news media, particularly newspapers, for concentrating on the horse race aspect of campaigns rather than reporting the candidates' positions on issues. Challengers, he finds, are too often "treated as irrelevant, while incumbents are glorified through their own press releases, which editors and reporters accept without analysis." Bowers believes the newspaper coverage of his current race provides "sufficient proof" of this theory.

Bowers is challenging Bentley's expertise on maritime policy. Her advocacy of protectionism, he insists, amounts to little more than reliance on out-dated, ineffective policies. If Bentley's polices were adopted, he argues, on result would be higher prices. If imports were cut as Bentley wants, for example, the Port of Baltimore would suffer grievously: Two-thirds of its work load comes from imports.

From the time she headed the Maritime Commission, Bowers charges, Bentley has failed to come up with any kind of long-range maritime policy. The inability of the American merchant fleet to meet the needs of the U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf suggests the failure of Bentley's approach, he believes. For example, Bowers says a Bentley bill, H.R. 3335, would have required all military supplies to be transported only on U.S. vessels.

"How would we supply our forces in the Middle East if the military prohibition were enacted?" Bowers asked. The Pentagon ultimately blocked the bill and it was shelved.

Of 10 Bentley-sponsored bills in her own Maritime Committee, Bowers concluded that most stressed "negative and protective regulation" of the shipping industry, not the development of positive strategies for the future. Bowers favors "subsidized new, efficient cargo carriers and/or direct ownership of such ships by the government."

Bowers sees congressional ethics "in a state of collapse." He proposes banning all PAC contributions and eliminating newsletters so that taxpayers would no longer in effect have to pay for an incumbent's campaign. Bowers also calls for ending the "deceptive practice" of incumbents "announcing government contracts, grants and similar executive agency actions" as if their efforts were "essential" to winning said contracts or grants. "In fact," Bowers said, "if a representative or senator interfered with some of these processes, he or she could be guilty of corruption, as in the Wedtech, HUD and the S & L scandals."

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