What a race it would be!

Frank A. DeFilippo

July 05, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

PICTURE, if you can, an election contest between two of the toughest women in the U.S. Congress -- Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.

Don't bet last week's winning Lotto ticket on it just yet, but such a grudge match could happen. Bentley could be victimized by hit-and-run congressional redistricting, and she's threatened to run against Mikulski if that happens.

Maryland should get so lucky. For a contest between Democrat Mikulski and Republican Frank A.DeFilippoBentley would be one the most closely watched Senate races in the country for many reasons. Foremost among them is the personality of the two women.

Mikulski is a street-savvy former social worker who earned her chevrons as a community organizer in East Baltimore. As apprenticeship for the U.S. Senate, Mikulski served in the Baltimore City Council from 1971 to '76 and 10 years in the House of Representatives.

Mikulski won the Democratic primary for the Senate in 1974 over a popular returned Vietnam prisoner of war, Bernard L. "Bunny" Talley, and narrowly lost the general election to Republican Charles McC. Mathias Jr. When Mathias retired in 1986, Mikulski won her Senate seat by defeating the conservative Republican, Linda Chavez, in a bitter contest.

Mikulski's scrappy, smart and has one of the sharpest tongues in the Senate.

Bentley's no shrinking violet, either. She's a former maritime report for The Sun who once turned the air blue with her curses over a ship-to-shore radio. She's since washed her mouth out with soap.

Bentley served as Federal Maritime Commission chairman and ran for her 2nd District House seat twice, in 1980 and 1982, before finally defeating Clarence D. Long in 1984. By dint of her connections to the Republican White House, Bentley is arguably the most powerful member of the Maryland delegation, in effect Maryland's third senator.

Mikulski is Polish, and Bentley's Serbian. And both are enormously popular with their constituents.

What would make the match-up even more interesting, though, is the amount of money as well as national media attention the contest would generate. The national Republican Party would concentrate much of its energy and money on defeating Mikulski, while the Democrats would have to cough up big bucks to save her.

Both Mikulski and Bentley do well with political action committees, too. Mikulski has close ties to the Polish community across the country as well as with the network of women's groups with national money-pulling power. And Bentley, as former maritime commissioner and shipping consultant -- she was a columnist and editor of World Ports magazine through much of the '80s -- has close ties to the maritime industry at home and abroad.

But what the potential struggle of wills comes down to is this: Mikulski's viewed as a liberal Democrat and Bentley's a well-known conservative with close ties to President Bush, who's also running next year. Republican registration is on the way up, Democrats are on the way down. And as the world turns topsy-turvy, America's becoming more conservative, militaristic and racially polarized.

Governor Schaefer is the fulcrum here. He's a City Hall soulmate of Mikulski's from his days as mayor and hers as council member. But Schaefer's also especially close to Bentley. The Democratic governor attended the Republican representative's fundraisers last year and supported her re-election. In turn, Bentley said warm and fuzzy things about Schaefer.

Schaefer's legerdemain with jiggering the congressional districts could have a measurable effect on Bentley's decision to remain where she is or run against Mikulski.

Despite pressure from Republican grandees, those who know Bentley's political peccadilloes best say they would discourage her from running. Winning a statewide election requires tremendous organizational skills. Though Bentley's a tireless worker, insiders say she's reluctant to surrender campaign details to staffers and political professionals. And it's an article of faith and politics that it's impossible to be the candidate and the campaign manager at the same time. Anyone who tries will be terrible at both.

It's a dream race, all right, one that Maryland Republicans desperately want. But right now the threat is more of a warning by Bentley not to tamper with her 2nd Congressional District. Interestingly, that puts Mikulski's future in the hands of a Democratic governor and a Democratic General Assembly. They're the ones who'll draw the redistricting map that will determine whether Bentley decides to run.

If she does, the Senate race will be no sorority sister sock-hop.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics.

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