Bentley exercises considerable clout in battle for safe district

September 29, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Proposed new congressional district maps have been whirling past nervous legislative leaders here with such speed that details are difficult to remember.

One question, though, is never forgotten: "Has Helen seen this?"

Usually, the answer has been, "Yes," and often it has been, "It's Helen's plan."

Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, has emerged as a dominant figure in the ordeal of redistricting.

As a Republican fighting for her political life in a Democratic legislature, Mrs. Bentley has made herself a person whose wishes must be considered. She is the one incumbent member of Congress whose district could be more politically comfortable when the process is complete.

With the General Assembly virtually paralyzed by regional, legal and political difficulties, a district map heavily influenced by Mrs. Bentley's demands is pending in the state Senate.

A competing map, already passed by the House of Delegates, puts the 2nd District Republican in a new district -- but one that is increasingly Republican.

A new map is necessary to make certain that each member of the U.S. Congress represents approximately the same number of residents -- in Maryland's case, about 598,000. In addition to changes in population, increased Republican Party strength, court decisions and federal laws have made the process less flexible and increased the pressure.

Though the battle is not over, Mrs. Bentley has been winning by dint of hard work, by applying political leverage, by threats and by recruiting powerful allies such as Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"She is absolutely the best poker player of the lot. Her interests are driving the whole thing," said a Democratic adviser to the governor.

"I give Helen Bentley credit," agreed House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole of Hagerstown. "She has been able to crank up the machinery, the talk shows, the petition drives, and her staff is everywhere."

She hired buses to bring voters to a public hearing. She bought them box lunches. She wheeled boxes of signed petitions into a public hearing with a hand cart. She made the 11 o'clock news. Talk shows began to adopt her as the prime victim of redistricting.

"She is taking advantage of the natural upheaval that this process brings," Mr. Poole said.

The courts have ruled that minority districts must be created when they are possible. Maryland will add such a district this year in the Washington suburbs. That means Maryland's predominantly Democratic black voters will be concentrated in two districts. The remaining six districts are necessarily less Democratic -- and therefore almost any new map will be more Republican.

For Democratic incumbents, the new districts will not only be new but also less predictable -- a matter of concern to Democrats whose election prospects have often been cushioned a wide Democratic edge in voter registration.

When the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee announced its first plan, Mrs. Bentley had been thrown into a district with Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st.

Mrs. Bentley said she would never run against her Republican colleague -- and went to work making sure that would not be necessary.

From the beginning, Mrs. Bentley has threatened to run against U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., if her new district did not suit her.

Almost immediately, Senator Mikulski came to her aid. A plan that separated Mrs. Bentley from the port of Baltimore, which she has promoted for years, was a violation of decency as well as the precepts of democracy, the senator said.

She has threatened some of her colleagues in the House as well. Since the U.S. Constitution does not impose a residency requirement on candidates for Congress, Mrs. Bentley could run in any district she chooses. The new Republicanism makes her a potential threat to virtually every congressman whose district has threatened to invade hers.

Under various plans, Mrs. Bentley has been thrown into districts with Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, or she has loomed as an opponent for Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd. Though Mr. Cardin and Mr. McMillen each say he is confident he could defeat Mrs. Bentley, both could be wrong. Neither would relish an expensive and wrenching battle with her.

"She has made several members of Congress very nervous," Mr. Poole said.

Last week, Democratic Majority Leader Poole reportedly went to the Bentley camp with a plan that would restore her district -- and strengthen it for her -- if she would agree not to run against Senator Mikulski.

Mr. Poole said he had not spoken to Ms. Mikulski, but he said that the senator's supporters in the legislature have been trying to keep Mrs. Bentley out of a race for the Senate.

Asked about his reported offer to Mrs. Bentley, Delegate Poole said, "My conversations with members of Congress have to remain private."

At the end of last week, though, a consensus seemed to be

forming in the assembly for a plan that would give Mrs. Bentley much of her old district, reaching from Essex and Dundalk through part of Baltimore County and all of Harford and Cecil counties -- a district at least as hospitable to her as the one she represents now.

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