Will Bentley take GOP to the top?

THE POLITICAL GAME

June 30, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Reports that Helen Delich Bentley has all but decided to run for governor in 1994 are supported by the brave assertions of GOP leaders that she is the party's best choice.

National Committeeman Richard Taylor says the 2nd District representative is "absolutely" the best candidate his party has to offer. People, he says, "equate Helen with jobs." During the Reagan-Bush years, for example, she brought government refitting contracts to the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard.

In recent weeks, Mrs. Bentley sent party leaders poll results that showed her defeating every Democratic contender -- except Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The pointed inclusion of a favorable poll and the letter accompanying it set an unmistakable "tone," says Richard Sossi, Queen Anne's County chairman.

"I think she's going to do it," he said Monday just before the Republican's annual Red, White and Blue Dinner in Baltimore.

While some in the GOP talk of 1994 as their "dream" year, Mrs. Bentley can hardly contain her annoyance with what she sees as a lack of understanding of what it takes to win.

Some would exclude Democrats from the victory equation -- in a state where Republicans are still outnumbered two to one. They see Mrs. Bentley as gallingly close to the Democrats, particularly Gov. William Donald Schaefer. She cannot believe the party is strong enough to win without Democratic help. Party leaders who see 1994 as a coming-out year want to win on their own.

"In her heart of hearts she wants to run," says David Blumberg, chairman of the party's Baltimore Central Committee and a Bentley loyalist. He, too, declares his belief that she would be the GOP's best choice. "I don't think anyone disputes that. Who else has her energy?"

The affable Mr. Blumberg knows, though, that many prefer someone else.

Critics say Mrs. Bentley only wants to be the candidate because she can't bear the thought of relinquishing her role as titular head of the party. If someone else were elected governor, that person would lead the party. And this year, the GOP thinks victory is possible.

HTC Mrs. Bentley's handling of campaign funds has occasionally created problems for the party in the past. She steadfastly denies it, but party sources say she presided over the creation of committees to quietly finance Election Day activities involving, for example, Democratic organizations in Baltimore.

This year, she has raised several hundred thousand dollars for a re-election campaign -- money that cannot be used in a state election without violating state regulations. Party officials publicly say they think the problem can be solved but privately express fears she might try to convert the money, creating the sort of issue that can sink a slate.

"I think there are ways to use it -- legal ways, creative ways, party-building ways," says Party Chair Joyce Lyons Terhes, preparing the ground.

Mrs. Bentley, meanwhile, is weighing other important factors. Can she raise the $3 million to $4 million she would need? Would she be willing to give up her seat in Congress?

"She's got a safe seat," Mrs. Terhes says. "She's on the Appropriations Committee." Will she risk all of this?

The chairman's comments seem more sympathetic to Mrs. Bentley than to her candidacy:

"She really wants to do it. Here she is 70 years old. How better to cap your career than by being the state's first woman governor?" Eighty-eight-year-old Mildred Lyons of Dunkirk says adherence to principle is a secret of long life.

And she has adhered to one of hers -- voting Democratic -- against the most extreme pressure. Her daughter is Mrs. Terhes, a Calvert County commissioner as well as state GOP chairman. Mrs. Terhes has been a leader in a successful effort to increase the party's registration in Maryland. But nothing she has said or done deters her mother's basic voting instincts.

"When I ran for county commissioner I said, 'Mother, aren't you going to change registration?' "

"No," said Mrs. Lyons.

"But what if I lose by one vote?"

"You'll just have to work hard enough so that won't happen," her mother replied.

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