Bentley kickoff is uncharacteristically nervous

November 11, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Staff Writer

"If you hear my knees knocking, they are," Helen Delich Bentley said yesterday morning as she took the podium for the waterfront news conference that began her gubernatorial campaign.

It was an uncharacteristic admission for a woman who has had many adjectives applied to her over nearly a half-century as a reporter, editor, Federal Maritime Commission chairwoman, politician and member of Congress. Words like indefatigable, intimidating, demanding. Words like compassionate and trailblazing. And some words that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

Nervous isn't one of those words.

Helen Delich came to Baltimore in 1945 as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun at a time when few women were hired in newsrooms. Soon, she was covering the waterfront, another male domain. She earned the respect of those she covered by going toe-to-toe with the toughest of them -- longshoremen, union leaders and shipping executives alike.

One of the devices she used was a vocabulary that was salty by any standard. In 1969, covering the first voyage of a commercial ship attempting the Northwest Passage, she used "a common Anglo-Saxon expletive" on ship-to-shore radio, a call that got reporters barred from using the radio.

Over nearly a quarter-century at The Sun, Mrs. Bentley earned a reputation as an ardent advocate for the Port of Baltimore and the American merchant marine, a reputation that served her well in her subsequent political career.

But her use of maritime connections has raised questions of conflict of interest from time to time.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, she drafted a position paper for Richard M. Nixon on the maritime industry that helped him win the backing of maritime unions.

Mr. Nixon rewarded her with the chairmanship of the Maritime Commission, making her the highest ranking woman in the administration.

Awaiting confirmation in 1969, she acknowledged that she had done extensive publicity work for two maritime trade groups while she worked for The Sun. She also admitted that some sponsors of her weekly television show were companies and organizations that she covered as a reporter.

At the quasi-judicial commission, she contacted shipping executives she regulated to seek help for the Maryland GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1970.

In 1972, she delivered $20,000 in campaign contributions from two New York shipowners to Maurice H. Stans, the Nixon campaign finance chief, shortly before campaign finance laws were tightened. And, in 1974, considering a Senate bid, she asked shipping interests for help.

Speaking of the $20,000 contributions, she said at the time, "I was asked to deliver a political contribution, and I did it. I am a political animal."

In 1974, her five-year term expiring, she announced plans to leave the commission.

She next operated an international consulting business out of her Lutherville home and spent the next decade in what a supporter once called her "wilderness years." She ran for Congress against 2nd District incumbent Clarence D. Long in 1980. Typically dogged, she came back after that defeat to run against him two more times, finally defeating the 11-term, 75-year-old Democrat in 1984.

She has combined good constituent service with conservative political positions and strong union backing -- a product of her years covering the waterfront -- to appeal to the blue-collar, white-collar andsilk-stocking sections of her district.

Mrs. Bentley hasn't mellowed during nine years on Capitol Hill. She has been passionate in pursuing pet causes. She smashed a Toshiba boom box in front of photographers at the Capitol in 1987, an event that established her in the eyes of Americans as a severe critic of American trade policy.

She is a leading GOP opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

She brags that she has never voted for a tax increase. But, she takes a less doctrinaire line toward spending, working diligently to bring federal dollars to her district.

The daughter of Serbian immigrants, Mrs. Bentley became the lone congressional voice supporting Serbia as Yugoslavia fell apart and the world learned of Serbian atrocities. She defended her activities but has lowered her profile on Serbia.

She has been married for 34 years to William R. Bentley, a genial antique dealer and former city public school teacher. Yesterday, as she read her announcement, Bill Bentley stood silently beside her, occasionally giving her a comforting pat on the back. It must have worked.

She didn't mention knocking knees at her Rockville news conference later in the morning.

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