Bentley's Early Stumbles

November 17, 1993

What a way to start an election campaign! First, Rep. Helen D. Bentley accidentally votes the wrong way on a gun-control measure, then she brashly claims a business leader offered her a bribe for her vote on the free-trade agreement -- only to recant everything within hours. It marked an inauspicious beginning for what is certain to be a long and intense campaign for governor of Maryland.

Mrs. Bentley's opponents gleefully pounced on her missteps, pummeling her from all sides. The Baltimore County Republican is the best-known candidate in the governor's race and will have to get used to being the target of political attacks. But in these two instances, she has no one to blame but herself.

For an experienced politician to make such flubs is surprising. It raises questions about Mrs. Bentley's judgment and her campaign style. Anyone who has been around a legislative body knows how easy it is to make a mistake and vote "no" when you mean to vote "yes" on a complex piece of legislation. The harm to Mrs. Bentley occurred when she sought an alibi rather than simply admitting, "I goofed." To blame it on a mechanical foul-up that has never, ever happened in the history of electronic voting in the House makes her look foolish.

As for the alleged bribe offer, the congresswoman all but admitted later on that she stretched the truth. No bribe -- "way up in the six figures for my gubernatorial campaign," as she originally charged -- actually took place. In fact, nothing of the sort occurred beyond a comment from someone that Mrs. Bentley might pick up campaign contributions by voting the right way on the North American Free Trade Agreement. That's a far cry from an illegal vote-buying offer. Mrs. Bentley shouted "Fire!" and then denied ever seeing a spark.

These early stumbles send a message to Mrs. Bentley that from now on she had better take care when she opens her mouth or tries to alibi her way out of embarrassing situations. Maryland voters expect more from their candidates for governor. They don't want dissembling. They want candidates whose judgment they feel they can trust.

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