Rivals say Bentley is dodging forums CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

June 15, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

When U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley got into the race for governor last November, it was the things she said that kept getting her into trouble.

Now, with the Republican primary three months away, it's what Mrs. Bentley is not saying that has caught the attention of her rivals.

State Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey and retired diplomat William S. Shepard, her opponents in the Sept. 13 primary, criticized Mrs. Bentley yesterday for failing to show up at candidate forums and accused her of refusing to engage in an open debate of campaign issues.

Mr. Shepard, the party's 1990 nominee, sent reporters a list of 25 candidate forums held between February and June that he attended but Mrs. Bentley skipped.

"I see a deliberate pattern of avoidance," Mr. Shepard said, adding that he believes Mrs. Bentley may attempt to "sidestep that entire process" of public forums by running a campaign that relies solely on televi- sion advertising and direct mail solicitation.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, who became the first of the three GOP candidates to formally file for governor yesterday, challenged Mrs. Bentley to a series of debates and said, "It is time that Helen Bentley recognize she has a race on her hands. She's not going to make it to September the 13th without telling the voters what her ideas are, what she knows about the problems of the state, and what her vision is for how she wants to solve them.

"Let's talk about our records. Let's let the voters evaluate what we've done in the past, what our vision is for solving the problems of the state of Maryland."

The Bentley campaign responded by saying Mrs. Bentley has XTC been busy working in Congress and has attended as many events as time permitted.

Campaign consultant Gordon Hensley said the congresswoman has a full-time job -- something he said neither of her two complaining opponents can claim.

"We're doing the best we can to balance Mrs. Bentley's official duties with those of the campaign and will continue to do so," he said.

The Sauerbrey and Shepard camps are seeking ways to compete against the better known and better financed Mrs. Bentley, the front-runner in early polls.

"I, of course, concede she's an important congresswoman, and there are important votes to be taken," Mr. Shepard said. "But not on the weekends, and not in the evenings."

There also is an underlying belief among Bentley opponents that if the 70-year-old congresswoman appears in public more often, she is bound to say something she will regret. After all, she started her campaign that way.

When she announced her candidacy, she said she planned to vote for the Brady gun control bill in Congress later that day. When she instead voted against the bill, Mrs. Bentley at first said her vote had been recorded incorrectly by the House computer system -- something the House clerk said had never been known to happen. Later Mrs. Bentley conceded, "Maybe I goofed."

On the heels of that incident, she told a radio talk show audience that she had been offered a campaign contribution of more than $100,000 if she would end her opposition to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After realizing she had seemingly aired a bribe allegation that she had not reported to law enforcement authorities, Mrs. Bentley quickly backed off, saying she had never been offered any "direct monetary inducement" to switch her vote.

Since then, she has been an infrequent member of the traveling gubernatorial caravan, which has crisscrossed the state attending panel discussions of issues ranging from affordable housing to health care to education.

"I think it is very clear Mrs. Bentley has not been very visible," Mrs. Sauerbrey said.

To counter such charges, the Bentley campaign sent out its own list of 26 forums that Mrs. Bentley has attended since October. But a dozen of those events were Lincoln Day dinners thrown by local Republican Party central committees, and one was the state Republican Party's spring convention.

As for debates, Mr. Hensley said the congresswoman was not ruling them out.

"But we will do so on our time frame as stipulated by our campaign," he said. "Our campaign is under no obligation to help our opponents jump-start their campaigns."

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