Bentley's campaign is unusually quiet CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

August 30, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

Republican Helen Delich Bentley says if she becomes governor, new jobs will flock to Maryland, violent thugs will be put behind bars to stay, and government expansion will grind to a halt.

What the five-term congresswoman does not say is precisely how she would accomplish such feats, nor how she would tackle the endless array of other thorny problems facing Maryland's next governor. Details are not what her campaign has been about.

Instead, her disciplined race has locked in on a single objective: winning in November. Her message has been crisp -- pro-business, anti-crime, fiscally conservative -- and intentionally uncluttered by specifics opponents might attack.

Mrs. Bentley's handlers have concluded it is politically safer to hide their candidate than risk one of her famed slips of the tongue, or allow her rivals a chance to chip away at her big lead in the polls.

The normally outspoken 70-year-old from Lutherville has muzzled herself, resisting the temptation to reply to barbs from her opponents. She has ducked debates, deferred questions about her stances, kept her schedule a secret, and waged the lowest visibility campaign she could.

The people developing her television ads admit they are intentionally avoiding issues, emphasizing instead the traits that make their candidate likable, that have "gut feeling" appeal.

Don't worry, her image makers are telling voters. Helen Bentley is a fighter, a doer, a problem solver.

It all has been calculated to get her past the Sept. 13 primary without helping her two lesser known GOP rivals, Baltimore County Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey and retired diplomat William S. Shepard of Montgomery County.

Mrs. Bentley says it is no big deal: Marylanders know who she is.

"I think I have a very public record that goes back a period of 40 or 50 years in Maryland. And I haven't changed in that time," said the woman who spent 24 years as a maritime writer for The Sun, chaired the Federal Maritime Commission under Richard M. Nixon, ran her own import-export business, and is completing her 10th year representing Harford and Baltimore counties in Congress.

But by waging such a stealth campaign, Mrs. Bentley has failed to present the electorate with any grand plan to move the state forward. Even her most repeated claim -- that as governor she would erase Maryland's anti-business reputation and create -Z more jobs -- is virtually devoid of the details of how to accomplish that.

Her message seems to be: "Trust me! The specifics will come later."

Mrs. Bentley's story is inseparable from her half-century involvement with and advocacy for the port of Baltimore, a passion developed as a reporter but linked to every major achievement in her life.

She plays up her role as the head-knocking negotiator who mediated countless labor disputes on the docks, the one who forced longshoremen to rid Baltimore of its reputation as the only port that refused to work in the rain.

Angered that Democratic Rep. Clarence Long was costing the port jobs by blocking on environmental grounds the dredging of the Baltimore shipping channel, the tenacious, self-described "Fighting Lady" challenged him in three successive elections. She won in 1984, and got the federal money to dig out the channel the next year.

Allegiance to port

Her allegiance to steamship lines, stevedores and other port industries also helps explain the strident protectionist views she has championed in Congress, her Japan-bashing, her opposition the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and her flag-waving pitch to "buy American."

She has steered Navy jobs to her district's Bethlehem Steel shipyard and helped to persuade Martin Marietta to stay in Middle River. Admirers marvel at both her energy and influence, recalling how she once flew to Hong Kong to help persuade a major shipping line to move its business from Norfolk to Baltimore. She stayed for dinner and lunch the next day, then flew home.

In 1987, she made "Bentley" a household word in Japan by smashing a Toshiba radio with a sledgehammer outside the U.S. Capitol. The stunt was a protest of Toshiba's sale to Moscow of high-tech machinery that could help Soviet submarines elude detection. Seven years later, state economic development officials still worry that a Governor Bentley might have trouble conducting foreign trade with Asia.

In Congress, she has voted against expanding abortion rights for women. She also was the only member of Congress from Maryland to vote against the 1990 civil rights bill (which banned employment discrimination) and is the only one to have no blacks or Hispanics on her staff.

She has voted against gun control measures, often after saying publicly she would support them.

By contrast, Howard A. Denis, the state senator she picked to be her lieutenant governor, favors abortion rights and gun control. His solid base in vote-rich Montgomery County seems to have been more important than his views.

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