Both candidates sailing warily in Bentley's wake

October 13, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The ghost of Helen Bentley hangs over those who would take her place: Gerry Brewster and Robert Ehrlich, two lean and hungry types trying to make the jump from Annapolis to Bentley's congressional seat and hoping not to trip over their own history, or hers.

Brewster gets hit with the rich-kid business. Ehrlich's faced questions about his voting on asbestos cases. Brewster's always reminded about his father, the former U.S. senator who's allegedly reliving his own career through his son. Ehrlich catches flak for his votes against gun control, and Brewster's ripped for backing it.

Both men wonder: With a month left until Election Day, how will their records play with those who voted repeatedly for Bentley?

This afternoon, Ehrlich brings Bob Dole to town for a quick drum-roll. Already, he's had Newt Gingrich here. The publicity's automatic, the money follows, and the conservative embrace strikes a chord with those who always backed Bentley.

Same with gun control. Ehrlich's votes against two pieces of legislation enraged the gun control advocates: one to ban assault pistols such as Uzis, the other to require gun owners with small children to keep the weapons unloaded or locked up.

VTC "Bad legislation," Ehrlich says. "We're just creating a new class of criminal, called law-abiding citizens."

Disgraceful, says Vinny DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. "Ehrlich's one of the leaders of the gun lobby's forces in Annapolis, opposing every reasonable gun law we've proposed."

Ehrlich says he voted against the bill to keep guns out of the hands of children because "if a kid accidentally shoots himself, this means you have to tell the parents, 'We have some bad news for you. Not only is your child dead, but we have to prosecute you for not locking up the gun.' "

"Ridiculous," says DeMarco. "That's like saying you shouldn't have child safety seats in cars. The purpose is to prevent these tragedies."

Brewster's stood up to the gun lobby but now worries it could cost him the election. All over the 2nd Congressional District, there are gun stores with Ehrlich campaign signs in the windows. The National Rifle Association has bankrolled Ehrlich. Does it matter?

Whatever its conservative leanings -- as witness the Bentley popularity -- DeMarco points out, "this district has a record of voting strongly for gun control."

Ehrlich, who grew up in Arbutus, says he's never forgotten his working-class roots. Brewster, he says, "has never even had a job in the private sector."

It's a charge Brewster's heard before. His father, Daniel Brewster, rode a war-hero record to a career on Capitol Hill, then saw it collapse under personal problems. Now, the cynics say, he's manipulating his son's career to relive his own.

"My father's contribution to this campaign," says Brewster, "is that he's digging holes to put up lawn signs. I don't ask his advice, and he doesn't give me advice."

Some have questioned Brewster's courage. He doesn't cast a vote, says a fellow Democrat, "without holding a wet finger in the air to see how the wind's blowing." Brewster points to his votes on guns and says they took guts.

Ehrlich's spent his private career as an attorney in a large firm. Though he says he's personally worked on just one asbestos-related case during his eight years in the legislature, the firm's known for defending corporations charged in asbestos cases.

Ehrlich's voting record raises eyebrows. He backed limits on punitive damages and, despite a tidal wave of legislative support, voted against extending the time limits for families of asbestos victims to file suit.

"The extensions were important," says State Sen. Norman Stone, who sponsored the legislation, "because some of these people's families had been told by their companies that they died of heart attacks or lung diseases not related to asbestos. By the time they found out the truth, it was too late to file suit."

Ehrlich says, "I have no specific recollections of those bills. If you're asking about conflict of interest, no one's ever, ever, ever accused me of conflict."

In fact, in political campaigns, accusations fly like shrapnel. The voters have another month to figure which ones leave a mark.

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