Bentley is easing out of public eye Maryland GOP leader devoting more time to business ventures

'She is happier now'

She'll pass the baton to Sauerbrey in Aug.

July 01, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

True to form, the irascible Helen Delich Bentley picked up the phone the other day to issue a surly correction on her status with Maryland's Republican Party.

"I'm still the national committeewoman," Bentley growled at a reporter who had bestowed the honor prematurely on her archrival, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. "I'm not gone yet -- not until August. I'm still here kicking."

"Kicking" would be the operative word. Like a mule.

It has been the trademark of her professional life -- an orneriness that seems integral to the quirky, hard-boiled personality that has inspired, at once, her most loyal allies and her bitterest enemies.

But at 72, Helen Bentley is now in the final stretch of a political career that has spanned more than a quarter-century, in one form or another. And in August, she knows she'll have to finally let go of her last official link to the Maryland GOP.

When the Republicans hunker down for their national convention in San Diego, Bentley will give up her post as the state party's national committeewoman. At that point, the baton will be passed to Sauerbrey.

While the congresswoman-turned-lobbyist has kept her hand in politics since her bitter loss to Sauerbrey in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary, she has in fact been slowly easing herself out of the public eye and into the private business of making money.

She now says she doesn't miss politics -- or the rigors of public life.

"That's not the important thing to me anymore," she said. "The business thing is -- and I'm good at it," Bentley said.

Still, she stays busy, keeping an only somewhat diminished go-go schedule that was typical of her 10-year tenure on Capitol Hill.

After leaving her 2nd District congressional seat, considered hers for life, and in the wake of her ill-fated bid for governor, she formed Helen Bentley & Associates Inc., a sort of catch-all company dealing in "international trading, business development and government relations."

It is a new role, just on the periphery of politics.

"I'm in it enough but I don't miss the pressures," she said.

Associates agree that she seems less burdened.

"She is happier now than she ever thought she would be," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who succeeded her in Congress and kept the seat safe for the Republicans.

"She was not ready to leave public office when she did, but she is happier and looks better now, and most people who know her think this is a good turn for her, personally," Ehrlich said. "She certainly misses her friends in the House, but she doesn't miss the lifestyle -- you can see that on her face."

Enjoys time at home

Surprisingly, Bentley said she is actually enjoying more time at her Lutherville home.

"I've finally had the weekends to do things like get my house straight, after 25 years of neglect," she said in an uncharacteristic acknowledgment of a personal life. "I've finally gotten into my closets, finding clothes I never knew I had -- and can't get into now, of course.

"I can even go into the store in a pair of slacks and not worry about it," Bentley said. "I can walk on the street with my dog in a pair of shorts, which I never did before.

"I didn't realize how much freedom there was," she said.

But freedom is in the eyes of the beholder.

She may have her weekends clear, but the 12- to 14-hour workdays have not stopped.

Most of her days last week, for instance, began with business breakfasts, including a meeting with the Ehrlich re-election campaign's finance committee, and ended just before midnight.

This week, she is flying off for a two-week foray into India and China, her second in as many years, as a go-between for a manufacturing agreement. Earlier this year, she was in Ecuador trying to finalize a spice deal for Baltimore's McCormick & Co.

She still enjoys the occasional speaking engagement. Last month she gave the commencement address to a group of Johns Hopkins University graduate students.

Lobbying in Congress

And she is back in the halls of Congress -- lobbying on behalf of special interests, her clients. Among them, the Port of Baltimore.

Now in her second year as a consultant to the port -- making $84,000 this year, up $9,000 from last, under a contract with the state -- Bentley finds herself taking up many of the issues she took up as a congresswoman.

The difference is, she said, "Now I'm getting paid for a lot of what I did in Congress for free."

These days, she runs operations out of her former campaign headquarters on York Road in Lutherville, surrounded by scads of memorabilia.

On the walls, there are autographed pictures of her with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush, photos of ships in and around her beloved port, cartoons of her as the cantankerous congresswoman. Around the room are plates and plaques, mugs and magazines.

On the mantle are busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and an old-fashioned, stand-up telephone.

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