Honors for Bentley stalled Remembrance: Admirers of former Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley tried to name the Baltimore Beltway after her. But she hardly qualifies -- she's still alive.

September 27, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- From Helen Delich Bentley's perspective, immortality is not worth dying for.

Last week, some of her friends on Capitol Hill hatched a plan to name Baltimore's Beltway for the curmudgeonly former Baltimore County congresswoman.

But the proposal collapsed this week after members of the state's congressional delegation opposed the idea and legislative staff members learned that federal highways are named almost exclusively for dead people.

"I told them I do not intend to commit suicide to have a road named after me," an irritated Bentley said yesterday. As for the delegation members who opposed the "Bentley Beltway," she added: "You know what? To hell with them."

Proposals to name roads for politicians are usually among the least controversial in Washington. But the failure to name Interstate 695 for Bentley marks the second time in recent months that an attempt to name a public facility after her has fallen through.

During the summer, her successor, fellow Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., suggested putting her name on a new federal building in Baltimore County, but the proposal became mired in delegation politics. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat in whose district the building is located, said he was never informed of the proposal and scuttled it.

Other alternatives surfaced: Interstate 83, the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in northern Anne Arundel County and I-695. Last week, Ehrlich called Bentley to get her reaction.

Apparently still smarting from the loss of the federal building, which she fought to locate in Baltimore County, Bentley firmly rejected all three suggestions, then asked for time to reconsider.

She called back an hour later and said in her trademark growl: "I'll take the Beltway," according to Ehrlich's top aide, Steve Kreseski.

The notion that the stretch of asphalt and concrete that wraps around Baltimore might one day become synonymous with one of the state GOP's most colorful figure put smiles on the lips of many in Maryland congressional offices this week.

One staffer dubbed it the "Bentley Girdle." Another joked about building a statue of the congresswoman at the intersection of I-695 and I-83.

Maryland Republicans view the acid-tongued 72-year-old with a mixture of affection, amusement and consternation.

Bentley, a former Sun reporter who covered the waterfront beginning in the 1940s, eventually went on to serve five terms as a House member in the 1980s and 1990s. A political moderate, she led the fight to wrest control of the state party from religious conservatives and has been a staunch advocate for the port of Baltimore.

In 1987, she gained brief national celebrity when she smashed a Toshiba boom box with a sledgehammer on the Capitol steps to protest the company's sale of high technology machinery to Moscow. She gave up her congressional seat to make what proved to be an unsuccessful run for the 1994 GOP nomination for governor.

"She made herself a well-known personality," Ehrlich said.

Although he preferred to name a maritime facility for her, Ehrlich said he thought the Beltway was appropriate because Bentley had helped secure money for sound barriers along the highway.

But for some Democrats in the delegation, the thought of commuting along the "Bentley" was apparently too much.

"We think the naming of the Coast Guard [yard] would be appropriate," said Cummings' communications director, Anthony W. McCarthy. "She has a long history of being an advocate for maritime issues."

Eastern Shore Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that handles the naming of roads, declined to say who opposed the idea. He said he assumed that the opposition had something to do with the size of the road (mostly six lanes) and considerable length (nearly 52 miles).

The issue was rendered moot as word got around that -- when it comes to affixing one's name to a highway -- death is a standard precondition.

In a phone conversation Wednesday, Gilchrest suggested a Baltimore-area post office. Bentley asked him to drop the matter. Ehrlich said that when the situation cools, he will discuss other options with her.

As for Bentley, she says: "I don't plan to pursue a damn thing. I'm just going to let a couple of people know what I think of them."

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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