Bentley eyes run for Congress again

She is seen raising odds GOP could keep Ehrlich's vacated seat

March 02, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Eight years after leaving Congress to campaign for governor, Helen Delich Bentley says she is considering running for her former seat in Washington.

"We're looking at things," she said yesterday. "We are looking at things, depending on what Mr. Ehrlich does."

U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County has said he might run for governor, which would leave his seat vacant. His final decision, he said, rests on making sure another Republican can replace him in the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a slim majority.

"As I've said, there are a number of Republican candidates who would keep the seat," Ehrlich said. "In the top tier of that group would be Helen."

Bentley, 78, also of Baltimore County, said she is confident the voters who live within the new contours of the proposed 2nd District would choose her. "It's a district that I think I could win in," she said. She represented the district from 1985 to 1994. A poll conducted last month by the National Republican Congressional Committee has boosted her confidence. It found that even after leaving office for nearly a decade, the majority of voters recognize her name and they have an even more favorable impression of her than of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who has said she also might run for the 2nd District seat.

The poll also showed that, apart from Ehrlich, Bentley is the only potential candidate who could beat Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, who has said he is seriously considering running for Congress.

However, that poll was based on an initial proposal for redrawing the state's eight congressional districts. Many Republicans believe the current version of the proposed map is even more advantageous to Bentley.

"The governor put together a map that strings together the port, the shipyard, the Coast Guard yard, the steel mills, Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground - these are all the institutions that she fought for for 10 years in Congress, when they weren't even hers," said Michael Kosmas, Bentley's former chief congressional aide.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's redistricting committee drew the new 2nd District with Ruppersberger in mind. But political observers say the commission also made sure the district appealed to Ehrlich - a possible enticement to keep him from choosing to run against the likely Democratic candidate in the governor's race, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Towsend.

Bentley said yesterday she was getting much encouragement, but that she would not run if Ehrlich did. In 1994, the tables were turned, and Ehrlich waited quietly while then-congresswoman Bentley weighed a gubernatorial run.

Her decision to jump in the Republican gubernatorial primary ended with a bitter primary defeat by Sauerbrey. This time, Ehrlich and fellow Republicans are doing everything they can to prevent a replay of that fight.

"Obviously I do not think a primary is healthy in this case," said Ehrlich. "I have pretty strong views about this, actually."

So does Michael Steele, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. "I don't think that they would challenge each other," he said of Bentley and Sauerbrey. "I think it's a case of, if one doesn't, then the other one will."

But Sauerbrey, 64, who nearly cost Glendening the governor's seat in 1994, said yesterday a primary wouldn't stop her if she does decide to run. "It hasn't stopped me in the past," she said. "I don't think I've ever had a clear field."

Bentley served five terms in Congress, starting in 1985, and was considered tough and outspoken.

She says she's as energetic as ever. She has a consulting business, a lobbying business and an antiques shop she runs on weekends.

Staff writer Mark Matthews also contributed to this article.

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