Age is just one obstacle Bentley would face

April 09, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THAT VOICE on the telephone, nasal and penetrating, lands across the ears with all the subtlety of a safe thrown down a flight of stairs.

"Michael," says Helen Bentley, the once-and-perhaps-future Republican candidate for Congress, "this is Old Lady Bentley."

Oops.

Immediately, I know where this is heading. A week before the phone call, there appeared in this very newspaper space, under my name, a column about political campaign possibilities in Maryland in the coming months. In the dim light of the second page of that column, buried beneath 12 paragraphs that preceded it, these sentences could be found for those who navigated their way that far:

"As for Bentley, she still holds considerable statewide respect. She was a figure of credibility for Republicans when there were almost none in the whole state. But, now in her eighth decade, there will inevitably be questions about her age and energy."

Or, to put it another way:

Oops.

With the phrase "Old Lady Bentley" still ringing in my ears, I attempt to explain, to mollify, to wave a white flag of surrender as fast as I can for mentioning such an apparently sensitive subject. Bentley hears none of it. Her words overwhelm mine.

"Age, you can hold against me," she says. "Energy, you can't."

Point well taken. Bentley is 78, but moves with her familiar relentlessness. She's a political pit bull with a dockworker's vocabulary. Though she's been out of office for eight years now, since she gave up her congressional seat to run (unsuccessfully) against Ellen Sauerbrey for the Republican nod for governor, she has not exactly retired to knit doilies at Sunny Meadows. Bentley still does political lobbying, still has a consulting business, and says she still spends weekends working at her husband's antiques business.

With Rep. Robert Ehrlich committed to a run for governor, and his congressional seat open, the Republican most consistently mentioned is Bentley. Her name recognition is still high. And in private polls, she does reasonably well against the probable Democratic contender, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Sauerbrey does not. Ruppersberger beats her easily. And there is much talk of Republican backstage maneuvering to shove Sauerbrey aside and make it look like delicacy. The White House, concerned over congressional balance, is reportedly considering an ambassadorship for Sauerbrey. It would open the door for a Bentley run.

"Let's just say, there are some things that have to be worked out," Bentley is saying now. "But I'm certainly thinking about it."

This leaves her with more than a few problems. The first is Ruppersberger, ready to announce his candidacy this month. His eight years as Baltimore County executive have been productive and politically moderate. Even his detractors, who didn't like his style of trying to muscle improvements into the east side of the county, acknowledge that he's paid more attention to aging, run-down areas than any executive in memory.

Last weekend, in ceremonies at the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, Ruppersberger unveiled plans for marinas, parks and residential villages along a revitalized section of Dundalk waterfront. That's a triumph waiting to be trumpeted.

Bentley's second problem is her party. Eight years ago, in the midst of the Gingrich revolution that spawned those such as Ehrlich, Bentley was perceived as being "not conservative enough." Right-wing Republicans undercut her campaign against Sauerbrey. It left Bentley embittered toward Sauerbrey and others in the party whose support she would need.

And a third issue would be that little matter mentioned above. It's not comfortable to talk about -- but it's there. This fall, Bentley will be 79 years old.

"You don't talk about Schaefer's age," she says.

She means William Donald Schaefer, and she's right. But Schaefer's got a rocking-chair job as state comptroller. Bentley would be buying into a serious political fight and, if she won, that Washington political grind, and that Washington traffic.

"Ugh," she finally concedes. "That Washington traffic. That is something to think about."

It can take years off a person's life. And that's a drag, no matter what your age.

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