Pledges by GOP boost chances of Bentley run

Former representative would retain seniority, appropriations panel seat

`We again encourage her'

2nd District one of dozens considered important for control of Congress

May 06, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Although she has not publicly committed to running for Congress, former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley has asked for and received guarantees that she would get a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and retain her seniority if she won.

Such promises are standard procedure for both parties to entice potentially strong candidates to run. In a year when control of Congress is likely to hinge on a few dozen races around the country, the national Republican Party leadership has said it wants Bentley in the 2nd District race.

"This is a seat we're going to pay close attention to and help any Republicans interested in this. Helen has great name identification, and I think she reflects the views and values of the district very well," said Lea Anne McBride, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We again encourage her to enter this race."

The 2nd District seat is held by Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Bentley said she is interested in the race but has not decided whether to run.

Republican leadership has pledged to restore Bentley to her seat on the Appropriations Committee if she wins, said John McGovern, a spokesman in House Speaker Dennis Hastert's Chicago office. She served on the committee in her last term, and McGovern said she would maintain her two years of seniority there if elected.

"It's certainly very helpful to the people of Maryland if she is to be elected," McGovern said. "A freshman Democrat most likely would not have such an assignment."

The promises are expected to be significant factors in Bentley's decision on whether to re-enter elective politics. She is 78 years old and has been out of office since 1994.

At the same time, Bentley is interested in pursuing a number of issues in Congress. Michael S. Kosmas, chairman of her exploratory committee, said she would like to focus on national security and economic security, particularly as they relate to maritime issues.

"She thinks she can still do a lot," Kosmas said. "There aren't people talking about the issues in Washington she cares the most about."

Some area Republicans feel bitter about Bentley's refusal to endorse Ellen R. Sauerbrey after their hard-fought gubernatorial primary in 1994, saying that and other actions mark her as insufficiently loyal to the party. Most, however, say they are excited at the prospect of a Bentley candidacy.

The reason: She has won four times before and is well-known in the district. Local Republican leaders don't have anyone waiting in the wings.

"There is no Plan B," said Douglas B. Riley, the Republican candidate for Baltimore County executive. "I don't know quite what we would do, but I think she'll run."

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, announced his candidacy for the congressional seat a week ago. Another Democrat, Oz Bengur, filed for it in March.

A possible dark horse candidate for the Republicans is Patrick T. Welsh, 51, a Dundalk Realtor who was a delegate and state senator from 1975 to 1983.

He said he is seriously considering entering the Republican primary, regardless of whether Bentley runs. But he said he has just begun exploring the possibility and will run only if the race seems winnable.

"I'm going to spend time over the next few weeks talking to people and see where it takes me," he said.

At first, three high-profile Republicans were eyeing the seat. Sauerbrey, the former legislator and two-time gubernatorial candidate, bowed out for family reasons. Then, one week ago, Del. James F. Ports Jr. announced that he would run for County Council instead.

Ports said he was confident Bentley would run, although he had not been told so.

"I had to go on the assumption that it's a done deal for [Bentley], and that's why I decided to announce," Ports said. "We're a small farm team, and we need to put people in a position where we can win the game."

Others Republicans mentioned as possibilities disavow any interest.

Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., the House minority leader, said last week that he has no desire to run for Congress this year. The possibility that he could be minority leader with Ehrlich as governor is too good to pass up, he said.

And state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the only Republican senator in Baltimore County, said he thought about the race and decided to opt out.

"As of this time, all things point to Helen Bentley running. If she decides not to, I really have no idea who it might be," Harris said. "I'm hoping we don't get to that."

A common complaint among area Republicans is that their party has a "weak bench" -- that is, a lack of qualified up-and-comers who can compete for seats as they open up. Harris said that is not the case in the 2nd District, which lost many of its viable candidates in the once-a-decade redistricting process.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening redrew the district to make it more favorable to a Democrat. That meant not only including more Democratic precincts but also cutting out potentially strong Republican candidates, Harris said.

In the new maps, Harris said, he, Ports, Redmer and Sauerbrey all live slightly outside the district lines. Federal law doesn't require congressional candidates to live in the district they represent, but as a practical matter, some voters might be unwilling to elect someone who lives outside the boundaries, Harris said.

"Our bench is deep for Congress," he said. "But it's all in other districts."

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