Another hurrah for Bentley at 78

May 12, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

NOW COMES Helen Delich Bentley. Again.

At 78, the crustiest woman in Maryland politics has let it be known she will run for the 2nd District Maryland congressional seat being vacated by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Ehrlich is running for governor.

Just when we thought a new generation was emerging in the Maryland Republican Party, Bentley re-emerges to prove it ain't so.

Not that anyone in the party is complaining. The GOP poohbahs in Washington are so excited that they've promised Bentley that if she wins she would reclaim her seniority and her seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee in Congress where she served five terms from 1985 to 1995.

That's a valuable promise. If the Republicans maintain their thin majority in the House and Bentley is elected, she would wield a lot of influence as a member of the appropriations committee.

Her likeliest opponent in this year's general election would be C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Democratic Baltimore County executive, who would enter Congress with little influence as a freshman member of the minority party.

For the moment, the most important factor in the GOP promise to Bentley is that it enables her to attract campaign donations as if she were an incumbent.

Lots of wealthy interests no doubt will pour money into her campaign. Add that to the financial support she'll get from people who want to make sure the 2nd District stays Republican, and lots of help should be flowing to the Bentley campaign.

Not many people at the age of 78 get another crack at the prize, or even try. But Bentley's return to the political arena should provide some gritty entertainment in a realm that's become awfully boring. Bentley is a throwback to the old days of Maryland politics, when men were b'hoys and deals were made in smoke-filled back rooms.

She was the maritime editor of The Sun when I arrived here as a cub reporter in 1969. In a newsroom dominated by men, she could out-tough and out-cuss any of them. Her nickname - to her face, at least - was Tugboat Helen. Her identification with the port of Baltimore and all the people, high and low, who made it function, was legendary.

Soon afterward, she became chairman ("not chairwoman, PLEASE," she would say) of the Federal Maritime Commission. President Richard M. Nixon appointed her with a nudge, no doubt, from that Good Ole Maryland B'hoy, Spiro T. Agnew, who was vice president at the time, as yet unindicted.

In her life as a news hound and a politician, the port of Baltimore has been paramount. And she has done much good for the port.

Other events in Bentley's career come to mind as she goes for the gold again at an age which would seem old anywhere but in the U.S. Congress.

One is the time in 1972, when she was chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission and collected money from shipping interests to deliver to the Nixon re-election campaign organization appropriately known as CREEP. This was a blatant conflict of interest, of course, but Bentley acted as if she didn't get it.

"I was asked to deliver a political contribution, and I did it," she explained at the time. "I am a political animal."

Then there was the matter of her association with Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian dictator now on trial for war crimes in The Hague, Netherlands. Bentley is of Serbian ethnic origin.

In the early days of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the beginning of Milosevic's barbaric rampage in Croatia and Bosnia, Bentley spent time with him. She said she told Milosevic that he should let up, but pointed out at the time that the Yugoslav conflict had its seeds in 600 years of history and that Serbs weren't the only ones committing atrocities. Whatever her true sentiments might have been, the Serbian-American community poured money into her campaign.

And the matter of where Bentley stands on gun control, something a little closer to the hearts of Marylanders. In 1988, Bentley told constituents she was going to vote for the so-called Brady amendment which would require a seven-day waiting period for gun-permit applicants. Then she voted against it - explaining that it was a goner anyway. Then in 1993, she promised to vote for a bill banning 19 types of automatic weapons. But she voted against the bill.

This time, she asserted, a mistake had been made by the machinery which recorded votes on the bill, because she was sure she had voted for it. To her credibility, if not her credit, Bentley was refusing contributions from the National Rifle Association at the time.

Finally, there is the matter of Helen Delich Bentley vs. the former Empire of Japan.

Bentley's hatred of Japan is deep-seated. She has expressed it over and over. On July 1, 1987, in one of her most highly publicized outbursts of venom, she stood on the steps of the Capitol and bashed to smithereens a Toshiba radio cassette player.

Evoking Pearl Harbor, she howled, "Treachery by any other name is still treachery. But if it had another name, it would be Toshiba."

The issue of the moment was the Toshiba Corp.'s transfer of submarine technology to the Soviet Union.

What a great day that was for America! Today, the Japanese economy is in the tank and the Soviet Union is dead. And Helen Delich Bentley is very much alive and kicking.

Who knows if she will win. Whatever the outcome, it will not be a boring contest.

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