Bentley off and running for House again

Ex-congresswoman's bid will center on national, economic security themes

May 22, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Trumpeting her experience and the Republican leadership's promise to give her a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley officially announced her candidacy for Congress yesterday on a windy pier at the port of Baltimore.

In her announcement before about 175 supporters, she laid out the theme of her campaign: homeland and economic security. With the backdrop of Fort McHenry and the giant cranes of the port, an institution that has been the center of her professional and public life, Bentley said that if elected, she'll work to protect domestic shipping and manufacturing to maintain the nation's strength and independence.

"Yes, it may be cheaper to turn in these arenas to countries who don't have minimum wage laws, who don't have our safety standards, but where will those countries be in times of crisis?" Bentley said.

There are many contrasts between Bentley and the front-running Democrat in Maryland's 2nd District race, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger; the most obvious one yesterday was in their approaches to issues.

Ruppersberger, after eight years as Baltimore County executive, focuses on how the federal government affects local issues. Bentley, having served five terms in Congress, displays a more federal, even international, perspective.

In his announcement speech last month, Ruppersberger mentioned the need for a prescription drug benefit for seniors, as Bentley also did yesterday. Otherwise, he talked about the need for the federal government to work more closely with local government.

Bentley, not one to mince words, was oblique in her criticism of Ruppersberger on this point.

"Some people would have you believe that being a congressperson is about going down to Washington and grabbing all the money you can squeeze into your hands to fill potholes in your district," Bentley said. "My view is that the first and foremost duty of a congressperson is to have a national vision for America's future."

U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, was on hand to introduce Bentley and support her bid for the seat he now holds. He was more direct in his questioning of Ruppersberger's campaign strategy.

"This is not a county executive job," Ehrlich said. "This is a federal job with worldwide perspective, especially in times of war."

Ruppersberger said yesterday that he will be addressing more traditional national issues as the campaign goes on, but he maintained that many of the things Bentley talked about - homeland and economic security, in particular - have a lot to do with local government.

One of the major issues he's worked on in the last year, he said, is securing federal money for police, fire and health departments to prepare for terrorist attacks.

"I've been working on both state and federal issues for a long time," Ruppersberger said. "The difference is, in the last eight years, I've been running this county and making decisions every day that affect our security, education, economy, whatever. But the locals can't do it without federal and state help."

He said, "Sometimes fixing potholes comes from federal transportation money."

In addressing the same issues of economic and homeland security, Bentley displayed a more federal perspective, focusing on the need for reform in the Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep terrorists out of the country and for accounting and pension reform to avoid a repeat of the Enron debacle.

If Ruppersberger is focusing on different issues, "that's his problem," Bentley said. "Maybe he doesn't know about them."

Although she was careful to say bringing home federal dollars is a secondary priority, Bentley implied that she would be better at it than Ruppersberger. She highlighted a promise by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, to restore her seat and seniority on the House Appropriations Committee.

"I ask you, who better to look out for the interests of this district and state than a six-term congresswoman with a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, with seniority on the committee accrued from prior service, and with a friend sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and another in Annapolis?" she said.

Ruppersberger has one opponent so far in the Democratic primary, Oz Bengur, an investment banker from Ruxton. Bentley has none, but Patrick T. Welsh, a Dundalk real estate agent and former delegate, is considering entering the Republican primary race.

Unless she gets a primary opponent, Bentley said, she will hold off campaigning in earnest until later in the summer. For now, she said, she will concentrate on raising money.

The other distinction Bentley drew with Ruppersberger yesterday was age. Ruppersberger is 56, and Bentley is 78. To defuse the issue of whether she is too old to run for office, she echoed Ronald Reagan's response to the same question during the 1984 election, when he said he wouldn't hold his opponent's youth and inexperience against him.

"I'm not going to embarrass him because he doesn't know as much as I do," Bentley said. "I'm not going to embarrass my opponents by bringing up their lack of knowledge in national and international fields."

Bentley's supporters said yesterday that they valued her experience and didn't care about her age.

"If I could be like her at her age, I'd be blessed," said Lisa Hurka Covington, a longtime friend and supporter from Rodgers Forge. "The age issue doesn't matter. She's got it."

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