THANKS to redistricting and a strong candidate, Maryland Democrats see their best chance in 20 years to win the 2nd Congressional District seat in November, but the party can take nothing for granted, not in that district and certainly not against their likely opponent, Helen Delich Bentley.
Democrats have always had a numerical advantage in the district, which centers around the east side of Baltimore County, but they have lost nine times in a row, first to Bentley and later to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is stepping aside to run for governor.
And now Bentley is back, at age 78, but still a formidable force.
This year, the seat is a must-win for Democrats -- it's one of a handful of races nationwide that will determine the balance of power in Congress. They have their strongest candidate in years in Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and with the once-a-decade redistricting process, Gov. Parris N. Glendening wielded considerable power to bring the seat back for his party.
Hoping to help Ruppersberger, who is limited to two terms as county executive, Glendening reshaped the district, taking it from a 53 percent-to-36 percent edge for Democrats over Republicans to a 64-25 advantage. Furthermore, racial and ethnic minorities, who are typically the Democratic Party's most loyal voters, make up about 30 percent of the district.
But over the last two decades, Democrats have always had the edge in voter registration and still lost by wide margins.
"It's always been a district Democrats can win, but as you know, voting performance is another issue," said David R. Paulson, the state Democratic Party's communications director. "Registration is not indicative of the nature of the battle."
Ehrlich said that based on the numbers, his colleagues in the House have had a hard time believing him when he's called his district "one of the safest Republican seats in the country." For the last 10 years, he said, it has been dominated by independent-thinking, moderate and conservative Democrats who have voted for Republican candidates.
The new lines, he acknowledged, make it much harder.
"Dutch, Parris, they cut a deal, and this deal stinks," he said. "It's what a monopoly does. What they didn't figure on was Helen Bentley."
In her five victories, Bentley routinely topped 70 percent of the vote. Her feisty populism and devotion to the port, shipping and manufacturing appealed to Democrats steeped in the blue-collar history of Baltimore County's east side.
"If you look at the politics and makeup of that district then and probably even now ... a lot of Bentley's support comes from Democrats and comes from her strength on the east side because of her ties with labor and the port and everything else," said County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Democrat who considers his 1988 congressional loss to Bentley a major learning experience.
Also appealing in the homeland of the county's old Democratic machine was the fact that Bentley was never one to put her party ahead of the interests of her constituents.
The national party, desperate to hang on to Congress, has shown great enthusiasm for Bentley's candidacy, pledging to restore her seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee if she wins.
Coolness of GOP
But Maryland Republican officials haven't made as large a show of support for her as Democrats have for Ruppersberger. Two explanations are possible for this, both likely valid.
One is that Bentley's unwillingness to toe the party line over the years has angered some Republicans. The other is that because of her personality and the politics of the district, a show of party strength is not important to her.
When Bentley announced her candidacy for Congress last week, Ehrlich was on hand to support her, but hardly any other Republican elected officials showed up.
Others were invited but couldn't come for various reasons -- for example, Douglas B. Riley, the party's candidate for county executive, was picking up his daughter after her freshman year of college, and Del. James F. Ports Jr., once considered a candidate for the congressional seat, had a mandatory training session at work that morning.
The really important thing for Bentley's schedulers was to make sure Ehrlich could be there. Everything else was secondary.
Contrast of approaches
By contrast, Ruppersberger's daylong announcement extravaganza was a nonstop parade of politicians, including both of Maryland's U.S. senators, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and an ever-changing array of County Council members, state senators and delegates. He mustered the public endorsements despite a contested primary against Oz Bengur, an investment banker from Ruxton.
Bentley's detractors in both parties said the distinction was no coincidence.