Democrats hope to prevail over Bentley's Washington ties

Ruppersberger leads field of opponents, raising twice as much as House veteran

Election 2002

July 19, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

One evening last month in a ninth-floor conference room at 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. overlooking Washington's Mall, ex-congressmen and lobbyists milled around with hors d'oeuvres and glasses of wine, waiting to pay tribute - and campaign cash - to former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.

It's the kind of crowd expected for a former five-term representative trying a comeback in a year when control of the House of Representatives is expected to hinge on a few races.

Bentley's connections to the Washington establishment and her ability to capitalize on those ties are key factors separating her from the Democrats in the 2nd District race.

Campaign finance reports released this week show that those ties are paying off. She raised more money than Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Democratic front-runner, from current and former members of Congress and their political action committees. In the past three months, she has received $46,200 from those sources to Ruppersberger's $35,500, which includes $1,000 from Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton administration official who is running for Congress in Chicago.

But the overall value of her Washington connections remains to be seen. Ruppersberger has raised twice as much money, receiving more than Bentley from individuals and labor groups. And his supporters say Bentley is overplaying the importance of GOP promises that she would be given a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and that her seniority would be restored.

Ruppersberger is emphasizing his experience in county government and vowing to concentrate on issues of local importance, such as infrastructure and neighborhood revitalization.

Ruppersberger's chief antagonist in the primary, investment banker Oz Bengur, says he would push traditional Democratic issues such as education and access to health care.

But much of Bengur's campaign has focused on criticizing the county executive's record, particularly a property condemnation initiative - backed by Ruppersberger but defeated by voters in a referendum - that would have been used to rebuild aging communities. The other Democrat who is actively campaigning, Kenneth T. Bosley, is following a similar course.

`Immediate juice'

In her speeches, Bentley emphasizes her five terms in Congress and her ability to get things done. The promise by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, to give her a seat on the Appropriations Committee with seniority from her previous stint in Congress will allow her to lobby for Maryland in a way none of the other candidates could, she said.

"I do not have to take time to get to know people," she said. "I know them."

Republican leaders are eagerly supporting her candidacy.

"Seriously, people love her," said Wayne Valis, a Republican lobbyist who was the host of the recent Washington fund-raiser. "You will soon see all the powers that be in the Republican Party coming into Maryland and saying, `We love Helen. We don't always agree with her and she's a little tough on us, but we love her.' And when she comes back, she's going to make things happen. She's going to have immediate juice in Washington."

Bentley's supporters

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman will visit Baltimore for a Bentley fund-raiser on Aug. 28. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, has spoken on her behalf.

"I would help Helen Bentley if we were 30 seats in the minority or 30 seats in the majority," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. "She's a person of great quality and character - she is a character - and we like her."

Hunter and others said they admire Bentley's unwavering tenacity. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a former Republican congressman from Virginia and now a lobbyist, said Bentley was a strong legislator and competitor.

Bliley said that when he was in the House there were three other members he never would have wanted to run against: Ohio Democrat James A. Traficant Jr. (before his recent conviction on charges of racketeering, obstructing justice and accepting bribes), Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, and Bentley.

"These guys, they're tough," Bliley said. "You may win, but you'll know you've been in a hell of a fight."

For his part, Ruppersberger points to his connections to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and House minority whip.

Ruppersberger's corner

Hoyer was host of a $50,000 fund-raiser for Ruppersberger last month. Pelosi was the guest of honor at Ruppersberger's Camden Yards fund-raiser later in the month, and her political action committee gave him $10,000.

Ruppersberger also says he knows the House minority leader, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, and has spoken with him about the 2nd District race.

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