Bentley, 79, keeps punching as she addresses age question

October 17, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHEN HELEN Bentley spotted me at Oak Crest Village on Tuesday night, she threw a ladylike right hand into my midsection. This was intended as a message. A few moments later, she gave me a pretty good hook to the ribs. This was a reinforcement of the message. A little later, she threw a puckish right fist into my shoulder. This was starting to hurt.

Bentley came to Oak Crest Village to talk to senior citizens about her run for Congress. She threw her playful little dockworker punches at me to distinguish herself from the rest of the crowd. Residents of this Baltimore County retirement community are roughly of her generation - or younger - and most have long since retired. Neither professionally nor emotionally has Helen Bentley ever been the retiring sort.

At 79, she keeps on punching. When she spoke to the 200 people Tuesday night, she immediately struck upon their generational connection.

"I am a senior," she said. "My husband's a senior. My brother's a senior. My husband's sisters are seniors. So I'm concerned about our issues. I want to prove that seniors are capable, smart and have a lot to offer the United States of America."

The line drew some applause. Bentley knows there are people wondering about her age. It comes with the territory. She is correct when she talks about the many people in her generation who are smart, sharp, energetic and vital.

But they are not running for Congress. They will not make the daily commute from Baltimore to Washington, and stay on the floor for late votes dealing with the nation's most contentious issues, and then make the commute back to Baltimore.

She has been away from elected office for eight years, since Ellen R. Sauerbrey shocked her in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Sauerbrey was supposed to run this year against C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger for the 2nd District congressional seat. But Republican polling showed Sauerbrey had no shot. So Bentley was brought back into the political fray, trying to regain a seat she held from 1985 to 1995.

"Do I look like I'm dead?" Bentley asked.

She asked this an hour after she finished talking at Oak Crest Village, just before she threw her first punch.

In between, there were two dozen brief speeches - from candidates for Congress, state legislature, county executive, attorney general, judgeships, register of wills, everything but regional dogcatcher.

Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive campaigning against Bentley, talked about his years running local government and promised help for seniors with high prescription drug costs. He mentioned nothing about her age, or his, 57.

And then, when everyone was finished and the crowd began to disperse, there was Bentley.

"Do I?" she asked. "Do I look like I'm dead?"

Of course not. But, since she brought up the subject, what about her age?

That's when she threw the second punch. It was a playful, good-natured punch - showing she's still the tough little bantam fighter - but it had a little sting to it, too. The message was: She wasn't ready to sit in a corner, knitting doilies.

"If I was a man," she said, "nobody would talk about my age. But a woman, they're talking about it all the time. `Little old lady in tennis shoes.' We never hear about `little old man in tennis shoes. Little old grandfather in tennis shoes.' The issue is: Are seniors able to be productive?"

"What about the daily grind?" I asked. "The simple act of driving to Washington every day, and ... "

"That's my worry, not yours," Bentley said. "I'll take the choo-choo train if I have to."

And then she threw another good-natured dockworker's punch.

Leaving us, with Bentley surrounded by her contemporaries, to ask some residents at Oak Crest - a mix of Democrats and Republicans - their thoughts.

Jim Phillips, 81, attorney: "She's a feisty gal. But it's a tough job even for a younger person."

Sophronia Dean, "roughly Helen's age," retired Towson Library worker: "By noon, I need a nap. By 10 o'clock, I'm done for the day. We're very proud of who we are, and what we do. But Congress, that's a lot to ask."

Joseph Leary, 81: "I think it's fine. We just traveled 3,000 miles on our vacation. This man over here, he's a CPA at 85. That man over there, he's 80. He still goes to work one day a week."

Jim Gibbs, 78, retired child psychiatrist: "I've heard people around here talk about it. They say: `Congress? There are days when I don't even feel I can get out of bed.' She's a tough old gal, but ... "

But she faces an issue beyond politics, beyond party and beyond the personal affection of her supporters. It is the issue we all face, somewhere down the road: When is it time to go home? Bentley says: Not yet. Voters will answer in 19 days.

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