For Bentley, her age doesn't slow the pace

Campaign: Tenacious and forceful at 78, the former congresswoman is still a strong advocate of the port of Baltimore.

Election 2002

October 20, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Helen Delich Bentley, who, at 78, would be the second-oldest member of the House of Representatives if she's elected, is daring people to call her old.

"For those of you who don't know me, I've been around Baltimore for two centuries," the former congresswoman said, eliciting laughter at a political forum in a Reisterstown synagogue. "I gave birth to the port, and I'm still plugging away at it."

She gave a quick speech, apologized to the crowd and left, off to a dinner for one of the main shipping lines in the port of Baltimore.

"I've got to run," Bentley said. "I can still run, you know."

Age is the stealth issue in the race for the 2nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore city. Bentley's Democratic opponent, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is 56, won't touch it, and the voters who bring it up in discussing the race usually do so apologetically, saying they like Bentley, always have, but think it's time for somebody new in Congress.

Bentley still drives herself, holds doors open for people, walked the entire length of the Dundalk and Towson Fourth of July parades and can remember the details - down to what people were wearing - of conversations she had 35 years ago.

Those who know her say Bentley is not so much old as old-school.

In the era of free trade, she's a protectionist. As economists talk about the information age, she trumpets her unwavering support for manufacturing. While most politicians would launch their campaigns at a place like the Inner Harbor, she did it at the port with tugboats chugging along behind her.

For Bentley, it's not that the world has changed since the Cold War as much as it is that people have lost focus on what's important in America.

"Great nations have fallen from a lack of clear-headed thinking," she said.

Bentley's top priority has always been clear: the port of Baltimore.

Raised in poverty in Nevada, Bentley earned a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and held a few newspaper jobs before landing at The Sun in 1946. Shortly thereafter, she started covering the port, a beat she held for 20 years, until President Nixon appointed her chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

Industry members who worked with her in those years said her role in advocating for the port and the shipping industry generally cannot be overstated.

"In the history of the American flag merchant marine, I would call her the defender of the escutcheon," said Conrad Everhard, former president of several shipping lines who got his start on the docks in Baltimore. "She was an indefatigable juggernaut, always fighting."

It was the port that got Bentley to run for Congress in the first place. She was convinced that Baltimore needed a 50-foot channel to stay competitive, but the congressman from the 2nd District at the time, Democrat Clarence D. Long, objected to the dredging on environmental grounds.

Bentley beat him on her third try, in the election of 1984, and got the channel dredged in her first term. The story illustrates much of what would characterize her political career.

Her tendency to value the economic side of an issue over the ecological has made Bentley a major target of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, which gives her one of the lowest ratings of anyone in Congress during the years she served. She shrugs off the criticism as coming from a bunch of "radical nuts" who would rob people of their jobs.

Her tenacity and forcefulness would also become famous. Never one for subtlety, Bentley once smashed a Toshiba radio with a sledgehammer on the steps of the Capitol after the Japanese sold technology to the Soviet Union.

When the 1990 redistricting plan put her in the same district as another incumbent Republican, she threatened to move to another district and pick off a Democratic seat. The plan was changed.

Bentley didn't toe the Republican Party line in Congress - she voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example - but she gained admirers, some of them now in the upper echelons of Washington power, for her sharp-tongued feistiness.

"I figure when she's elected, she'll be telling me what to do," President Bush said when he was in Baltimore recently for a GOP fund-raiser. "And those of you who know Helen know I better listen."

In those Congressional years, Bentley also became the undisputed queen of the state Republican Party. She was the party's National Committeewoman, highly unusual for an elected official of her stature, said Howard A. Denis, Bentley's running mate in her unsuccessful 1994 gubernatorial election.

Bentley was determined to build the party, and she fought to keep it from swaying too far to the right, which would have been disastrous in heavily Democratic Maryland, he said.

"She did not want to see her party go down the tubes in the state of Maryland, so she stood and fought and won, and I admire that tremendously in her," Denis said.

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