After weeks of polite exchanges, the congressional race between Helen Delich Bentley and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has taken a sharp negative turn as newly critical advertisements from both sides hit the airwaves, leading to complaints from each side that the other isn't playing fair.
Bentley responded sharply yesterday to an advertisement paid for by the Maryland Democratic Party claiming that 14 years ago, her "solution to high drug costs was to raise taxes on seniors and to deduct money from their Social Security checks, all to pay for inadequate coverage few would even use."
"I just think it's outrageous when all 10 members of the Maryland congressional delegation, including the two senators, voted for it," Bentley said. "It's a lousy thing to pick on."
Prescription drug costs have been a major issue in this race and in many others across the country, but the bill mentioned in the advertisement has little to do with the current debate over helping seniors pay for medicine, said Tricia Neuman, head of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Medicare Policy Project.
It added catastrophic health care coverage, including a prescription drug benefit, to Medicare and would have been paid for by a small increase in existing Medicare premiums and an income-based tax on senior citizens. The wealthiest 5 percent of seniors would have paid the maximum tax of $800 a year but most would have paid far less or nothing, Neuman said.
President Ronald Reagan championed the proposal, and the Democratic leadership in Congress backed it, as did the AARP.
Every member of Maryland's House and Senate delegation - Democrats and Republicans alike - voted for the bill in 1988.
Bentley said yesterday that the final version of the bill was a bad idea but she voted for it because she "cowed" under the pressure from the AARP.
"By the time the liberals added on to it everything they wanted, the bill became outrageous," she said.
A year later, some senior citizens groups balked at the tax associated with the program, and Congress voted overwhelmingly to repeal it. Bentley, with the rest of the state's delegation except for Kweisi Mfume, voted for the repeal.
Maryland Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson said the fact that Bentley voted with the rest of the delegation doesn't excuse her from voting for a bad bill. He said she is repeating that mistake now by supporting a Republican prescription drug plan.
"Look, I understand this reasoning of hers as to why should she be pinned to the wall in regard to this," Paulson said. "If you want to pin people who voted for it, everybody, take out your pins. She took the vote, she's responsible."
Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said yesterday that the funding for the program could have been done somewhat differently and it should have been explained better to seniors, but at heart it was a good, well-intentioned bill. If it were in place now, he said, prescription drug benefits would not be an issue.
"Politically, we couldn't sustain it, but the benefits were very badly needed," Cardin said.
Bentley recently began airing critical advertisements of her own, attacking Ruppersberger for his east-side revitalization plan known as Senate Bill 509. And the National Republican Congressional Committee entered the fray yesterday with an ad blasting him for SB 509, a 1997 pay raise and an alleged ethics violation in 1996.
Ruppersberger balked at Bentley's ad, saying she had crossed the line from criticism of his record to personal attacks.
"Dutch Ruppersberger tried to pass a law letting him seize private property and turn it over to wealthy developers," an announcer says in the ad. "Now developers are trying to buy a voice in Congress. Dutch Ruppersberger sits secure in his fancy gated community taking their money."
Del. James F. Ports Jr., who was a leading opponent of SB 509, is then shown in front of a house he says would have been torn down had the proposal not been turned back in a referendum.
"No elected official is king," Ports says in the ad. "You're elected to represent people."
Bentley's campaign manager, Michael S. Kosmas, rejected the claim that the attack was personal.
"It's an attack on his record of trying to steal people's land and trying to sell it below cost through his developer friends," Kosmas said. "If that's evidence of his character, so be it."