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Helen Delich Bentley: tough, but compassionate

Op-ed: Of all the people I have encountered in politics, none worked harder than Helen Delich Bentley.

When you're a young professional at the start of your career, it's a blessing when your very first boss turns out to the toughest person you'll ever know.

That was my experience with Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, who died today.

Toughness in a boss, and in a person, can encompass numerous qualities. Sometimes it manifests itself in salty language, high expectations of excellence or through a general sense of indomitability. Ms. Bentley exuded all of these qualities during her long life.

She earned a B. A. at the University of Missouri with hard work and scholarships when comparatively few women matriculated past high school, then in 1945 landed a job at The Sun covering labor issues and the Port of Baltimore. Later she became The Sun's maritime editor.

Without her legendary formidability, she would have never succeeded in these male bastions or in the Nixon and Ford Administrations as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission or the U.S. Congress, where she was initially only one of 25 women in the legislative body (more than 100 women from both parties now serve).

During her tenure in Congress, I doubt she ever got more than six hours' sleep. She always insisted on signing every constituent letter personally — sometimes they came back with coffee stains, evidence of a late-night work session — and she never ever took weekends off.

In the rare instances where she had few weekend appointments scheduled, she would direct her scheduler to sift through the local papers and find her a flea market, community fair or similar event to attend — often while wearing her signature skirt decorated with images of cartoon GOP elephants and with at least one of her poodles in tow.

She'd campaigned so hard to be elected to Congress, losing twice before winning in 1984. She took the job so seriously that she seemed to believe that she did not have the luxury of relaxation. She could, or should, always be doing something for her constituents, she reasoned. They were depending on her, and public service was her iron law.

During the three and a half years I worked for her, first as an intern, then as a writer, I occasionally drove her to Capitol Hill. During those rides she devoured briefing materials prepared by staff and at least three newspapers — usually The Sun, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. We would leave her house in Lutherville before 8 a.m. and rarely get back until 10 p.m. or later, after a full day of constituent meetings, committee activity and floor votes.

The next day, she was always ready to do it all over again. She repeated that ritual for a decade. Her toughness helped her succeed in a job that exhausts people half her age.

If she got upset about lack of progress on a casework matter, you knew it was because she cared and took her obligation to her constituents very seriously. She worked hard and took offense if she thought those around her refused to follow the same standard.

Staffers, bureaucrats, and presidents were not immune to this phenomenon.

Her concern was also evident in her personal dealings. She looked out for people, often finding a spot for them on her staff or in her network. And she took a special interest in young people.

When I started working for her, I think she regarded me as a shy and immature child of privilege — and she was right.

Former newspaper editor that she was, she sensed that I had potential as a writer. To my personal benefit, she pushed me to develop my skills and to grow.

Skilled politician that she was, she knew how to glean people's unique talent, and to leverage them to better serve both constituents and her political ambitions.

Like her friends William Donald Schaefer and Barbara Mikulski, she was authentic — a self-styled original among a crop of cookie cutter pols who lacked her common touch.

And she never feared reaching across party lines to get things done that benefited her constituents, including advocating for dredging the Port of Baltimore.

Of all the people I have encountered in politics, none worked harder or cared more for the people she served than Helen Delich Bentley. Her toughness helped her become an effective public servant. But her compassion made her a great one.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. He resides in Baltimore. His e-mail address is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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