Scowl on her face, Helen Bentley stands by unpopular convictions


WASHINGTON -- Helen Bentley strode off the floor of the House of Representatives looking determined, dour and grim.

In other words, she looked like she always looks.

The worry lines in her forehead, the downward cast of her mouth, the thrust of her jaw, all comprise what someone once described as Bentley's "dog on a tire" look.

And though the look often tends to hide her genuine flashes of sentimentality and humor, Bentley wears it as a badge of pride.

This day, she has just cast a vote against the Democratic-sponsored civil rights bill. Sitting now her small, viewless office across from the Capitol, she explained her vote in typical fashion.

"It's a quota bill," Bentley said flatly. "I don't care how you cut it, it's a quota bill. The only body it benefits are the lawyers. One of Baltimore's business law firms told me it would have to hire three more lawyers just to handle their existing clients if this bill passes."

Bentley, a Republican, represents Maryland's 2nd District, which only 6.5 percent voting-age black. But there are a lot of women in her district and wasn't the civil rights bill supposed to help them, too?

"I came up at a time when it was very difficult for a woman," Bentley said. "I was a pioneer for opening doors for women. But I believe in employing qualified people, not 'you've got to hire me because I'm a woman.' We can't compete against the rest of the world like that.

"And you know the people with the toughest time getting jobs? White males."

There are few legislators these days willing to champion the cause of white males, but Bentley doesn't care. It is another tire she has sunk her teeth into.

"I know a very fine man, a veteran, who was in law enforcement in the service," she said. "He is 6-foot-4, he loves the outdoors, and he applied for an opening at the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife and at Natural Resources. And he was told in both places he was the wrong color."

Just like that?

"Just like that," Bentley said. "And I think that's wrong. I'm sorry. But he is competent, able and a veteran, and he can't get a job because he is a white male. That bothers me."

Not a popular thing to be bothered by.

somebody will make a 30-second spot to use it against me," Bentley said. "It's the same case as when I opposed the Clean Air Act and the Disabilities Act. I'm not against the disabled. Ten or 12 members of my small staff are disabled. But when a law is so broad that a person with acne goes to get a job at a cosmetic counter and can sue the owner if he doesn't get hired, well, that's hurting the country. But everyone is afraid to take on the disabled."

In the end, Bentley ended up voting for both bills, but only after making sure that in the case of the Clean Air Act, steel mills like the Bethlehem Steel mill at Sparrows Point in her district would not be overly hurt by its provisions.

Her stand -- to support business against environmentalists -- is genuinely unpopular these days.

"Bethlehem Steel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to clean up Sparrows Point, and they have come close to closing down the whole operation," Bentley said, scowling her best bulldog scowl. "They employ 8,000 people, compared to 35,000 in the '60s. And in Maryland, they have 19,000 retirees. Now what happens to them if the company goes out of business?

"In the original Clean Air Act, it would have cost steel mills so much to clean up, it would have been practically impossible. So we got it changed."

But clean air is what the pollsters call a "consensus" issue, I said. Everybody is for it: young, old, rich, poor, white, black. How can you oppose that?

"The question is: How clean do you expect the air to be? Life is not perfect," Bentley said. "You want to wrap yourself in a cocoon and stay in it? Don't go by a bus or a car or go outside when the wind is blowing then.

"And people today are living now to 95, 100, 110, so the air can't be all that bad."

At various times during our conversation, Bentley would get up and rush back across the street to the House to vote. Her lunch this day was a Diet Coke and a Drumstick, which is an ice cream cone topped with chocolate and nuts.

When she got back from one trek, I asked her if she was considered the biggest Japan-basher in the world.

"Yeah, probably," she said. "I criticize them very much, because we don't get a fair deal from them. By the time Japan opens its doors [to American products] we will have nothing left to sell them but agricultural goods. Are we selling out our industrial base for agriculture? Maybe."

But your party has controlled the White House for a while now, I said, and Republican presidents have set this policy toward Japan.

"And they are wrong!" Bentley said. "And I have told both presidents [Ronald Reagan and George Bush] they are wrong. The president is talking about giving $100 billion to Russia? We need a $100 billion right here to reindustrialize this country so we can compete!

"I personally do not buy Japanese goods, and I encourage others not to buy them. But Japan spends at least $200 million a year to influence legislation in this country. You can buy a lot of influence for $200 million."

But don't Japanese companies just want what all companies want: to maximize profits?

"I believe Japan has an agenda other than maximizing profit," Bentley said. "Yeah, I do."

So what is it?

"I think since the early 1940s they have wanted to take over America. They were unable to do it militarily, and now they will try to do it economically," she said.

Have you been to Japan?

"Not for years," she said. "And I have no intention of going back."

Why not?

"Because," Helen Bentley said, "I want to come out alive."

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