Ending months of speculation, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley is to announce today that she plans to seek the 1994 Republican nomination for governor, according to sources close to the five-term Baltimore County congresswoman.
In deciding to run for governor, Mrs. Bentley, the state's best-known Republican office-holder, will be giving up a seemingly safe congressional seat to enter a wide-open contest in which she stands to face determined competition in the September GOP primary and, if she survives that, the November general election.
Her entrance into the gubernatorial contest will also set up a scramble among politicians from both parties for the 2nd District seat she wrested from Democrat Clarence D. Long, an 11-term incumbent, in 1984, after two spirited but unsuccessful earlier attempts.
Mrs. Bentley's decision to seek the state's highest office represents a victory of sorts for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who despite his Democratic affiliation has urged her to enter the race, holding out the prospect of campaign aid and fund-raising assistance.
She will need both -- from the governor and others -- as she is kicking off her campaign from a standing start. Though she has quietly tested the waters, she has neither begun raising money for the governor's race nor put together the statewide campaign organization necessary to undergird her efforts in the coming months.
An estimated $100,000 remains in her federal campaign fund, aides say, available had she decided to run again for the House or to challenge Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes for his Senate seat, an option she considered and rejected.
But Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has ruled that only $4,000 of that could be used to run for state office.
A Bentley aide played down the money issue, saying, "We expect to be able to wage a competitive statewide campaign with a strong organization and the resources needed to put that together."
As for campaign themes, he cited two -- economic development and the ailing criminal justice system -- and promised others.
Both declared GOP hopefuls -- Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the minority ++ leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, and retired foreign service officer William S. Shepard, the party's 1990 gubernatorial nominee -- said they planned to stay in the race despite Mrs. Bentley's entry.
The three announced Democratic gubernatorial candidates -- none of whom Mr. Schaefer considers worthy potential successors -- are Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening and Mary H. Boergers, a state senator from Montgomery County.
Mrs. Bentley's decision comes after nearly a year in which she delayed declaring her 1994 election plans, frustrating and occasionally infuriating many fellow Maryland Republicans.
Her decision has been known for days by some of those close to her, but they warned of her unpredictability in political matters and cautioned against considering her plans firm until she states them.
As late as last night, as political aides scurried to arrange for her announcement, a source close to the campaign hedged slightly even as he confirmed Mrs. Bentley's intention to run for governor.
"She has decided absolutely," he said. "But, like the landing on the moon, I won't believe it until I see it."
Mrs. Bentley, sources close to her say, has anguished over her decision, in large measure because of her reluctance to give up a seat she fought so hard to win and that she has used as a base to help build the state's once hapless minority party into a force of consequence.
Another factor that had to be weighed, sources say, was her age. Though she seems indefatigable, the gruff, blunt-speaking congresswoman will turn 70 later this month, an advanced age for undertaking a statewide campaign and, should she win election as governor, taking on an enormously demanding job.
Her GOP rivals have made clear they will not alter their plans. Ms. Sauerbrey could not be reached for comment last night, but said Monday that she met with Mrs. Bentley late last week and reaffirmed her intention to stay in the race regardless of Mrs. Bentley's decision.
Mrs. Bentley is to announce her plans at news conferences today at the Sea Girt Marine Terminal in Southeast Baltimore and later in Rockville, assuring herself heavy coverage in the state's two largest media markets.
She is no stranger to the ways of the press. For years she covered the port of Baltimore for The Sun, first as a reporter, later as maritime editor. She also was the host of a weekly television show that focused on the port.
The port served as her springboard into politics. In 1969, then President Richard M. Nixon named her chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, a post she held until 1975.
Five years later, in her first campaign for Congress, she vigorously attacked Mr. Long for effectively blocking the dredging of silt-laden Baltimore Harbor by refusing to allow the dumping of dredge spoil at Hart and Miller Islands in his district.
That campaign and the one after it fell short, but in 1984 she finally ousted Mr. Long to become the sole Republican in the state's eight-member House delegation. The delegation is now evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, in part because of Mrs. Bentley's party-building efforts.
Joyce L. Terhes, the Maryland Republican Party chairwoman, said last night that Mrs. Bentley's entry into the governor's race "bodes very well for the people of Maryland and the Republican Party."
"When has the Republican Party fielded [such a group] with three outstanding candidates, including two elected women leaders?" Ms. Terhes said. "For the first time in a long time, Republicans, when they go to the polls, will have a real choice in the primary.