Perhaps Mrs. Bentley Is a Bit Too Colorful


Is Rep. Helen Delich Bentley turning into the Moses of Maryland's Republican Party? Will she lead her party back into the Governor's Mansion next year after a quarter-century of wandering in the wilderness?

She is clearly the party's brightest constellation, with the best name recognition. She is enormously popular in her home base of Baltimore County and in Harford County and in blue-collar sections of Baltimore.

Her love affair with the Port of Baltimore knows no bounds. She is famed for her defense of the port and has won the undying affection of organized labor for that stance.

She is also a gritty, street-wise politician, whose no-nonsense style can often include a heavy diet of four-letter words. "Feisty" is a term that only begins to describe her ornery, unpredictable nature.

Now that Mrs. Bentley is a declared candidate for governor, what are her chances? That's not easy to predict. She has considerable baggage. And she also faces what could be an exceedingly difficult primary.

The last time Republicans held a major contest for the gubernatorial nomination was 19 years ago -- in 1974. It is worth remembering that the overwhelming favorite that year, veteran congressman Lawrence J. Hogan -- viewed by party leaders as the savior who had the credentials and the toughness to defeat Democratic incumbent Marvin Mandel -- never made it through the primary. He was clobbered by party activist Louise Gore.

Could the same thing happen this time around? Republican primaries are highly unpredictable. For one thing, we've had so few GOP elections that were truly contested. And in this case we have not two but three viable candidates. It could turn into a slugfest.

On average, only about 20 percent of Republican voters turn out for their primary. These are the dedicated workers, the true believers, the party activists.

The bulk of the primary votes in 1990 came from Montgomery County (20 percent), Anne Arundel County (12 percent), Baltimore County (11 percent) and Prince George's County (7 percent).

The ideological hero of the true believers is Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County, whose unstinting espousal of Reaganomics and conservative Republicanism have won her considerable party support. She can count on voting support in many of the counties where turnout will be heavy on primary day.

Sauerbrey backers are already portraying Mrs. Bentley as a less-than-true-believer who (horror of horrors!) has forged personal and political alliances with an intensely disliked Democratic governor, William Donald Schaefer, and is also a longtime friend of organized labor. For die-hard conservative GOP workers, that's two strikes against her.

Mrs. Bentley is an idiosyncratic Republican who frequently abandons ideology in favor of pragmatic politics. To hard-liners in the party, that is an unforgivable sin.

While Mrs. Sauerbrey threatens Mrs. Bentley from the right, William S. Shepard threatens to rob her of votes on the left. Mr. Shepard is the former U.S. diplomat who won 40 percent of the gubernatorial vote four years ago and has never stopped campaigning. He's a familiar figure on the GOP rubber-chicken circuit and he ran up a big vote total last time in populous Montgomery County. On the Republican scale, he's a moderate.

If Mr. Shepard wins the left-of-center votes and the bulk of the Montgomery County votes, and Mrs. Sauerbrey wins the right-of-center votes, does that leave enough for Mrs. Bentley to survive the primary?

She should vastly outspend her two GOP foes and she is well liked among party regulars. She also has held the party together for most of the past decade: The party owes her a tremendous debt of gratitude. But her ties to Governor Schaefer are a major detriment in the primary. Party strategists planned to run an anti-Schaefer, anti-Democrats campaign, but that gets complicated when Mr. Schaefer wraps his arms around Mrs. Bentley.

Moreover, past election results aren't good indicators of what will happen in a three-way GOP contest.

Should Mrs. Bentley reach the general election, other problems await. Her votes in Congress could alienate blocs of voters.

Her impassioned and ardent support for Serbia in the continuing Yugoslav slaughter strikes many as endorsing the guys with the black hats. As a federal official, she was involved in soliciting campaign contributions from shipping-industry executives for Richard Nixon during the Watergate era. She has voted frequently against abortions. And she has a mixed record on handgun control, voting in 1991 for a seven-day waiting period before buying a gun, but against such a provision in 1988. Last week, she voted against a five-day waiting period -- and the next day said it had been a mistake. A microscopic examination of her voting record in Congress could uncover all kinds of contradictions and embarrassments.

Still, Helen Bentley shouldn't be taken lightly. While her shoot-from-the-lip bluntness may remind too many voters of Governor Schaefer, she clearly is a politician who cares about issues, and how Marylanders are affected.

She tends to be an emotional campaigner, thundering about the evils of NAFTA or smashing a Japanese boombox with a sledgehammer or single-handedly ending strike after strike at the Port of Baltimore and finally bringing peace and cooperation to the docks.

If she finds the right theme this time, Mrs. Bentley could indeed wind up in the Governor's Mansion. But that may be tough to do in a closely contested primary followed by an uphill general election in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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