TIMONIUM – One of Helen Delich Bentley’s two cellular phones lets outa shrill ring about 9 p.m. on a weekday evening. A desk phone rattles afew minutes later.
She has barely taken a seat in her Timonium office and one of the volunteers from her congressional campaign emerges, needing her immediate attention.
Bentley’s been working since 7:30 a.m., and it doesn’t look like she’s going to bed anytime soon.
Bentley, who turns 79 in November, is running hard for Maryland’s 2nd District congressional seat, the same seat she held from 1985 to 1995. The Nevada native, dressed from head to toe in red, white and blue, bristleswhen asked whether she’s ever thought of retiring, or spending her timedoing something else.
“I wouldn’t be here, so why ask stupid questions,” she snaps.
It’s a typical retort from the woman who made a name covering the Portof Baltimore back when few women were in newsrooms and fewer still werecovering longshoremen.
“Helen was a very tough reporter and a very tough lady. Behind herback, her nickname was Tugboat Annie,” said Jim Keat, who worked at The(Baltimore) Sun from 1956 to 1995. “She climbed up on the boats whenwomen didn’t do things like that.”
Back then, the city’s Inner Harbor was a commercial port with rotting piers. Keat said Bentley took on a beat few reporters, male or female,wanted to cover.
Joseph Sterne, who worked at The Sun from 1953 to 1997, said Bentleywas well known around the port and that “she used the language of theports very freely.”
“Helen has an aggressive personality. I liked her. I was always veryfond of her,” he said.
After graduating from the University of Missouri with a journalismdegree in 1944, Bentley said she wrote to nearly every major newspaper onthe East Coast looking for work. But she would not take a society pagejob, as many women did at the time.
The Sun was the only paper that offered her a different position, she said, so she moved to Baltimore. She covered the maritime industry and the city’s ports as a reporter and later worked as maritime editor. Her lastday there was Oct. 10, 1969.
“I am one of the early women who broke the glass ceiling, and I cameup the hard way,” Bentley said. “I had to break down doors at TheBaltimore Sun. I had to break down doors in government.”
Since arriving in Maryland in 1945, Bentley said she’s fought only for what she felt she has deserved. She felt she deserved the chairmanship ofthe Federal Maritime Commission. When she was offered a seat on thecommission in 1969, “I told them to go fly,” she said.
It paid off: The White House offered her the chairmanship a short time later, and she was reappointed in 1970 for a term of five years, at asalary $40,000, according to Congressional Quarterly Almanac.
After working in the private sector for a few years, Bentley decidedto run for Congress. She lost bids for the 2nd District seat in 1980 and1982, before winning in 1984. Once elected, the Port of Baltimore againmoved to the center of her career.
“She’s gone far beyond the call of duty whenever there was legislation that could have had an adverse effect (on the port),” said Clifton G.Gross, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local No.333 in Baltimore. “When it comes to the Port of Baltimore, she’s everybit as important as the flag itself.”
Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, said he considers the staunch Republican a friend from the days when she was areporter and he was a Baltimore City Council member.
“When she got out of office, she got into international trade, and Iknow personally she got some companies from Taiwan and China to come backto the Port of Baltimore,” Schaefer said. “It was definitely because ofher.”
In Congress, Bentley struck a balance between being fiscallyconservative and pro-business, said Louis M. Pope, acting chairman of theMaryland Republican Party.
He recalled one time in 1994, when Bentley was running for governor,when she appeared at a Rotary Club of Greenbelt luncheon hauling piecesof scientific equipment to drive home the point that she supportedhigh-tech businesses in Maryland.
“She actually came in with props,” Pope said. “Part of that wasfighting for high-tech industries to come into the corridors aroundBaltimore and Washington.”
Bentley hasn’t always won her battles, however. In 1994, she lost abitter gubernatorial primary to Ellen Sauerbrey, now the Maryland party’snational committeewoman. Bentley got 38 percent of the vote in that raceto Sauerbrey’s 52 percent. William S. Shepard earned 10 percent.
Bentley won’t say much about her relationship with Sauerbrey today,and is quick to say that election is in the past.
“This is not important to this race,” Bentley said, her voice rising.”She is the national committeewoman for now. I respect her for that.”
Sauerbrey, who went on to lose twice to Gov. Parris Glendening, didnot return a phone call. But Pope, who calls himself a close friend ofSauerbrey’s, said many Republicans are still split over the 1994election. Had Bentley supported Sauerbrey in the general election, itcould have helped secure a Republican victory, he said.
“You never forget who wronged you in life, but over time, you have to overlook things for the good of the party,” Pope said.
He said the party believes Bentley is the best person for the 2nd District.
“She’s as sharp as she was 10 years ago,” he said. “She knows the insand outs of Congress.”
Bentley said the decision to run was hers alone, spurred on by a redistricting plan that carved out a more Democratic andminority-populated 2nd District for Ruppersberger. For Bentley, passingup a chance to run almost seemed like admitting defeat.
“When I saw how this district had been rearranged, and particularlyfor a Democrat to win, I decided I wanted to show him,” Bentley said ofRuppersberger.
A July poll by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. showed Ruppersberger and Bentley virtually tied, at 45 to 43 percent of the vote, respectively, and 12 percent undecided. The independent poll had a marginof error of 3.5 percentage points.
Campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commissionshow Bentley had raised $188,895 by June 30 and still had $167,744 onhand. Ruppersberger raised $467,673 and held $408,216 in cash on June 30.But Bentley said she expects “a full budget” of $1 million or more.
She will not even entertain the thought of losing. By now, it’s after9:30 p.m. in the offices of her business development and lobbying firm,and a few phone calls later, Bentley is rubbing her eyes. She won’t sayshe’s tired. She will admit only that, “it’s been a long day.”
Never mind the hours, or the daily commute she would make toWashington from her Lutherville home, which she shares with her husband,William Roy Bentley.
“If I wanted more time for myself I wouldn’t be in it,” she says indignantly. “I’m here. I can be in Washington and back home every day.
“Some days the hours are long,” Bentley says. “So they are.”