November 18, 2013

How old is that Bentley? Cantankerous ex-congresswoman and champion of port turns 90

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Sen. Barbara Mikulski at podium with Helen Delich Bentley behind her.

By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com

Sen. Barbara Mikulski at podium with Helen Delich Bentley behind her.How old is Helen Delich Bentley, the crotchety ex-congresswoman who could swear like the longshoremen she covered for years at the Port of Baltimore, now named in her honor?

Turns out she’ll be 90 on Thanksgiving. Sunday, she was feted with a celebration and roast that brought out a distinguished crowd of aging congressional leaders, former governors and senators, has-beens and wannabes along with hundreds of old friends. The event was appropriately held at the Museum of Industry on the Inner Harbor waterfront.

The youngsters in the crowd of several hundred were in their 50s. That included a table of mostly retired Baltimore Sun reporters and editors who knew her as the maritime editor of the paper, back when it actually covered “The Port that made a City,” as Bentley’s TV series for WMAR was called.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who has served longer in Congress than any woman in history, regaled the crowd with some vintage Bentley tales.

Dredging the harbor

It was Republican Bentley as head of the Federal Maritime Commission under President Richard Nixon who pushed for the dredging of the Baltimore harbor to make it accessible to deeper ships.

Bentley wanted to put the “spoil” from the channel dredging on the “outer banks of Dundalk,” Mikulski said, at a place called Hart and Miller Islands. Mikulski recalls sponsoring a resolution as a Baltimore City Council member saying if the dredged material “was so good, put it on Gibson Island,” the gated enclave for the well-to-do north of Annapolis.

After Mikulski was elected to the House of Representatives, Bentley took her on a helicopter ride to show her the proposed site for dredging spoil. Mikulski said if she had “made one false move,” she thought Bentley would toss her out of the chopper.

When they reached the site, Bentley asked Mikulski what she saw. Two specs in the water — Hart and Miller Islands. “Geez, they’re small,” Mikulski observed.

“You goddamn right and you’re going to make them bigger,” Bentley replied.

That where the dredging spoil eventually went.

 Champion of the port

“She was really the champion of the Port of Baltimore,” recalled former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a liberal Democrat who served 30 years. “It was extraordinary the working relationship we had.”

Bentley was in the moderate wing of the Republican Party. In 1994, Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer endorsed her when she ran for governor, only to lose to the more conservative Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, who then lost just barely to Parris Glendening.

At Sunday’s celebration, Bentley got more praise from Democrats than Republicans, except for former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who succeeded Bentley in Congress in 1995.

Bentley “hated me” at first, Ehrlich recalled, winning his first election against one of her allies. And she hated his girlfriends until he started dating Kendel Sibiski, who became his wife. He said he knew he was addressing “a room of people who both love her and fear her and not necessarily in that order.”

Bentley ran for Congress again in 2002, when Ehrlich ran for governor, but lost to Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat who debated her 11 times but Sunday spoke of her as a close friend.

Rep. Elijah Cummings said Bentley was a mentor who urged him to take the chairmanship of the subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, even though this black inner city congressman knew nothing about maritime trade and got seasick on small boats. He took the advice, and “we were able to get more things done in those four years than the previous 20 years.”

A time when Democrats and Republicans got along

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, the son of the ex-senator, never served with Bentley, but he said she “makes me yearn for a time I’ve never known when Republicans and Democrats got along to get things done,” a theme House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, a congressman since 1981, had sounded earlier.

The praise, digs and thanks went on for nearly 90-minutes before Bentley got to speak. But a spotlight blinded her, and she discarded much of her prepared remarks other than to acknowledge many old friends who came to fete her, one from as far away as Norway. Screens and photos around the museum showed aspects of her long career as a journalist and public official.

“I decided I wanted to see all of this while I was still above ground,” Bentley said.

  • Lisa S

    The event was lovely and for those of us who were there, it was a multi-generational event – including children and their young parents. I could barely get by the first paragraph mocking the celebrant and attendees. What a shame – an opportunity to write about something very interesting in Maryland’s great history and this is what you wrote. [sigh]