BENTLEY, Helen Delich

BENTLEY, Helen Delich
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1923–2016

Biography

As a Member of Congress representing suburban Baltimore, Helen Delich Bentley focused on the issues that were at the center of her earlier careers as a journalist and federal appointee—those affecting the maritime industry and American trade. Able to attract blue–collar and traditionally Democratic voters, despite remaining relatively conservative, Bentley’s gruff style and raspy voice seemed the very embodiment of her decades of experience spent on the city docks and plying the oceans. “I am a woman who worked in men’s fields for a long time. I insisted on working on the city side of the paper and not the women’s pages,” Bentley once explained. “I did it all on my own. Women have to be willing to work and produce and not just expect favors because they are women.”1

Helen Delich was born to Michael Ivanesevich Delich and Mary (Kovich) Delich, Yugoslavian immigrants, in Ruth, Nevada, on November 28, 1923. She and her six siblings grew up in the neighboring town of Ely. Michael Delich, a copper miner, died of an occupational disease, silicosis, when Helen was just eight years old. Helen graduated as valedictorian from White Pine High School in Ely in 1941, earning two scholarships to attend the University of Nevada. She transferred to the University of Missouri’s journalism school in the fall of 1942. In the summer of 1942, Delich managed the U.S. Senate campaign of James G. Scrugham in two Nevada counties. Scrugham, a Democrat and five–term U.S. Representative, won the election. When he was sworn into the Senate in 1943, he hired Delich as his secretary. She worked nine months in Scrugham’s Capitol office, before returning to the University of Missouri in the fall of 1943. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1944 and worked newspaper jobs in Indiana and Idaho.

In June 1945, Helen Delich was hired by the Baltimore Sun, beginning a three–decade–long relationship with the newspaper. She specialized in labor issues and, in 1947, became the first woman to cover an American Federation of Labor convention. A year later, the Sun’s city editor gave her a new beat.2 Through direct observation and the cultivation of sources ranging from dockhands to union officials to bureaucrats and local politicians, Bentley educated herself and then the public on issues related to America’s maritime interests, using the port of Baltimore as a prism through which to understand the industry. Her “Around the Waterfront” column was syndicated in 15 newspapers and eventually led to the development of a popular, long–running television show on the maritime industry. She often traveled aboard ship to produce stories, taking her on the high seas around the world. Delich’s demeanor and presentation were as salty and as blunt as the sailors and stevedores about whom she wrote. Over the years, she earned a national reputation as an authority on maritime issues3. On June 7, 1959, Helen Delich married William Bentley, a school teacher. They had no children.

In 1968, when GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his vice presidential running mate, Bentley served as an advisor on shipping matters for the Nixon–Agnew campaign. Shortly after winning the election, President Nixon named Bentley as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission. Confirmed by the Senate in October 1969, she became the highest ranking woman in the Executive Branch. She chaired the commission until 1975, calling attention to the country’s aging and declining merchant fleet. She later worked as a columnist for World Port Magazine and as a shipping company executive.

In 1980, Bentley made her first attempt to win political office by challenging a powerful, nine–term House incumbent in a Maryland district encompassing northern Baltimore and its suburbs. After securing the Republican nomination by upsetting Baltimore County Republican Chairman Malcolm McKnight in the primary, Bentley faced Representative Clarence “Doc” Long. Congressman Long was an institution in Maryland politics and the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations4. In 1980, the overwhelmingly Democratic district encompassed the predominantly Jewish suburb of Pikesville, the upper–income community of Towson, and to its east the blue–collar towns of Sparrows Point and Dundalk. Many Democrats residing in the district, however, tended to be conservative. Bentley enjoyed wide name recognition from her work as a journalist and her time on the Federal Maritime Commission. During the campaign, she focused on her support of dredging Baltimore Harbor to accommodate larger ships, a move which she argued would boost maritime business.5 In the general election, Long defeated Bentley with a 57 to 43 percent margin.6

Bentley would not relent, however, and challenged Long again in 1982. Reapportionment improved her chances as the reconfigured district included a slice of suburban, middle–class Harford County northeast of the city.7 In a losing effort, Bentley nevertheless closed the margin to 53 percent to 47 percent.8 In 1984, Bentley challenged Long a third time. “If we lived in the Middle Ages, she would be called Helen the Determined,” observed a high–ranking state Republican. “This election is either the last hurrah or the dawn of a new day” for Bentley9. Long had become a GOP target, having used his Appropriations post to challenge the Ronald W. Reagan administration’s foreign policy programs. In a race that drew national attention, GOP leadership sent former President Gerald Ford, Vice President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, and President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, to stump for Bentley in the district. The campaign became the most expensive congressional race in state history, with the candidates collectively spending more than $1.2 million.10 Bentley’s anti–tax and jobs creation message appealed to the working–class voters and the “Reagan Democrats” in her district. This time she prevailed with 51 percent of the vote, riding Reagan’s coattails.11 Bentley’s district went for Reagan by better than a 2–to–1 margin.12 In her subsequent four re–election campaigns Congress–woman Bentley won by wide margins, ranging from about 60 percent to 75 percent of the vote.13

When she took her seat in the 99th Congress (1985–1987), Bentley was assigned to the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries and the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. She remained on Merchant Marine and Fisheries throughout her five terms in the House. Beginning in the 101st Congress (1989–1991), she left Public Works and Transportation to serve on the Budget Committee. In the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), she left the Budget Committee for a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Bentley also served on the Select Committee on Aging from the 99th through the 102nd Congresses (1985–1992).

As a Member of Congress, Helen Bentley focused on shipping and trade issues. She immediately used her seat on the Public Works Committee to find funding for a harbor–deepening project in Baltimore. Within a year, she secured more than $17 million for the project, ensuring that the dredging was underway by the start of her second term in office. She routinely combed legislation on her various committees—in the words of one observer, like a “suspicious watchdog”—trying to ferret out bills that might be contrary to the interests of Baltimore.14 She also concentrated on constituent services, for which she became widely known. She was such a trusted and known entity within the Baltimore maritime community, that in the winter of 1989–1990 she acted as a mediator between the local unions and shipping management to bring about a resolution to a labor dispute.15

As an aggressive protector of American business, Congresswoman Bentley backed numerous “Buy America” campaigns, targeting key U.S. trading partners and opposing free trade programs such as the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. It was in this regard that she achieved national prominence. “I’m tired of employing foreigners all the time in foreign countries and helping them out,” said Bentley, who plied her district in an American–made station wagon with the license plate, “BUY USA.” “I want to help out Americans.”

One particular target of her fury in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the widening U.S. trade gap with Japan. In 1987, Bentley organized a public relations stunt in which she and several GOP colleagues used sledgehammers to destroy a Japanese–made radio on the Capitol steps. The act was part protest of Japanese technology sharing with the Soviet Union and also a visible sign of U.S. frustration with rigid Japanese trade policies.16 After taking a trip to the Far East, House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington joked with Bentley, “Helen, you’re the most famous American in Japan since Admiral Perry.”17 Bentley also assailed the Pentagon’s reliance on overseas manufacturers as being contrary to “all responsible military strategies to the point where I begin to wonder if we have forgotten what defense is all about.”18 As a fiscal conservative, she backed a 1992 balanced budget constitutional amendment and counted as one of her major congressional achievements a floor debate on a measure she sponsored to cap federal spending increases at 2 percent per year (the measure lost by a wide margin).

Congresswoman Bentley’s voting on social issues revealed an admixture of viewpoints. She enthusiastically supported the Equal Rights Amendment, having worked in jobs where she was paid far less than men who did less work. She also backed many federal programs that sought to advance the cause of women’s health care. Yet, Bentley opposed federal funding for abortions and voted for a 1993 bill that required parental notification of minors’ abortions. She also opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Representative Bentley declined to run for virtually certain re–election to the 104th Congress (1995–1997); she instead sought the GOP nomination for governor of Maryland. An early favorite in the race, she was upset in the Republican primary by conservative Ellen Sauerbrey, 52 to 38 percent. In 2000, Bentley led the Maryland “George W. Bush for President” campaign. Two years later she won the Republican nomination for her old seat—facing Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger. Redistricting by the Democratic–controlled state legislature, however, had tilted the district toward a more liberal base. “I still have that vim for all the issues important to me,” said the 78–year–old Bentley, adding that the race would come down to a single issue: “Integrity.”19 Ruppersberger eventually prevailed, with 54 percent of the vote to Bentley’s 46 percent.20 Bentley resides in her old district, leading a consulting firm specializing in transportation and trade issues.21

After suffering from brain cancer, Bentley died in her Maryland home at the age of 92, on August 6, 2016. “Congresswoman Bentley worked with tenacity, energy, and passion on behalf of her constituents,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan eulogized, “making her a rare breed in politics and a role model to public servants across Maryland.”22

Footnotes

1Alison Muscatine, “GOP’s Bentley Squares Off With Rep. Long,” 27 October 1984, Washington Post: B1.

2Current Biography, 1971 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 1971): 35–37.

3Muscatine, “GOP’s Bentley Squares Off with Rep. Long.”

4Saundra Saperstein, “Maryland Campaign Blessings From the GOP,” 2 October 1980, Washington Post: MD1.

5Eugene L. Meyer, “Rep. Clarence Long: Out of Tune, But in Touch,” 21 September 1980, Washington Post: B1.

6“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

7Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1989): 658.

8“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

9Muscatine, “GOP’s Bentley Squares Off With Rep. Long.”

10Saundra Saperstein, “Bentley Edges Past Incumbent Long in Maryland’s 2nd District,” 7 November 1984, Washington Post: A32.

11Saundra Saperstein and Alison Muscatine, “Candidate Bentley Rode Reagan–Bush Coattails,” 8 November 1984, Washington Post: A55; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

12Politics in America, 1990: 658.

13“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

14Politics in America, 1990: 657.

15Richard Tapscott, “Bentley’s Big Stick; Tough–Minded Republican Hard to Peg in Race for Md. Governor,” 26 June 1994, Washington Post: B1.

16Janet Naylor, “Bentley Confident GOP Can Win MD; Foes Call Her ‘Stealth Candidate,’” 9 September 1994, Washington Times: C4.

17Tapscott, “Bentley’s Big Stick; Tough–Minded Republican Hard to Peg in Race for Md. Governor.”

18Helen Delich Bentley, letter to editor, “Japanese Grip the Pentagon in a Chiplock,” 20 November 1989, New York Times: A22.

19Spencer S. Hsu, “Maryland’s 2nd District Key Partisan Battleground,” 29 October 2002, Washington Post: B1.

20“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

21Andrew A. Green, “For Bentley, Her Age Doesn’t Slow The Pace,” 20 October 2002, Baltimore Sun: 1B; James Mosher, “Former Congresswoman Bentley Not Interested in Job as Director of Port of Baltimore,” 28 February 2005, Daily Record (Baltimore, MD).

22"Helen Bentley, Former Maryland Congresswoman, Dies at 92," 6 August 2016, Associated Press.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Baltimore
Special Collections, Langsdale Library

Baltimore, MD
Papers: 1945-1995, 569 cubic feet. The papers of Helen Delich Bentley document her years as Maritime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, as well as her five terms as a U.S. Congresswoman through her failed 1994 gubernatorial Republican primary election in Maryland. Among the items in the collection are the newspaper articles she wrote on the port of Baltimore as a Sun reporter, correspondence, reports, some video, campaign materials, published and unpublished reports, and hearings. A finding aid is available in the repository and online: http://archives.ubalt.edu/hdb/table.htm.

Nevada Historical Society

Reno, NV
Papers: 1950-1977, 7 boxes. The papers of Helen Bentley contain speeches, press releases, and clippings, from Helen Bentley's tenure on the Federal Maritime Commission. Also included are scripts from her 14-year long television series on Baltimore's shipping industry, material relating to the merchant marines, union activity in the shipping industry, and discriminatory practices in the hiring of women.

The Pennsylvania State University
Special Collections, Paterno Library

University Park, PA
Oral History: In "A Few Good Women" Oral History Collection, ca. 1998, 1 folder. In the interview, Helen Bentley describes in fine detail the struggles she overcame to achieve prominence as a journalist and public servant. She discusses the influence of her mother ,who ran a boarding house in small Nevada mining towns, and her determination to strive for excellence and achieve success in fields where women were rarely seen. Her narrative takes us through her experiences as a journalist and she tells the story of her tenacious battle to secure appointment to the post of Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Mrs. Bentley discusses in detail her work with Barbara Franklin and her relationships with women journalists and women in the Congress. Her reflections on the problems women faced, sometimes of their own making, is revealing; her attitudes towards her work and the pride in breaking barriers and opening the door for other women is evident. Her own election to Congress is another reflection of the qualities she regarded as essential to the success of women in government generally.

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Tapes and reels: 1982-1994; 1 commercial on 1 videoreel, 4 commercials on 2 videoreels, 5 commercials on 3 videocassettes, and 14 commercials on 3 sound tape reels. The commercials were used during Helen Delich Bentley's campaigns for the 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1988 U.S. congressional elections in District 2 and the 1994 gubernatorial election in Maryland, Republican Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

J. Spencer Smith, Paul Amundsen, and Helen Delich Bentley, eds. Ports of the Americas: History and Development. [n.p.], American Association of Port Authorities, 1961.

"Helen Delich Bentley" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Appropriations
  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
  • House Committee - Public Works
  • House Committee - Public Works and Transportation
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Aging
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Related Media

Running for Congress

The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley describes her early campaigns for Congress against Representative Clarence Long of Maryland.

The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley, U.S. Representative of Maryland
Interview recorded March 21, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Experience, Not Gender

The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley describes how her experience as a journalist and knowledge of her district were more important than her gender in congressional campaigns.

The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley, U.S. Representative of Maryland
Interview recorded March 21, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)