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