Helen Bentley, 92, former Maryland congresswoman
WASHINGTON — Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland journalist-turned-politician who elbowed her way as a woman into newsrooms, shipyards, and Congress, distinguishing herself as one of her state’s foremost boosters of Baltimore’s port, died Saturday in Timonium, Md. She was 92.
The cause was brain cancer, family spokesman Key Kidder told the Associated Press.
Mrs. Bentley, a Republican, was once described in the Washington Post as ‘‘an unreconstructed American original — raised in the desert, schooled on the waterfront, propelled to Capitol Hill.’’ She represented a largely blue-collar swath of the Baltimore suburbs in the House from 1985 to 1995.
A daughter of Serbian immigrants, she had grown up in a Nevada copper-mining town. She trained as a journalist when few women covered hard news and was hired in 1945 by the Baltimore Sun.
She vowed she would write for any section but the society pages and found an assignment covering the port, a cornerstone of the state’s economy.
As a maritime reporter and editor, she discarded skirts in favor of work pants and cussed in her memorably raspy voice as wantonly as the sailors she covered. Baltimore legend had it that when a longshoreman insulted her appearance, she punched him in the jaw.
Mrs. Bentley became widely respected for her extensive sourcing, which reached from the ranks of dock hands to the higher echelons of Maryland’s political establishment.
Outside her beat reporting, she did publicity work for port agencies and the shipping industry, an arrangement that would be considered improper in modern newsrooms but one that she said did not represent a conflict of interest.
‘‘She was one of the best reporters I ever saw,’’ Russell Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and onetime rewrite man at the Sun, once told the Post. ‘‘She was dogged. She knew everybody.’’
He added that while her connections were among her strengths, writing was not. ‘‘It was always terrible to have to rewrite Helen,’’ he remarked, ‘‘because she didn’t take it well.’’
During her quarter-century career with the Sun, Bentley wrote a syndicated column, ‘‘Around the Waterfront,’’ and produced an educational television program, ‘‘The Port that Built the City and State,’’ that aired from 1950 to 1965.
In 1968, President Nixon offered her a seat on the Federal Maritime Commission. In an oral history with Pennsylvania State University, Mrs. Bentley recalled her ire when she learned a man ‘‘who had never been on a ship, who knew nothing from a bow and a stern’’ was to be offered the chairmanship as a political favor.
She told a Nixon representative that she would take ‘‘the chairmanship or nothing’’ and that if the administration preferred otherwise, they could ‘‘shove it.’’
Nixon relented, and she became one of the highest-ranking women in the executive branch at that time.
She held the post of chairman from 1969 to 1975, using her clout to bolster federal support for shipyards and attracting controversy over allegations she had also used her position to solicit political donations.
She soon began eyeing the House district held since 1962 by Clarence ‘‘Doc’’ Long, a Democrat who for environmental reasons opposed deepening Baltimore’s port — a move that Ms. Bentley supported. She lost to Long in 1980 and again in 1982 before winning in 1984, a narrow victory attributed in part to President Reagan’s landslide reelection that year.
In Congress, Mrs. Bentley defied easy categorization. She was mainly conservative but was staunchly pro-union. She supported women’s causes including the Equal Rights Amendment but opposed abortion rights.
In the 1990s, when Serbia was widely seen as the belligerent in the Balkan wars and the perpetrator of ethnic cleansing, she defended her parents’ homeland, saying that there was ‘‘blame to go around.’’
She was known most of all as a trade protectionist — her license plate read ‘‘BUY USA’’ — and as a promoter of Maryland’s shipping interests.
The nerviness that she had shown as a newspaperwoman often surfaced on Capitol Hill.
‘‘It’s like this, Mrs. Bentley,’’ an admiral told her in a discussion of foreign-made equipment for Navy vessels, ‘‘they make these parts cheaper in Korea.’’
The Sun recalled her retort: ‘‘Well, admiral, they make admirals cheaper in Korea, too, and maybe we should buy some!’’
She helped pass a bill allowing a 50-foot channel to be dredged into the Baltimore port, making it the only East Coast port with that distinction. She described it as one of her most significant accomplishments, according to the Associated Press.
‘‘That deep channel is a major reason why the Port of Baltimore is well positioned today to accommodate the largest ships in the world and continue serving as one of Maryland’s top economic generators,’’ said James White, executive director of the port.
In 1987, to highlight what she regarded as the country’s ill-advised trade practices with Japan, Bentley took a sledgehammer to a Japanese-made radio outside the Capitol, declaring that ‘‘this is what we feel about Toshiba products.’’ Later, House Speaker Tom Foley, of Washington state, told her, ‘‘Helen, you’re the most famous American in Japan since Admiral Perry.’’
Ms. Bentley vacated her seat in 1994 to seek the Republican nomination for Maryland governor. She lost to Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the minority leader in the House of Delegates, who in turn lost to Democrat Parris Glendening. Ms. Bentley remained active in maritime issues as a consultant, and in 2006 the port of Baltimore was named in her honor.