Seated in his shirt sleeves behind a cluttered desk in his law office across from the Pomona courthouse, Democratic congressional candidate Nelson Gentry talks about legalizing drugs, using military force to rescue hostages and requiring members of Congress to live in barracks while they are in Washington.
His views clearly are not drawn from the Democratic Party platform, nor crafted to appeal to public opinion, but are peculiarly his own.
"The nice thing about being an underdog and standing one chance in a thousand of winning is that you can say what you want to say," Gentry said.
A large, plain-spoken man who was born in Oklahoma City and educated at Oklahoma State University, Gentry is running against Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne), who has been in Congress since 1980. Dreier has a campaign treasury of more than $1.1 million and is solidly entrenched in a district that customarily votes Republican.
Also running in the 33rd Congressional District election Nov. 8 are Mike Noonan, a hospital pharmacist from Claremont who is the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party, and Gail Lightfoot, a public health nurse from San Dimas, the Libertarian nominee.
Republicans hold a 48%-to-43% registration edge over Democrats, with the remaining voters either nonpartisan or members of other parties. Dreier has won more than 70% of the vote in the past two elections. The district includes Bradbury, Charter Oak, Claremont, Covina, Diamond Bar, Duarte, Glendora, Hacienda Heights, La Mirada, La Verne, Pomona, Rowland Heights, San Dimas, Walnut and Whittier.
Gentry, a former Montclair city councilman who now lives in Claremont, said he is surprised to be the Democratic nominee. Before the June primary, he said, his wife, a staunch Republican, told him that his platform guaranteed a loss, but he picked up 55% of the vote in a contest with a mainstream Democrat that attracted little attention. Gentry said he is not sure why he won, but his wife suggested that he must have been listed first on most of the ballots. It also may have helped that his opponent had paid a $2,000 fine in 1984 for a misdemeanor Elections Code violation.
An aide to Dreier joked that the easiest way to beat Gentry would be to publicize his views. But Gentry's platform has at least some planks that Dreier also supports, and Dreier said the idea of quartering Congress in military barracks is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. "I told my father about it and my father said he would vote for him," Dreier said. "Fortunately, my father doesn't live in the district."
Gentry said he favors a part-time Congress that would meet for one month twice a year to transact business. He said members of Congress would receive $125,000 a year for salary and office expenses, instead of the current $1.5 million. Sessions would run 12 hours a day, he said, making members so busy that "there won't be any hanky-panky." When members retired each day, it would be to military barracks, not a luxury hotel. "If it's good enough for the soldier, it ought to be good enough for Congress," Gentry said. "What I want to do is make this job not so plush. I want to make it one of the worst damn jobs there is."
His theory, Gentry said, is that if the job is a miserable one, members of Congress will feel free to vote on the merits of issues without worrying about reelection. Dreier said he supports the concept of a part-time Congress, but not in the form offered by Gentry, and he is not sure how short the congressional sessions should be.
A Republican for most of his life, Gentry reregistered as a Democrat last year. He said he switched parties because he was "tired of hearing Republicans say that Democrats don't believe in free enterprise and they're all liberal."
He said he wanted to run against Dreier because Dreier has never been in the military, which he believes should be a prerequisite.
"I'm not trying to say that an individual is not a good American if they don't serve in the military," Gentry said. "But I am saying that if a person wants to be a member of Congress, in my opinion, it is necessary."
Gentry, 47, entered the U.S. Army in 1964 and served 23 months before going into the reserves, where he holds the rank of lieutenant colonel. He said military service should be required for federal officeholders because the government's primary responsibility is defense.
Dreier, 36, said the Vietnam War was winding down when he turned 18 and he was never drafted and didn't volunteer. "I have no military record," he said. But, he added, the absence of military service "has not lessened my commitment to a strong defense."
Gentry said Dreier also lacks the perspective of family life to guide him in representing the district. Gentry has been married for 22 years and has a 17-year-old son. Dreier has never been married.