Congressional Underdog Speaks His Own Mind

Times Staff Writer

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.


“This is what gets me about the district,” Gentry said. “They say it’s conservative, but they’re voting for a person who won’t get in the military and won’t get married. Now, I don’t know what everybody’s definition of conservative is, but to me, that’s amazing.”

Close to Marriage

Dreier said: “I’m as committed to family values as I can be even if I’m not married.” He said he has been close to marriage, but has never taken that step, adding that it is difficult to maintain relationships while serving in Congress.

Dreier holds a degree in political science from Claremont McKenna College and a master’s degree in American government from Claremont Graduate School. After graduation he was director of corporate relations and assistant director of college relations for Claremont McKenna.

He first ran for Congress in 1976 at the age of 25, nearly upsetting Democratic incumbent Jim Lloyd of West Covina. Two years later, Dreier tried again and won by 12,000 votes.

In Congress, he has won national notice for his skill at raising money and has taken a special interest in environmental issues and the war in Afghanistan.

Dreier noted that it was an environmental issue--his call for an end to toxic dumping at the BKK landfill in West Covina--that propelled him to Congress. He has introduced a bill to promote recycling, fought against construction of waste incinerators in Irwindale and Pomona and was the only Republican to join nine Democratic congressmen last month in signing a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency objecting to a proposed hazardous waste incinerator in Vernon.

He recently received a “Clean Air Champion” award from the Sierra Club for trying to strengthen the Clean Air Act.


A strong supporter of the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation of that country, Dreier visited refugee camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border last year and has helped bring wounded refugees to the United States for medical treatment. One refugee he has befriended is 12-year-old Hazrat Khan, who is undergoing treatment for severe injuries received when he was hit by shrapnel in a Soviet raid that killed his mother.

The boy, accompanied by Dreier, met with President Reagan and spoke before the Legislature in Sacramento to describe atrocities committed in his country. Dreier said he has tried to focus attention on Afghanistan to help the victims of what he said is “a forgotten war.”

Dreier and Gentry disagree about whether heroin, cocaine and other drugs should be legalized.

Gentry said he does not condone the use of drugs, but that the current approach has not reduced drug use and has created enormous profits for drug dealers and street gangs while requiring taxpayers to foot the bill for an army of prosecutors and police. Gentry said he would legalize all drugs, and then impose harsh penalties on those who use drugs and endanger others, such as by driving under the influence.

Dreier said legalization would raise a host of problems and send the wrong signal to young people, who should be discouraged from drug use.

Gentry’s platform calls for mandatory military service for men and women. After high school graduation, young people would be required to spend three months in military training and then serve in the reserves. Gentry said women would be used in noncombat roles.

Gentry said American troops should be brought home from abroad, leaving foreign nations to defend themselves.

“Yes, I believe in military isolation,” Gentry said. “And that’s why I don’t mind bringing everybody’s son and daughter and granddaughter and grandson into the military because they ain’t gonna die for Vietnam.”

Gentry said military force should be used to rescue hostages held abroad by terrorists. “It’s time that we made an example out of any country that holds hostages,” he said. “Yes, a lot of lives are going to be lost, but that’s what we’re going to have to do. . . . I don’t want a covert operation; I just want to go.”

Dreier said he would support military operations to rescue hostages if this country knew who was holding them and where they were, but would “not indiscriminately declare war against a country because an extremist faction in it is holding hostages.” He said the reckless use of military force “could trigger a war.”

As to mandatory military service, Dreier said the volunteer army is working well, and reinstituting a draft “would rekindle the negative sentiments” that caused turmoil during the Vietnam War.

Both Gentry and Dreier advocate a flat tax on income, but Gentry would also revamp the tax system for all businesses, eliminating credits and deductions and imposing a flat tax on gross business income.

Gentry served eight years on the Montclair City Council before moving to Claremont. He was a deputy district attorney for five years. In addition to his law practice, he is opening a restaurant in Victorville and owns an entertainment production company.

Will Return 2 Donations

He said he has made no attempt to raise funds for his political campaign, and plans to return the two small, unsolicited donations he received. He has printed a flyer that sets out his platform and said he also hopes to reach voters through newspaper interviews.

Gentry said he supports the Democratic presidential ticket primarily because the Republican vice presidential nominee, Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), avoided service in the Vietnam War, but he is not campaigning with other Democrats. In fact, he said, some Democratic leaders were disappointed that he won the primary because they regard him as “more right wing than David Dreier.”

But one leading Democrat, Rickie Santell of West Covina, a member of the party’s Los Angeles County Central Committee, said she welcomes Gentry’s conversion from the Republican Party and his primary victory. “He’s conservative, but he’s an honorable man,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dreier is running his usual well-financed campaign. At the end of June, Dreier had $1,148,734 in his campaign treasury, more than any other member of Congress. Although he does not seem to need that kind of money for the current election, Dreier said reapportionment after the 1990 census could put him in a tougher district, and he also might someday run for the U.S. Senate.

Noonan, the Peace and Freedom candidate who regularly runs against Dreier on a socialist platform, said he has tied his political plans to Dreier’s. If the congressman runs for the Senate, Noonan said, he will file for that office, too. “I’ll move my defeat to a higher level,” he joked.

Noonan said one of his objections to Dreier is that he complains about a lack of democracy in Nicaragua and Cuba but cannot seem to see that democracy cannot work in his own district when he has a million dollars to spend on the campaign and his rivals have virtually nothing.

Lightfoot, the Libertarian nominee, who also has previously run against Dreier, did not respond to a request for comments.