Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Republicans Gary Miller and Bob Dutton square off in Inland Empire race for Congress

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Two veteran politicians are battling for control of a newly drawn Congressional district in the Inland Empire.

Both candidates are Republicans — pushed into an all-GOP fight by California’s “top two” primary system that sends the two leading vote-getters into the general election regardless of party. But even though both are Republicans, there are key differences between the two.

The 31st Congressional District swings west from Redlands, up through San Bernardino and out to Rancho Cucamonga — home base for Republican Congressman Gary Miller.

“This is my fourth event today,” said Miller outside his campaign office before joining supporters for a hamburger lunch on a recent Saturday.

For nearly 15 years, Miller represented the 42nd District — an Orange County Republican stronghold that included a small ribbon of the Inland Empire.

“Unemployment is higher out here than in Orange County,” Miller said. “This region’s been hit hard and we gotta change that.”

The number of registered Democrats is also higher. They have about a five percentage point advantage over Republicans in the 31st.

“Republicans said, ‘That’s a Democratic district. We don’t have chance,’" Miller recalled. "I said, ‘I don’t agree with you.’” 

Miller figured he had a better shot to win the new 31st than one of the districts hewed out of his old 42nd where he’d face members of Congress from his own party. He’s not up against a Congressional Republican here, but he is challenging a local GOP favorite: Assemblyman and former Rancho Cucamonga city councilman Bob Dutton.

Dutton represents the Inland area in the state Assembly where he’s known as an even-keeled, pro-business lawmaker. He’s credited with unifying Republicans during tumultuous state budget negotiations. 

But in this race, the winning Republican will need Democratic support. Dutton has it from well-known Inland Democrats: San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos and San Bernardino mayor Patrick Morris.

“I think I’ve really proven myself to be really dedicated to the people who live in this district.” Dutton said. “Plus, I have a track record for getting things done. Gary Miller has been in Congress for 14 years, but frankly I’m not aware of any significant contributions he’s made. He’s not like [GOP Congressmen] Jerry Lewis or David Drier.”

Dutton noted that Miller only recently moved to Rancho Cucamonga from Diamond Bar to qualify to run in the 31st. But Miller countered that his dedication to the district runs deep. 

“When I first entered Congress, I represented the western part of this district,” Miller explained. “I had this whole area around here. Then they gerrymandered out a little more to the south and the west. All my family live in Rancho Cucamonga. I bought a piece of property here to build my home on when I retire."

Miller points to his own endorsements from Congressman Joe Baca and Rialto mayor Grace Vargas, both Democrats, and Fontana’s first African-American mayor Acquanetta Warren as evidence of his wide, cross-party appeal.

“I really like his hair actually. He’s got a good set of hair,” joked Jonathan Watson, 21, who's part of an army of college-age Miller volunteers who never seem to tire of cold-calling voters or lashing campaign signs onto cyclone fences. Watson said he’s impressed by Miller’s business record, and he hopes the Congressman can help improve job prospects for young people.

Natalie Nicolas, 22, agrees. She's a recent UC Riverside graduate who's working part-time for the Miller campaign.

“The fact that he understands what it is to create jobs is extremely important,” Nicolas said. “So if there are people in office right now who are trying to stay in office, who are concerned with trying to solve that problem for us, those are the people we need to keep.” 

Both candidates work in real estate development. Miller sits on the congressional committee that oversees the housing industry. The National Association of Realtors has poured more than a million dollars into his re-election bid. Dutton heads a real estate investment and management firm.

Housing was on the mind of Elizabeth MacIntyre, an independent voter won over by Dutton’s home town appeal.

“I like what he’s done more than the guy who just wants everybody to own a house,” MacIntyre said. “He wants to get people employed to pay for houses!” 

MacIntyre sang along as a crew of campaign workers wished Dutton a happy 62nd birthday during a recent precinct walk. But as quickly as birthday cake slices with red, white and blue frosting cake were doled out, Dutton’s campaign manager hustled the candidate and crew back onto the street. There were more homes for Dutton to visit in this neighborhood. 

Maybe they'd celebrate later — like after the polls close Nov. 6.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Joe Baca supported Bob Dutton rather than Gary Miller.

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