Much of the political energy in Pennsylvania has been sucked up by the Senate race higher on the ballot, but Democratic state Rep. Bryan Lentz has run a hard-charging campaign for a House seat in this suburban district. Lentz has taken up Obama-style themes of holding Wall Street accountable and letting Bush-era tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans. His opponent is Pat Meehan, the former U.S. attorney general for Eastern Pennsylvania, in a district that gave Barack Obama 56 percent of the vote two years ago.
Lentz, an Iraq War veteran, was born in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, to a family with military roots dating to the Civil War. One of his great-grandfathers, Col. Bernard Lentz, is credited with creating the first Army cadence, a kind of marching rhyme or song. Four generations of Lentz’s family served in the Army, including his father, who was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division in the early 1960s. The family eventually settled in Ambler, Pa.
After graduating from Wissahickon High School, Lentz went to Valley Forge Military College and then to Georgetown University on a full Army scholarship. After graduating, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 82nd Airborne, the same unit as his father, at Fort Bragg. He commanded two rifle platoons and a mortar platoon during deployments to Iraq, Bosnia and a NATO peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula. He believes his experience as an Army paratrooper gave him the results-based pragmatism that influences his politics today. “There’s no partisan way to check and make sure your parachute is going to open,” he said. “It is either going to work or it’s not. And if it’s not, you better fix it.” During his tour of duty in Bosnia, Lentz oversaw the building of a bridge that connected the Muslim side of a small village to the Serb side. He likes to point out that if he could get Muslims and Serbs to work together, he should be able to get Democrats and Republicans to do the same.
After getting a law degree from Temple University, Lentz launched a second career as a prosecuting attorney. He served as an associate in the district attorney’s office in Philadelphia, where he helped establish the office’s anti-gang unit. In 2003 Lentz, still active in the Army Reserves, went to Iraq, where he says he experienced a shift in political ideology. He had long considered himself a Republican, but, while spearheading an infrastructure development project in Mosul, he had a change of heart. There was a disconnect, Lentz says, between news coverage of progress in the war and the lack of progress due to unnecessary bureaucracy that he experienced on the ground. The mess in Iraq, he says, led him to decide to run for office as a Democrat once he got home.
Lentz contemplated running for Congress in 2006. But at the time, Democrat Joe Sestak had emerged as the front-runner for Pennsylvania’s 7th District seat. Instead, Lentz ran for the Pennsylvania House, knocking on thousands of doors and ultimately defeating a 28-year incumbent. In the statehouse, Lentz vocally opposed the practice of secretive midnight voting that was unpopular in the state, especially after lawmakers used it to give themselves a pay raise in 2005. He was also a proponent of comprehensive open-records reforms to make state government more transparent. Another of his interests was renewable energy policy, which he believes has a direct bearing on national security. Lentz and his wife, Jennifer, also have a highly personal stake in issues related to cancer research. They lost their two-year-old son Joseph to brain cancer in 2009, and Jennifer Lentz has been especially involved in a fund established in their son’s memory.
In 2009, after Sestak announced he was running for the U.S. Senate, Lentz decided to run for his House seat. He struggled to build name recognition in the contest against Meehan, who is well known locally as a result of prosecuting high-profile corruption cases. Lentz has also lagged in fundraising. He has pulled in over $1 million, but Meehan was able to raise $1.64 million, according to the most recent campaign finance reports available. Lentz has begun running ads that tout his military service, and he was recently endorsed by Obama.