Deborah Frantz sounds somewhat surprised -- and delighted -- when a reporter calls to ask for an interview. Frantz is an independent candidate for Virginia's 8th District congressional seat but, according to her, few people, including the media, have much faith in her campaign.
"Nobody thinks I'm serious," Frantz says of her effort to defeat Democratic incumbent Herbert E. Harris and Republican candidate Stanford E. Parris.
The campaign has been an uphill struggle for the 25-year-old Alexandrian, whose platform is repeal of the marijuana laws, a position she says most politicians regard as "hazardous to their political careers."
Frantz said she decided to seek a seat in Congress when she realized few, if any, politicians in Virginia were willing to lobby for reform of marijuana laws, and that Virginia law prohibits a referendum on that or any other issue.
"You can't find anyone who will represent the marijuana issue," Frantz says."What politicians don't seem to realize is who smokes (marijuana).
"They're not gutter bums. They're doctors, lawyers, judges, police, housewives, secretaries, dentists. Respectable business people are doing this. So it's ridiculous to try to brand approximately 40 million people in this country as criminals because they smoke marijuana. . . ."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 54.8 million Americans have tried marijuana or hashish, and about 2.6 million are current users.
Still, the issue is an unorthodox one that occasionally provokes hostility, as Frantz learned when she was collecting the necessary 1,012 signatures to get her name on the Virginia ballot.
Some private shopping centers kicked her off the grounds and called the police. At the 15 houses she canvassed in Old Town Alexandria, residents either slammed their doors or refused to open them.
"That was a total waste of time, going door to door," frantz said recently as she puffed on a cigarette (not a joint). She describes herself as an occasional marijuana smoker but says she has forsworn personal use of it since she began her campaign in April.
"I was living in constant fear the (police) were coming to knock down my door and carry me away in irons," she says, "I was definitely expecting it, so I cleaned out everything I owned -- made sure there wasn't even a marijuana seed in my house."
Her home near Mount Vernon is her campaign headquarters, where two fulltime, unpaid staffers and two occasional volunteers assist in what she describes as her "hand-to-mouth" campaign.
"I haven't the hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw around on television advertising the the other candidates do," she said. "I don't have the money to buy signposts or pictures or bumper stickers. A lot of campaign flyers are just typed up and Xeroxed."
The Federal Election Commission requires candidates to file disclosure statements when contributions or expenses exceed $5,000. Democrat Harris hopes to raise $200,000 for his campaign, while Republican Parris hopes to raise $350,000. But Frantz's campaign war chest, she says, so far contains only the $200 she invested herself and $60 raised by passing the hat at the July 4th marijuana smoke-in on the Mall, which she says was the largest showing yet of her "grass-roots" support.
An earnest, soft-spoken woman, Frantz does not expect to do much full-time campaigning. Her job as the business manager of a Washington law firm -- which she says is very supportive of her decision to seek office, but will fire her if its name is linked to her campaign -- limits the time she can spend on the campaign trail.
She does plan to make speeches on college campuses, where she thinks she can reach a yet-untapped group of supporters. To make that support count, however, she says she must "excite and incite" the students to register and vote.
Frantz says she is a not a one-issue candidate. She supports the Equal Rights Amendment, favors freedom of choice on abortion and opposes nuclear power. She explains that she became "so angry at the hyprocrisy in the marijuana laws" that she chose that as her primary issue.
While simple possession is a misdemeanor in many states, it is usually a felony to buy, sell or grow marijuana. Therefore, she said, a person generally would have to commit a felony to smoke marijuana in privacy at home.
The laws should be repealed or marijuana should be legalized, she believes, with each state deciding what the legal age should be, much as states set drinking age limits. If as a member of Congress, she were able to get the federal laws repealed, Frantz believes the states would follow suit.
Both her opponents are at odds with her stand on the issue. Harris says the only changes in federal marijuana laws should be to tighten their enforcement on smuggling and trafficking. Any other changes are up to the states, not Congress, Harris adds. Parris says he is against legalization but supports reducing simple possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. He also favors increased penalties for selling.
To some observers, Frantz is seen as a potential spoiler in what is expected to be a heated and close contest between Harris and Parris. Some Parris supporters believe Frantz could draw enough liberal votes to give Parris a victory margin. But Harris supporters are quick to note that in the 8th District, Harris has always had both a Republican and an independent opponent -- and that Harris has always won.
Frantz insists she is in the race for keeps and says no one should discount her power to attract votes: "I'm in this to win and if I can't win, I'll come back. I want to see change and the only way to effect change is to stand up for what you believe in.And, if by standing up I'm going to mess up Mr. Harris or Mr. Parris, I'm sorry. That's part of the game . . ."
Then, she laughs and says: "I'll probably get 10 votes -- from my mother, my campaign manager, myself. . . .
"I'm not sure how this (campaign) is going to turn out. But the next one will be much better because I'll have two years to work on these people (voters)."