Damon Dunn ’98 will try to start his political career with a victory on Tuesday when the former Cardinal wide receiver and public policy major will face incumbent Debra Bowen in California’s secretary of state election. Dunn, the Republican nominee, is running for office for the first time after a private career in football and real estate.
Dunn’s campaign for the down-ticket seat has received countrywide attention—he was the subject of a nationally broadcast Fox News profile—and he’s seen, according to Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen, as a “breath of fresh air” for California Republicans, if not the party in general.
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once described Republicans as “idiot sons of millionaires,” Whalen said. “That’s not Damon Dunn. He’s not an idiot. He’s not the son of a millionaire. He’s a self-made man. Candidates like that have real value in California.”
Dunn grew up in a trailer in Texas, on welfare, with a single, teenage mother; his father died when he was a toddler. Before he was 16, he had witnessed the murders of three friends. Growing up in an area where Dunn said “people had low expectations and they met them,” he earned a scholarship to Stanford, played for four seasons in the NFL, and then started his own real estate company.
“I’ve lived this huge swath of the American experience, and it creates a unique value proposition when approaching public policy,” Dunn said. “Most people in elected office read about this stuff. I’ve actually lived it. I’ve gone to the best schools in the country, and I’ve gone to the worst schools.”
Dunn’s foray into politics does not come from a strong partisan background—he’s an admitted fan of Bill Clinton, for example—but rather, from what he saw as a moral obligation to give back to his community.
“There are no U-Hauls behind a hearse,” he said. “You can’t take anything with you.”
Beyond that, he identified what he saw as areas of improvement in the secretary’s office. The main responsibilities of the job include overseeing elections and the state’s archives and notaries, but Dunn felt there was room for expansion and modification.
“I look at secretary of state office the same way I look at my business,” he said. “How are we going to find a creative niche in the marketplace?”
One of his examples? Management of business filings.
“The secretary of state is the only person who gets a notice when a business shuts down and leaves the state,” he said. “Right now, we don’t do anything with this. Using a thought process I learned at Stanford, I’ve said there’s tremendous value here. What if we did exit interviews? What if we found out which tax policy, which regulatory policy pushed them out? Then go back to the state legislature and say, ‘We’re losing X jobs, and we’re in place to lose X more.’ Then we’re putting strategic pressure on the legislature to change.”
But getting into office and being able to implement plans such as these will be a tough task. Whalen, a California politics and elections expert, was not optimistic about Dunn’s chances at election.
“I think he’s done his level best to spread the message,” Whalen said. “Give him a lot of credit. He’s gone into pockets of California where Republicans don’t campaign. Bowen has the upper hand because she’s an incumbent, but also because she’s a Democrat. The party has a 13-point registration advantage in the state.”
Specifically, because so many people will vote the party line, Whalen felt that Dunn would have to ride GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman’s coattails.
“[The] public is focused on the top of the ticket,” Whalen said. “What that means for Damon is that he’s at the mercy of what happens at the top of the ticket. Specifically, Meg Whitman.”
Whalen estimated that Whitman would have to win by at least five points for Dunn to have a reasonable chance at victory. The latest RealClearPolitics composite poll had Whitman down an average of 8.8 points to Democratic opponent Jerry Brown.
Still, it is not a hopeless endeavor: Whalen estimates that Whitman has spent between $10 million and $30 million on her election day get-out-the-vote ground game—a massive financial effort that only benefits Dunn. And for his part, Dunn feels as if his message is being well received across the board, even within traditionally Democratic strongholds, such as the NAACP.
“I feel good, I feel optimistic,” he said. “We’re going to need a strong turnout, but I think we have the better candidate. Everywhere I’ve gone—standing ovations.”
The polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2.