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A sit-down with Damon Dunn

I met with Damon Dunn, the professional athlete-turned-businessman-turned Republican candidate for Secretary of State, this morning at Tully’s Coffee in downtown Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza — but caffeine is the last thing he needed.

Damon DunnDunn, 33, is a live wire, a mile-a-minute speaker drawing on his energy as a former NFL player and perhaps on the cadences of his experience as an ordained Baptist minister to explain why he’s the right choice to be California’s chief elections officer despite not only never having held an elected position before, but also never having voted in an election until this May.

In short, he said the election should be just as much about life experience, authenticity and leadership as about one’s history in office and the voting booth.

Dunn said he wants the job in part because his status as a “recovering non-voter” with a “unique posture and demographic” gives him an edge in reaching out to people – especially minorities – and convincing them to register and vote.

He also said the Secretary of State – and all statewide elected officials – should take a more activist role in improving California’s business climate in furtherance of job creation he said. As custodian of corporate records, the Secretary of State is in a particularly effective position to analyze data and make recommendations to the Legislature on tweaking tax and regulatory policy to recruit and retain business. “If you want to get more out of that office … I can do that.”

Faith is a big part of his life and he describes himself as conservative on social issues, but he said he’ll not make hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage a part of his campaign. Too many people on both sides of the aisle have done so rather than making strong cases for how they’ll do the jobs they seek, he said.

For now he’s the only Republican who has declared candidacy for this office, but if his refusal to stump on social issues causes problems for him with parts of the GOP’s base and a struggle in the primary election, so be it, Dunn said.

“If people don’t want leadership, if they want ideologues, then that’s OK … but I’m a prinicipled guy,” he said. “I’m going to continue to run a solutions-oriented campaign.”

More after the jump…

“People follow people and not parties … I want to be the guy in the Republican Party that creates a new trend, that starts a new movement, that goes everywhere and asks for votes.”

And that means reaching out to minority voters who’ve long felt alienated by the GOP’s campaign tactics. “Race has been used as divisive politics over time,” he said. “I want to make it safe for you to vote your values.”

To that end, he issued a challenge – to be consummated after the primary, of course – to debate incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen at Allen Temple Baptist Church or some other large, African-American community venue in Oakland. She’ll have the voter-registration edge but he’ll walk out of the room with overwhelming support due to his ability to empathize and connect with voters, he promised. “They’ve got no compelling reason to vote for her, none.”

“Look at my life – I’ve shown up and I’ve served,” he said. “My actions are so much louder than my words. What you do is who you are.”

He offers “no defense, no justification” for never having voted until this year – he has said in recent weeks that his upbringing in poverty just didn’t encourage and prepare him to be a voter, and he now regrets that lack of participation.

“But I wasn’t a guy who was just checked out,” he said, citing his long record of community service starting in his days at Stanford University and lasting through today. In an uncommon display of eagerness, he even brought to the interview letters from the president of a Santa Ana nonprofit with which he worked on a Latino Educational Attainment Initiative, and from a Santa Clara lawyer whom he mentored from her 7th-grade year in East Palo Alto through her time at Stanford.

So voters can consider his voting record, he said, but also weigh it against his life experience as a self-made success in sports, business and volunteerism – and they should do the same for gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, other Republicans who’ve taken heat for their poor voting records.

The three of them and others like them bring intellect, life experience and energy to their races, Dunn insisted: “We’re improving the debate.”

He’s certainly working hard at it, at least – he said he’s doing 17 media interviews this week while also meeting with party and donor gatherings. Soon after our interview today, his campaign rolled out a news release announcing his endorsement by former state Senate and Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte, who said:

Jim Brulte“Damon has gone from living in a trailer with 10 people to graduating from Stanford, becoming a successful businessman and giving back to his community. Through his work with the Latino Educational Attainment Initiative, the Make a Wish Foundation, Fighting Giants Ministry, St. Augustine Soup Kitchen, and the Cops-N-Kids programs, Damon has made it his priority to give back, serve people, and bring positive change to his community.”

“Damon’s background, skills, and his continued commitment to help others make it clear he has the heart for public service that our state desperately needs now more than ever.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.