Damon Dunn wants voters to do what he didn't

It is either breathtaking, or brazen, or both: After voting exactly once in his 33 years, Damon Dunn is running for statewide office in next year's elections. He wants to be secretary of state. In other words, the once-only voter wants to run the state's elections. And why not, he argues.

"Who better to reach a non-voter than a recovering non-voter?" the Republican businessman from Irvine said in an interview Friday, employing what has become, of necessity, an often-uttered line.

Next year's elections in California will test many things, as voters chart a new course away from the dramas of the Schwarzenegger era. Will rumbles of discontent explode into anti-incumbent fervor by November or peter out? Will the Democratic hold on almost all statewide offices harden or crumble? Will the state's dire straits lead voters to reward political experience, or will they decide experience is what got the state into its mess? Will voters embrace business leaders on the ballot or see their corporate tactics as too lacerating?

Another question will play out in several campaigns: To win the allegiance of voters, do you first need to have shown some allegiance to voting?

Although the office he is seeking gives his past omissions a certain irony, Dunn is not the only current candidate to have to answer for a poor voting record. "Shame on me," Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina has said of her erratic record. "Unacceptable," Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has said of her spotty record.

Democrats will argue that all three showed little interest in voting until it became convenient for them to do so; in all three cases that will be a central thread in an effort to portray the Republicans as dilettantes drawn to politics for personal aggrandizement.

Republicans will argue that, although it certainly would be tidier for the candidates to have shown up, their absence is no great shock in a state where most of the residents eligible to vote often don't.

After the 2008 presidential election, much was made of the fact that 79% of registered California voters had cast ballots, a three-decade record. Less was made of the fact that, when all those eligible to vote but not registered were counted, only 59% had cast ballots.

Turnout was woeful in the May special election, which, as it happened, was Dunn's first visit to the voting booth. He was in a distinct minority: 28% of registered voters showed up, which translates into a mere 21% of those eligible to vote.

For candidates, explaining a paltry voting record requires exacting footwork. When Whitman came under fire earlier this year, she said at one point that she hadn't voted because she was busy raising a family. That explanation landed with a thud among many of those who raise kids and still manage to cast ballots. When Fiorina said she hadn't seen the relevance of voting, it seemed odd that at the same time she had seen the relevance of making hefty campaign donations.

Dunn's strategy is to say that his voting record has given him the impetus to make sure that as few Californians as possible repeat his "error in judgment" -- particularly in minority areas where he, an African American making his first bid for office, has pledged to work.

What may make Dunn's argument somewhat more persuasive is the rest of the story. He was born to a 16-year-old unmarried girl in Texas, where he was raised by family members who didn't vote.

He ended up an honor student with a scholarship to Stanford University. There he played football -- well -- and worked his way into several years in the NFL, albeit "holding onto the last spot" on the roster, he said. Since then, he has worked in real estate development for an Irvine-based firm he helped found.

His background is jammed with community service -- mentoring underprivileged kids, visiting with the dying and ill, helping with soup kitchens and hospital foundations and in schools, where he forwards the argument that education and faith can save even the neediest children.

"To me, voting is a part of civic participation -- a part of it," he said. "I would take my civic participation in total, and I would measure it against any legislator in Sacramento. I wasn't just too busy. I have been showing up every day in my community for my civic participation."

He also argues that a voting record says little about a candidate's ability to think strategically and nothing about his determination to use the secretary of state's job to stem job losses in California. The campaign team for Democratic incumbent Debra Bowen said it is taking Dunn's candidacy seriously, given a host of early endorsements he has garnered from influential Republicans.

"This is a job where you're trying to teach people the importance of democracy," said Bowen's senior advisor, Steve Barkan. "If suddenly you are interested in democracy because you want to run for office, that just doesn't cut it."

Untested candidates have unpredictable trajectories and it is impossible to know where Dunn's campaign will take him.

If he wins the nomination -- at present there's no formal competition -- he will alter the Republican line-up, which is usually dominated by white men.

That is part of his allure for some Republicans, who believe that Whitman's or Fiorina's ascendance would send a similar message about the future of the party.

Those candidates may hold the key to Dunn's future, if Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum is correct. Voters will pay attention to the top-of-the-ticket races, he says, and if GOP candidates sweep to victory there, they could pull in candidates like Dunn. A Democratic victory at the top would do the same for its down-ballot candidates.

Voters "think Hillary Clinton is the secretary of state and they don't know what the treasurer does, what the controller does," Hoffenblum said, citing two other state offices contested in 2010.

"If Jerry Brown wins over 50% of the vote," he added, speaking of the sole Democrat now seeking the governorship, "then none of these people is going to win."

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