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Stanford football hero warms up for a statewide run

Thirteen years ago, Damon Dunn ran 93 yards to score a touchdown against USC. Now the Irvine Republican, who had never voted until this year, is running for secretary of state.

December 24, 2009|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • "A lot of people don't know how to fail. Playing football, you learn how to keep going," says Damon Dunn, GOP candidate for secretary of state.
"A lot of people don't know how to fail. Playing football, you… ( )

From Sacramento — Damon Dunn once ran back a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown against USC. His Stanford team upset the Trojans 24-20 that night 13 years ago in Palo Alto.

"There was a huge adrenaline rush as I saw bodies moving all over the place, and I knew that the USC guys had bad intentions," the former football star recalled in an e-mail. "I saw a small seam ahead on the left and stepped on the gas. I got there as a USC player was crossing my face. I cut back and ditched him.

"I saw a couple of my guys make some good blocks. I went into fifth gear and knew that nobody would catch me. By the time I got to the 10 yard line I could hear the crowd. It was total pandemonium. I crossed the goal line and turned around and celebrated with my teammates."

It was Dunn's third kickoff return for a touchdown at Stanford, where he also played wide receiver.

Later Dunn bounced around a bit in the National Football League, playing in five games over two seasons with the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets.

"I fumbled on Monday night," he confessed over lunch last week, still slightly embarrassed about bobbling the ball as millions watched on TV. "That was my demise. . . . It was a good hit, like the NFL 'play of the week.' Fumbling as a new guy was not a good idea."

As a sports junkie, I find this fascinating. But what does it have to do with Dunn's new career as a politician? Football teaches "mental toughness," he says. "A lot of people don't know how to fail. Playing football, you learn how to keep going."

Fortunately for Dunn, he had a lot more going for him than football. At 5 foot 9 and 182 pounds, he was small for the NFL.

Dunn's is one of those rags-to-riches stories. He was born into poverty to an unmarried teen, he recounts, and raised in a trailer on his grandparents' small Texas farm, where he slopped hogs, tended chickens and studied hard. He became a high school honor student and an academic All Pac-10 at Stanford.

He's articulate, outgoing, good looking -- and one of the few black Republican political candidates. Why Republican? "No entitlement program got me out of poverty," he says. "It was hard work."

After a Dallas Cowboys training camp injury ended his NFL career for good, a wealthy former Stanford roommate invited him to become a partner in an Irvine-based real estate business. Dunn jumped at it. They developed several shopping centers and, Dunn says, he became a multimillionaire. Along the way, he also became an ordained Baptist preacher.

So now skip ahead to last May. For the first time in his life, Dunn, 33, voted in a public election. He voted against the budget fixes proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature, he says, primarily because they would have triggered a two-year extension of tax increases.

Then came the head-shaker: Having gone 15 years without caring enough about public policy to bother to vote, Dunn announced his candidacy for California secretary of state, the office that oversees elections.

Explain how he's qualified, I ask. As a "recovering non-voter," Dunn replies, he understands how election day no-shows think. And he has the credentials to persuade apathetic citizens that their vote does count.

Why did he himself not vote? "I have no excuse. It was just a bad habit. It's what I grew up with. Nobody in my family ever voted."

OK, but why launch your political career by attempting a leap to statewide office? Why not run first for supervisor or mayor or the Legislature? Show some qualifications at a lower level?

He really doesn't answer -- nor do most politicians who try to bypass lower rungs on the political ladder.

"I have a passion to increase voter registration," he replies, and "to get more out of the office of Secretary of State and fight for jobs." He'd conduct "exit surveys" of businesses who inform his office that they're leaving the state and try to find out what's driving them off.

It has always amazed me why people who previously have shown little or no interest in public affairs suddenly decide they want to vault into politics near or at the top. They're usually people with lots of money and time. They're seeking new challenges but think it's beneath them to start near the bottom, and the Legislature is beneath contempt.

Actually, the Legislature is where a talented politician could really shine. And there's more opportunity to make a difference there than in any state office except governor or attorney general.

Ronald Reagan often is cited by the ladder-vaulters as a role model. But he had been immersed in politics for many years before running for governor. As a candidate, the screen star also had invaluable name ID. So did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had dabbled in politics by sponsoring a successful after-school ballot initiative before he ran for governor.

Anyway, Schwarzenegger is an example of a rookie politician who proved to be over his head once in office and could have used some prior training and experience.

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