LOS ANGELES (AP) — Like the high-profile races for California governor and U.S. Senate, the race for secretary of state pits a seasoned politician against a businessman making his first run for public office.
Damon Dunn wants to lead the office that oversees elections and voting systems in the nation’s most populous state—a rather large leap for someone who never voted until last year’s statewide special election.
Yet the Republican challenger, a former NFL journeyman turned real estate developer, says he’s a better option than Democratic incumbent Debra Bowen, a former state lawmaker whose first term was noteworthy for her top-to-bottom examination of the voting systems used throughout the state.
Dunn, who has never before held elective office, adds diversity to a Republican ticket that includes two women, both of them business executives making their first foray into politics, and a Hispanic running for lieutenant governor. Like Dunn, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has a spotting voting record, for which she has apologized.
“There’s a difference between the argument ‘Elect me, I’m not tarnished by politics as usual’ and the argument, ‘I haven’t participated and exercised my right to citizenship but once or twice in my adult life,”‘ said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “In the case of Mr. Dunn, the further irony is he wants to be in charge of the voting process.”
Dunn, 34, acknowledges he made mistakes by failing to vote and blamed it on a “bad habit” formed from what he describes as a hardscrabble childhood in Texas, where he was born to a 16-year-old single mother and raised by relatives who never bothered to vote.
When asked why he skipped the historic 2008 presidential election, Dunn said: “I don’t remember how I spent that day. It was probably like any other Election Day for me.”
“When you’re trying to make ends meet, when you’re trying to make sure your child has necessary things and trying to make sure your child gets ahead, you don’t have time to participate,” the candidate’s mother, Ramona Dunn, said in a telephone interview from her home in Virginia.
Dunn received a football scholarship to Stanford University, where he played wide receiver from 1994 to 1998. He then bounced around the NFL and the defunct XFL and NFL Europe leagues for a few years before joining a real estate company in Orange County with a college friend in 2001.
He insists his personal story will help him connect with the roughly 6.5 million Californians who are eligible to vote but have not registered to do so.
“I can go into communities and say, ‘I know what it’s like to feel as if my vote doesn’t count,”‘ Dunn said. “And I also know what it’s like to make that mistake and to correct that mistake. That makes a quantifiable difference.”
Early in his campaign, Dunn emphasized his business credentials by vowing to step up the secretary of state’s responsibility for maintaining business filings. He laments the loss of jobs in California, and wants at least one full-time staff position to conduct “exit interviews” to find out why companies are leaving the state and share the findings with state lawmakers.
More recently, he has attacked Bowen over the delayed consolidation of 58 county voter registration databases into one statewide system. The statewide database would allow voters with driver’s licenses to register to vote or update their registration online.
Proponents say the system, already available in several states, would increase voter participation, ease the process for verifying registration applicants and thereby help prevent fraud.
“When you talk about a voter registration database, it seems like a bureaucratic goal, but in fact it impacts on a number of reforms that people think could help California catch up to the type of voter registration and participation innovations that other states have employed,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.
In May, Bowen canceled a contract with a company hired to develop with the system because it was not meeting deadlines and other requirements. To avoid a lawsuit, she approved a $1.8 million settlement with the contractor.
Bowen said she didn’t want to waste more money on a system that may not be configured correctly. She said bidding for the contract will have to start again, a process that will require the input of other state departments.
“It’s going to take longer than I’d like,” she said. “At lot of this is not within my control. We work as quickly as we can on our side, and then we just have to wait.”
Bowen, who served 14 years in the state Legislature, won praise in 2007 for restricting the use of electronic voting machines after an independent review she commissioned found they could be hacked. Since then, she contends she has made other accomplishments while keeping a low profile in Sacramento.
“The reason that I haven’t made a ton of news is because things are going pretty well,” said Bowen, 54. “I’m getting the work done.”
Besides securing the state’s voting systems, she said she formed partnerships with businesses and organizations to help get more eligible Californians to register to vote and worked to ensure that emergency workers, military troops, and other Californians living overseas receive the necessary paperwork to vote.
If re-elected, Bowen said she would use the next four years to help complete various projects, including the voter registration database.
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