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Dunn Enough?

“I’ve never had the luxury of looking at anything as a stepping stone,” says Damon Dunn.

That might seem strange coming from a man whose life has been built on one big milestone after the next.

The 34-year-old parlayed a football scholarship to Stanford University into an NFL career, turned a single deal into a real estate development company and expanded a ministry into a political platform.

As a candidate for California secretary of state, he’s a Republican Party dream.

Dunn is a conservative, Christian, African-American who is building a campaign on smart business decisions and minority outreach.

If elected, Dunn would join the shallow ranks of black elected officials from Orange County—four in total, according to Blacks in Government Greater Orange County chapter.

Dunn, who lives in a high-rise condominium in Irvine, would be the first black from OC elected to a statewide office.

The political rookie has little primary opposition and is likely to face incumbent Debra Bowen, a Democrat from Los Angeles, in November.

He’s a long shot to win. But Dunn is considered a rising star within the California Republican Party.

“I know that if I win this election and I do a fabulous job, opportunities will come,” Dunn said.

His Republican endorsements are piling up.

They include The New Majority, California Republican Assembly, former governor Pete Wilson and State Assemblyman Van Tran. Dunn will be meeting with conservative Lincoln Club’s state chapters in the next few weeks, including the Lincoln Club of Orange County in Newport Beach on March 30.

He’s campaigning on expanding the duties of secretary of state and making the office do more for business.

The secretary of state handles business filings and gets notifications when companies leave the state.

People lament that onerous tax and regulatory policies cause businesses to flee, Dunn said.

He said he wants to catalog specific business complaints in “exit interviews” to prove the need for policy changes.

The secretary of state’s office, made up of 500 people, also is responsible for state elections, domestic partner registries, maintaining historical state archives and other miscellaneous duties.

Dunn said Republicans need to do better at tapping urban areas to register new voters.

Republicans aren’t doing a good job of attracting minorities to the party, he said.

“The golden rule is this: People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” he said. “That’s where we fail as a party.”

Many blacks are conservative, but they vote for Democrats because they’re viewed as more empathetic, according to Dunn.

“We’re the only demographic that votes 90% in one direction,” he said.

But Dunn’s own voting record is a little shoddier. He didn’t cast a ballot until 2009.

He explains: Growing up, no one in his family voted.

He said he didn’t understand the connection between voting and putting food on the table.

Back Story

Dunn grew up poor in a crowded trailer in Mansfield, Texas.

His mother, who was 16 when she had him, spent most of his childhood earning her college degree—she was the first in her family to graduate—and working nights at General Motors Co.

His father died in a car crash when he was young.

“I was lost a lot in my young life,” Dunn said.

He’s now using that experience to relate to young people and poorer families, both on the campaign trail and in his ministry.

Dunn, a Baptist minister, often speaks to youth.

He started Fighting Life’s Giants ministry in Arizona, which tends to terminally ill children.

“He’s walked children through the end of their lives,” said Bryan Watkins, Dunn’s campaign manager.

Watkins, 25, started his own political career in 2003. He met Dunn last July through a mutual friend.

“I was enamored with his story,” Watkins said.

Dunn has a staff of four and is campaigning full-time. He lives on lease income from business investments and has taken a leave from his Irvine-based business, Aventine Development Corp.

Developer

He started what became Aventine with his former college roommate Chad Hagle after a knee injury ended his professional football career, in which he played for the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets.

Hagle and Dunn started Tricor Southwest Corp. in Arizona and muscled their way into retail development.

“(Dunn) picked up the phone and called the vice president of real estate” of Eckerd Corp., now part of Rite Aid Corp., Hagle said. “He managed to get an audience with them.”

Two days later, Eckerd gave them one deal to prove themselves.

“Sixteen Eckerd stores later, we’re pretty thankful for that opportunity,” Hagle said.

The company went on to build stores for Walgreen Co. and CVS Caremark Corp.

When the pair needed backing for bigger projects, they brought Hagle’s dad on as the money source.

CVS development brought them to California, where Hagle and Dunn founded Aventine.

An unlikely pair, Damon, a black Christian who grew up poor, and Hagle, a white Jewish man of means, complemented each other.

“We’ve been able to add to one another’s lives,” Hagle said.

Dunn said he considers Hagle a brother and Hagle’s father served as a mentor.

“I never had a father. I look at his dad as a father figure in my life,” Dunn said. “He taught me that I could accomplish a lot more than what my existing disposition was.”

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