You’ve had one of the more unusual careers in California politics.
I have. It’s a little bit different path. I grew in my early teens playing in bands, playing guitar. I grew up in that whole Orange County scene, Social Distortion, The Adolescents, that whole early 80s, late 70s scene. I’m 44. I played in punk bands, in all the clubs in LA, The Whiskey, the Coocoo’s Nest. Up until really my late 20s, I moved to Austin, Texas, for music, and got more into a roots kind thing, country and blues stuff, got into the old stuff and started doing more acoustic. My early influence was punk, but now I’m an old guy. I do a few shows here and there. I’m doing a show for Diane Harkey, a state Assemblywoman, she’s got an event down in Orange County next month.
Did you have a period where you were homeless?
Yes. Being in politics, I was always very open about it, because you’re running high profile campaigns. I left home when I was 17, lived on the streets in Hollywood for about a year. I moved to San Francisco a short time after that, kind of the welfare hotel thing, being a street musician. Hollywood wasn’t fun, being on the streets as kid, survival and drugs and all that. It was quite the experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody, but I wouldn’t change it.
That I went through that stuff I think really helps me in my job now, here at the Conservation Corps. A lot of the teens involved in the Corps have had a tough go. I hate to be one of those old guys whose like “I’ve been through what you’ve been through, kid.” But you know what, I have. There’s not many Corps members, with the exception of some of the gang activities, where I don’t know what they’re going through. I do know what it’s like to not have a job, be homeless, have drug issues and parental issues. I think when you’re out there, you can just kind of tell, the tattoos and the whole things, it’s “Ok, I can relate to that guy. He’s not a suit.”
Describe some of your tattoos.
I’m not totally sleeved or anything, but I’m pretty much all the way up. I’ve got my American flag, my rattlesnake and my guitars and mohawked Indians. Classic tattoo stuff. They’re basically from my wrists up to my shoulders, my stomach and chest and back. I was never a leg guy.
How did you get into politics?
By accident. I was playing in a band and I got a job at a phone bank, making five bucks an hour every afternoon from 4 to 9 o’clock, calling people on behalf of candidates. You could play at night, then sleep all day and go to work at four.
I worked my way up and become a supervisor at the phone bank. The woman I was working for, Lois Lundberg, she was very much the type of person that liked to advance her people. I went to work in 1989 on a campaign. I started working with a guy named Ron Rogers, who is Cogdill’s staff director now. I kind of became the token, “Oh, he’s the punker Republican kid working these campaigns.”
The first really big one I did was the Horcher recall. Way back in the Willie Brown days, the Republicans took over and got a majority in the State Assembly in 1994. Which I won an award for, the only plaque I have on my wall, “The Republican Majority Maker.” Then Paul Horcher voted for Willie Brown to be Speaker, so they recalled him. It was the first recall of a legislator in 87 years. I ran that campaign, we had volunteers from all over the state, slept in the campaign headquarters, and ended up killing the whole Willie Brown machine.
I did the Matt Fong for US Senate campaign, went to work for the party, was political director, was director of operations for the California Republican Party. I did Bill Simon’s campaign. That primary back in 2002, he ran against Bill Jones and Dick Riordon. He was at two percent in the polls when we started and we ended up just killing Reardon by 18 points. We took a guy that nobody knew anything about and actually came close to beating Gray Davis.
You’re a Republican rock musician.
It was more of that libertarian attitude that the party was based on, which I think the party has completely strayed from. I’m not happy with our party right now. To be honest, this year, for the first time ever, even way back in the primary, I supported Barack Obama. I volunteered for him. My Republican friends will all be pissed off, but there’s a lot of reasons.
It is different. Most people in the entertainment industry tend to be left-leaning. My dad became a pastor in my early teens. There was always that conservative Christian background that I had. I’ve never been one of those political musicians. Most of my friends are all liberals, especially with my wife being a writer.
Who’s your wife?
Samantha Dunn. Her first book was a novel called “Failing Paris.” She wrote a book called “Not By Accident.” She was an editor for In Style, and she’s done a lot of stuff for the LA Times.
All my friends were liberal, left-leaning musicians. There was some reverse McCarthyism at times. I was doing a show, a writer named Rachel Resnick, they would do readings and have music. The guy who was the promoter, Rachel said “Hey, Sam Dunn’s husband’s a musician, we should have him play.” Then he Googled me and said “Not on my watch will there be a Republican playing my show.” I was pissed, not that I cared about playing his stupid little show. I was ready to make a big stink about it. The same thing kind of happened with my wife and I. She had friends who were very liberal. When they found out I was a Republican operative, we were disinvited to dinner. I really had to prove myself with that crowd.
So you and your wife have had an eventful few months when you took this job?
It’s amazing how your life can change. My wife had a cancer scare. They thought she had ovarian cancer. It turned out to be these fibroid tumors. The doctor said you have to have a hysterectomy, you’ll never be able to have kids. We waited until we moved. Once we moved up here, she went into get her blood work done and schedule her surgery. The doctor was like “We’re not going to be able to do this surgery because you’re three months pregnant.” So not only did end we up moving, but we have a three month old baby boy now. Talk about a total life turnaround. If we had stayed in Southern California, she would have had the hysterectomy. We can thank the California Conservation Corps for my son. His name’s Benen. It’s Irish.
What’s next for you?
I’m an appointee, so that could end at any moment with whoever the next governor is. But I hope to retire here. I go out and work with the crews. I went out and did fire training with the Shasta 21 fire crew. I was out with 18 to 25 years olds doing hard training, the pack test and all that. We have a ranking system, and a blue hat is the entry level Corps. member. I wore a blue hat. If I ever lost my appointment I’d take the civil service test and stick around.
Campaigning to me is a thing of the past. I want nothing to do with it. This job is so much more important. If I have Corps members I’m close to that if they weren’t in the Corps, they’d be dead.
So it’s not that you had some alienating moment with campaigns.
I had many alienating moments. But it was always like, “What else am I going to do?” I don’t have a college degree. It wasn’t like I had some fallback. We do important work, compared to campaigning, where it’s like “I got some asshole elected who’s going to forget about m
Any particular assholes you’d like to mention?
I’ll mention the ones that aren’t. Diane Harkey, she’s one of those people who takes care of her people. Nathan Fletcher, he’s an Assemblyman in San Diego. I gave him his first job in politics. He used to go door to door doing registration for me. He was a baseball player down at Riverside College. Anthony Adams, an Assemblyman too, both worked for me doing voter registration. Some people would go out and come back with four or five. Nathan would come back with like 20. The first time I ever met Nathan Fletcher, I knew this guy is going to do something.
There you go, I’ll throw her under the bus. Supervisor Janet Nguyen. Talk about one of those people you work your butt off for, you’re friends, then they’re like “Ok, I’m elected, I don’t need you anymore.” Janet had that race in Orange County, the closest race in recent political history. They hired me to come down and run the recount drill. When we started she was down by six, and she ended up winning by three votes out of I think 80,000 votes cast. They decided they weren’t going to pay.
It was $10,000?
It was nothing. But the work we did in that recount room won that race. She paid part of it. The reason I was pissed was they still owed me $2,500. I wouldn’t go around suing somebody over $2,500, but then she said she didn’t owe it to me. So I sued her. Of course they called the next day and said “Come pick up your check.” She has a history of pissing off her friends. It happens a lot in politics. Take care of your people, because they’re going to be around.