Joe Dunn: The Man, the Record, the Interview.




At the Farmworkers' March from Merced to Sacramento, 2002.

At the Farmworkers’ March from Merced to Sacramento, 2002.

Small and wiry, handsome and loquacious, former state Senator Joe Dunn makes no apologies for his liberalism, and hasn’t a worry about his Congressional race for the 46th district seat vacated by Loretta Sanchez.

“But what about all these endorsements [former state Senator] Lou Correa has been announcing every week – when are YOU going to be seeking endorsements, and announcing them?” 

“Well, for one thing, Vern, endorsements are not all that important, voters don’t care about ’em.  But having said that, we have PLENTY of endorsements, and we’ll announce them when we feel like it.”

We joke a little about whether “Correa endorsements” are about as meaningful as “Correa endorsements,” as Greg Diamond puts it, while Joe’s inseparable aide Carina Franck-Pantone sips her latte.  Lou’s had no problem in the past endorsing three different contenders for a seat, devaluing the act from a “vote for this person!” edict to a gentle “seal of approval.”  It’ll surprise nobody when some of the local Dem pols who’ve already come out for Lou also come out for Joe, Jordan, Bao, or all of the above — just so as not to piss off any possible winner.

“Yeah, I know Lou is out there, getting all his old friends to endorse him, and then running to the press, and I don’t blame him, it’s the only way he can respond to our overwhelming fundraising advantage.  We know how much it’ll take to make it through the June primary, we’re on track for that and we’ve just started.  contemplativeLou’s fundraising has peaked.  And we WILL have the vast bulk of Labor with us – they remember real well who voted with them and who voted against them.”

“All these contributions though, they’re not so much from in the district…”  

“Oh, heavens no – they’re from all over the country.  They’re mostly from TRIAL LAWYERS.  Trial lawyers are my base, and I’m proud of that.  It’s us trial lawyers who represent the little guy, against corporations, against polluters, against insurers, big tobacco, abusive institutions like the Church when it enables predators.”

What’s a “Progressive?”

We use shorthand in politics and life, and sometimes get lazy and forget what the shorthand originally stood for.  Nowadays we say “progressive” instead of “liberal” usually, since the double-whammy of rightwing dirtying of the L word combined with many self-styled “liberals” having let us down over the decades.  Having established that Joe (along with Bao) agrees he’s the “progressive” choice in the race, against Lou and Jordan (who would call themselves “business Democrats” or “moderates” while we would call them “corporatists” or even “kleptocrats”), I ask him, “so what would you say that means, to you, to be ‘progressive’?

dunn at strike“That’s a very good question, Vern,” and Joe Dunn thinks a moment.  “I guess, basically… it’s about empowering people, about making sure the average person gets more of a voice, more power.  It’s really tough for the average person to have a voice in public affairs right now.  You can see in my record, me fighting for that, it’s the way I was brought up – three generations of labor [more on that below.]  I have always fought for the average person’s interests, for women’s choice, for the environment…”

You know what?  That’s not just an ad hoc liberal list to me – I’ve started to see how fighting for the environment IS a populist issue.  This world, these commons, belong to all of us equally – the air, the land, the sea.  And when the short-term greedy – a better description of the adversary than “the rich” or “corporations” – demand the right to take and pollute the environment, they are stealing from ALL of us average folks, just the same as when they suck up all our wealth.

Joe agrees with me that business, even the biggest businesses, have legitimate needs and demands, but they’re pretty damn good at getting those needs met.  And it should be enough that they’ve got the Republican Party pretty much lockstep behind them, without so many Democrats straddling both sides.

BUT.  Devil’s advocate time.  “I hope you’re also fiscally conservative.  Every nation, and every person, should be partly liberal and partly conservative – you need a right and a left hand, don’t you?  “Liberal” is etymologically related to generosity – but we all have limits to our generosity, and are loath to break the bank, right?  Can you tell us something from your record that shows your fiscal conservatism?”

dunn hand downJoe Dunn’s eyes flash.  “YES I CAN!  In early 2001 Governor Gray Davis made the catastrophic decision to deal with California’s energy crisis by spending billions of taxpayer dollars buying energy on the open market, at highly unfavorable terms, from the same crooks who were defrauding us.”  The resulting massive long-term debt obligations added to the state budget crisis and eventually led to Davis’ recall.

Continues The Politician Who Brought Down Enron, “I was the ONLY lawmaker in either house to vote against this squandering of public money – you can’t get more fiscally conservative than that.  What I told the Governor was to do what JFK had done when the Big Steel oligopoly was endangering our nation with their price fixing.  JFK called the heads of the biggest steel companies in to the White House and threatened to have the National Guard seize their factories.  And they backed off.  Gray Davis could have done that to Enron and the other energy pirates.  But he wouldn’t listen to me.”

Well then…

Who’s Best for Latinos?

A little while back I heard [Santa Ana Councilwoman] Michele Martinez, who these days runs some organization of Latino/a elected leaders, regale Los Amigos on how important it is to have “one of us” in Congress representing “us,” especially now that Santa Ana, once represented by Correa and Solorio in Sacramento, is now stuck with the lamentable Tom Daly and Janet Nguyen.  Michele was obviously referring to Lou.  I raised my hand and ventured cautiously:  “Don’t you think it’s possible that the candidate who might represent the average Latino’s interests best, might not be a Latino?”  Michele was unprepared to answer such a cheeky query.  But, how can Joe overcome what one wag has called his “shocking lack of ethnicity?”

Sergio C. Garcia

Sergio C. Garcia

“Well, sure,” he says, “some people may vote for Lou because he’s Latino, some Asians may vote for Bao because he’s Asian, and some people may even vote for me just because I’m white, but … Jesus Christ, Vern, it’s 2015!  When are we going to get over this racial politics?

“I may be Irish-American, and not speak Spanish, but I’m going to have plenty of Spanish-language material, letting the voters of the district know how long I’ve been supporting them.  Just recently – you read about Sergio Garcia, the undocumented immigrant now practicing law, brought here from Mexico by his parents when he was a kid, and trying for 17 years to get his papers?  I was the one who pushed for him to be accepted by the State Bar, the first since 2008 when applicants were first required to list citizenship status on bar applications.

“Or, go all the way back to 2002, when I marched with the Farm Workers from Merced to Sacramento, along with Dolores Huerta (pics below)  to get an equivocating Governor Davis to sign the Farmworkers Bill.  It was 100 degrees, my kids marched with me – and we succeeded.

Dolores on the right.

Dolores on the right.

march 2

march 3

The little Dunns were troopers in the 110-degree weather.

The little Dunns were troopers in the 100-degree weather… but they wanted to be part of history.

“Sure, Lou and I both support comprehensive immigration reform as do most Democrats,” he continues, “but on all the other issues Latinos care about – healthcare, education, labor – I’ll put my record against Lou’s any day.  Labor?  Not even close.  My voting record is 98% pro-labor, Lou’s is 72% – practically a Republican level.  98, 72.  Not even close.”

“But, to be a devil’s advocate again, Joe … aren’t there maybe SOMETIMES times to vote against labor’s demands?  Isn’t it true that overly generous pensions in the past are the cause of much of our fiscal trouble?”

“Ah, there’s a grain of truth there, but it’s vastly exaggerated by rightwing propaganda.  The so-called pension crisis is nothing a few tweaks here and there couldn’t fix.  Your average public employee’s pension, after working away for us their whole life, is an average of $35K a year – something you can just barely live on.

“You know what, Vern?  Folks say if you’re representing Orange County, you have to be relatively conservative to get re-elected…”

“Yeah, I hate that!” I interrupt.  “Lou Correa, Jose Solorio, Tom Daly say that, even Loretta sometimes says that, and whenever they do I say ‘Look at Joe Dunn!'”

“Exactly, Vern!  I always voted the way I believed, as a strong progressive, and I still got re-elected by wider margins than any other OC Democrats.  It’s because I believe in what I’m doing, I’ll look you in the eye and explain myself, and I’ll tell you to your face that if you don’t agree it’s okay if you vote against me.  And people respect that.”

“Yeah.  That reminds me of [Anaheim Mayor] Tom Tait, on the other side of the aisle.  He’ll listen to you, and explain himself clearly, and you feel like he’s being honest with you, and a lot of liberals and Democrats end up respecting him more than some of the people on our own side.”

“Yes, that’s my impression of Mayor Tait as well.”

I’d like to see the two of THEM debate whether there’s a pension crisis or not – something I know Tom feels strongly about.  But back to Joe, what’s this “upbringing” he mentioned?

A Black Sheep from Minnesota.

kid 3

 “Like I said, I came from three generations of labor, my father and grandfather were STEREOTYPERS.”  No, that does not they were like Archie Bunker; “stereotyping” was an important part of printing newspapers.  “There were lots of strikes when I was a kid, a lot of tension between printing workers like my family and the newspaper owners.  Minnesota was hardcore progressive at the time, and sometimes our strikes turned out violently.

Typical violent Minneapolis strike, 1938

Typical violent Minneapolis strike, 1938

“We were lower-middle class, Irish-Catholic labor.  My dad fought in World War II, my older brother fought in Vietnam.  I was the youngest of five boys.  They all went into manufacturing and blue-collar work.  I guess I was the black sheep because I went to law school – University of Minnesota.

“It was 1984 when a law firm I was working for transferred me to Newport Beach.  To someone from Minnesota, ANY city with the word “Beach” in it sounds like paradise.  Didn’t take me too long there, though, to notice that the politics in the OC is a LOT different from progressive Minnesota.  So, as we were busy with the tobacco litigation, I…”

Young Joe in military school.

Young Joe in military school.

“What tobacco litigation?”

“Oh, you don’t know about that.  Our innovation in the tobacco litigation we pursued was to have various states sue the industry for recovery of taxpayer dollars used to treat uninsured people for tobacco-related illnesses.  This robbed the industry of their arguments [that smokers were aware of the danger of smoking] and they eventually had to fork over $200 BILLION.  California received a billion a year for 20 years out of that, which was split between the state and local jurisdictions.  That worked out to 30 million for Orange County. 

choc“But our Board of Supervisors wanted to spend that windfall, not on health like they were supposed to, but on more jail beds and debt relief (due to our fabled bankruptcy.)  I, along with the physicians of Orange County, fought that by putting Measure H on the ballot to ensure the money went to health.  The Supes fought back by putting Measure G on the ballot, which they figured would beat us just by coming first.  But we ground into people’s heads:  G = more Government, H = more Health.  And we won!  65% to 35%, in conservative Orange County.

“That’s not the only ballot measure I started and got passed, there were two others – a Veterans’ Homes Bond in 2000, and for the Childrens Hospitals in 2002 and 2006 –the 2002 one was even endorsed by the OC Register, and that’s how CHOC got that new tower.” ”  He points proudly across the street, and now you know what Starbucks we were in.

Ugh.  O'Grady.

Ugh. O’Grady.

“The other major litigation I was involved in before running for office was against the Catholic Church for its clerical sexual abuse.  In the late 80s all the cases were dismissed due to the old statute of limitations – you had only until a year after your 18th birthday to report abuse that’d happened when you were a minor.  But in the 90’s there was a quirky set of circumstances in the Stockton diocese – this one priest, Father Oliver O’Grady, had been abusing boys for DECADES.   Roger Mahony, who later ran into so much trouble as LA Archbishop, is in this story too – he was Bishop of Stockton, and he responded to complaints by just moving Father O’Grady from parish to parish.

Ugh.  Mahony.

Ugh. Mahony.

“Well, O’Grady molested SEVERAL members of one family.  When the father caught wind of this, the youngest boy was still a minor, so we were able to get past that old statue of limitations.  We won a huge award for the family, including punitive damages.  Many believe Bishop Mahony lied during his testimony.  And two movies were made about this case!”  [I only find Deliver Us From Evil – Vern]

“Well, in 1998 I was elected to the state Senate and I had to let go of all those cases.  But one of the early things I did was to reform the Statute of Limitations for childhood sexual abuse.  Previously you had only until a year after your 18th birthday to report the abuse;  NOW you have until a year after you first learn that your emotional issues are connected to childhood abuse.  So, as you know, prosecution of these horrific cases has now gone much more smoothly.”

Nice!  Except, What’s Your Favorite Movie?

“Oh.  Um.”  [Laughs.]  “Well, you’d probably expect a couple of them.  To Kill A MockingbirdTwelve Angry Men.  Those are the movies that made me want to become a lawyer when I was a kid.

“But really, probably just about my favorite movie when I was teenager was a Woody Allen one, Love and Death.  This came in between all his early farces, and the romantic comedies he made starting in the late 70’s, and it was a sort of spoof on Tolstoy’s War and Peace.” 

“Oh!  More recently, The Shawshank Redemption – I musta seen that like a thousand times.”

“That’s SORT of like a guy being his own lawyer.  How about, your favorite book?”

A Peace to End All Peace,  about the impact of World War I on the 20th Century. When people ask what the most seminal event of the 20th Century was, they often say World War II, but I say World War I because of how a dysfunctional settlement of the Middle East borders in many ways contributed to the current situation in the Middle East.” 

shawshank redemption

Life After Sacramento

It’s been nearly a decade since Joe was in elected office as our state Senator.  What’s he been busy with since then, and could it be called public service?  Sounds like it could…

cmaCEO, California Medical Association, 2006-10.  Joe learned a lot about medical issues, seeing them from a doctor’s point of view from the first time, as he reformed the group’s lobbying efforts.  A longtime fighter for single-payer universal healthcare, Joe can report that “99%” of doctors believe that everybody should have access to healthcare, but they differ on the best way to make that happen.

cal state barCEO, California State Bar, 2010-14.  Joe was brought in to this group to reform it – it was technically a regulatory body which had come to see itself as, and behave as, a trade association.  Many in the legislature considered the pre-Dunn State Bar a “dysfunctional backwater,” and Joe and the new board angered a lot of members – LAWYERS! – as he attempted to transform it into an “internationally recognized regulator.”  The idea being, the State Bar should represent The People of California, not The Lawyers of California.  Joe’s departure was contentious, and litigation is still ongoing.  “SOON the full story will be told,” which Joe very much looks forward to.  As I look at the image on the right, I remember what Sam Elliot’s Mysterious Cowboy said to the Big Lebowsky over that mug of sarsaparilla:  “Sometimes you eat the Bar, sometimes the Bar eats you.”

uci law schoolUCI School of Law.  He’s really enjoyed this past year, working with his good friend Dean Erwin Chemerisky, at the Law School which HE led the fight to create!  It is now in the top 30 of all law schools, and has consistently ranked in the top ten of “Most Diverse.”  He has mostly been working on establishing the most comprehensive, interdisciplinary cybersecurity research institute in the nation. Joe is working with law enforcement agencies, privacy advocates and top academics to best figure out how to thread today’s famous needle between privacy and security. He’s also working with the Orange County Labor Federation and the UCLA Labor Center on the newly established Community Labor Partnership with the ultimate goal of creating a permanent Labor Center at UCI Law School.

MY Laundry List

Some wag called last month’s first debate for this Congressional seat a “predictable liberal checklist,” in which there wasn’t much suspense as to how each of these four Democrats would answer the questions.  Well, this is MY laundry list of some national issues I care about, which different Democrats might answer differently.

  • Citizens United.  One of the worst decisions in the Supreme Court’s history, and MUST be overturned as soon as possible!
  • Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership.  Would oppose it unless significant changes are made.  He brings up the jobs-bleeding to low-wage-countries problem.  I argue that the problem is a more fundamental than that – like similar previous trade agreements the basic flaw is that it gives corporations more power than elected governments – even our own US government!  He agrees.
  • Keystone Pipeline.  NO.  (Since our interview, Obama has nixed it anyway.)
  • Black Lives Matter.  He understands exactly what that means – not that “Not all lives matter,” but that “Not all lives are being treated equally.”  He will do everything he can to rein in police abuse, and agrees that “if you are young and black [or, in places like the OC, Latino] most white people can’t imagine what your daily life is like.”
  • Obama’s Iran Deal.  He would support it, but he sounds a little ambivalent.  How come?  “I think it’s the best we can do, but everything is very complicated out in the Middle East.”
  • How about that Palestine answer of yours from last month’s debate, which upset some of our Arab and Muslim friends, as it sounded like you were blaming the violence mostly on the Palestinian side?  Joe explains:  “My comments at the debate were intended to reflect the tragedy of injury and death to innocent people on both sides of the conflict. The history and causes of the conflict are complicated and we need to ensure that both sides come together seeking a solution that will support peaceful co-existence between all people.”

Hmm…  I get the picture from these last two bullet points that his “base of trial lawyers” includes some folks with somewhat hawkish Israeli views whom he does not want to worry or offend.  Moving on…

Hitting the Ground Running!

business competition on track“What’s gonna be your first priority, the number one thing you wanna get to work on as soon as you get to Washington?”

“Well, I’m painfully aware of how hard it will be to do anything helpful while the other Party is in the majority.  And everybody agrees that something has to be done about America’s grotesque INCOME INEQUALITY.  But I think that the biggest driver, the most massive contributor to that inequality, is STUDENT DEBT.

“I was able to attend University of Minnesota Law School practically for free.  Thanks to the reckless repeal of taxes over the last couple decades, that’s just not possible any more.  We demand our young people have a good education, but then we saddle the millenials with a massive student debt, they’re stuck with it forever, they can’t buy a house or achieve any kind of financial independence.  It’s our generation that created this problem, and we need to fix it.

“I’ve heard Hillary Clinton’s plan for dealing with this problem, and I have to say sadly that it is just tinkering around the edges.  What we have to do is locate a revenue stream, to pay for making college affordable for all Americans.”

“That sounds like Bernie Sanders’ plan – he wants to dedicate a tax on certain Wall Street transactions to that.”

“Exactly.  Something like Bernie’s plan.  That will be my first priority in Congress.”


Wow.  All of that was kind of … overwhelming.

What you got, Lou?  Jordan?  Bao?


NOTE:  A few minor errors in the original (Nov. 16) version of this story have been corrected.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.