By Paul Kruze
February 21, 2018 (El Cajon) – If San Diego’s East County politics aren’t complex enough, another chess piece got moved on Tuesday with El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells announcing his intention to run against the troubled 50th District Republican incumbent, Congressman Duncan D. Hunter.
Flanked by family and friends, Wells, a Republican, chose the Ronald Reagan Community Center in downtown El Cajon to announce his candidacy.
Reading from a pre-written statement, Wells said that he can bring conservative values to Washington, D.C. “My reputation as a leader and a problem solved has led to incredible business growth and prosperity for my community,” he stated.
"My dream is to serve the people of the 50th with honor, dignity and hard work. I know that I face a strong incumbent and I'm up for the change," Wells told a room of journalists and well-wishers. "I might be the least likely person to run for Congress. I was not born into a wealthy or politically powerful family. I did not go to Ivy League schools — I have in no way the right pedigree to run for Congress,” he said, then enumerated his conservative values.
“Here’s what I stand for: limited government, the Constitution, the sanctity of life, property rights, a strong national defense and a secure border.” He added, “I will dedicate my time in Washington, D.C., to reducing the national debt, rejecting tax increases, and unburdening workers and small business owners to realize their full potential.”
As a mental health professional with a doctorate in psychology, Wells also pledged to serve what he characterized as an underserved community. “I’ve also spent my life working with the mentally ill. I feel that Washington has ignored this issue for far too long now. This is also encompassing the massive associated problem of drug addiction and homelessness. I believe I can help the 50th Congressional District be recognized at the national level for the positive important changes we can enact.”
California’s 50th Congressional District serves more than 730,000 constituents and stretches from Temecula to El Cajon and east to the Imperial County line, including the communities of Alpine, Borrego Springs, Escondido, Fallbrook, Julian, Lakeside, Ramona, San Marcos, Santee, and Valley Center.
While Wells may not have established wealth or family political connections like Hunter and his father, the former Congressman, Wells has been involved in local politics for nearly two decades, first as an advocate for a hospital employer on a local and state level.
He served as a Planning Commissioner with the City of El Cajon starting in 2004, and was elected to the El Cajon City Council in 2008, where he was appointed Mayor Pro Tem. With the resignation of Mayor Mark Lewis in 2013, Wells was appointed to serve out the remainder of his term and was elected Mayor of El Cajon in 2014 with 83% of the vote.
Wells has also served as President of the Grossmont Union High School District’s Proposition H Bond Committee and was appointed to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) board of directors.
As Mayor, he’s drawn praise for leading the city through tough economic times, bringing new car dealerships into El Cajon to raise the tax base, and for overseeing approval of a deal just reached with Live Nation to reopen the East County Performing Arts Center.
He’s drawn controversy for a temporary ban on feeding the homeless in public parks during a hepatitis outbreak and for leading opposition to California’s sanctuary state measure that aims to protect undocumented immigrants.
Wells says of Hunter, “I know I face a strong incumbent, and I am up for the challenge.”
But five-term incumbent Congressman Hunter’s strength has diminished amid a federal criminal investigation into whether Hunter, a five-term incumbent, and his wife, Margaret, allegedly misused campaign funds for personal use.
A recent article published on the Politico website was headlined, “From Fallujah to FBI Investigation: The undoing of Duncan Hunter.” The story includes new details on allegations of the Congressman’s misuse of campaign funds, substance abuse, adding that “his freewheeling Washington lifestyle is coming under scrutiny” as it chronicles the unraveling of Hunter’s reputation and power in Washington DC.
According to local political pundits, with perceived political blood in the water, other well-known local Republican politicians such as former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio and current 49th District Congressman Darrell Issa are also rumored to be testing the political waters in the 50th District. The filing deadline to run for the June primary is March 9th.
Two well-funded Democrats, former Navy Seal and Jamul-Dulzura School Board trustee Josh Butner and Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Obama administration Labor Department official, are also amassing large campaign chests to challenge Hunter. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party in the June primary will square off in November.
Having multiple prominent candidates in the fray could produce a lot of heartburn for the local Republican party, and some have speculated that Hunter could be pressured or choose not to run for reelection.
Hiowever, late on Tuesday, Hunter issued a written statement touting his background as a former United States Marine and made clear he intends to run depite Wells' candidacy and the FBI investigation into misuse of donated campaign funds on lavish personal expenses.
"I'm a Marine who was elected to represent my constituents in Congress. Wells and others are politicians," Hunter stated. "Politicians are constantly running for higher office, that's what they do. I fight for my beliefs and principles every day, and that's what I will keep doing no matter how many politicians run against me."
Tony Krvaric, chairman of The Republican Party of San Diego County, through Twitter, said unequivocally, “The Republican Party of San Diego County has endorsed and stands by its endorsement of @Rep_Hunter. If Democrats believe they can take #CA50 they must be smoking something. @nrcc @gop #rpsdc.”
Nevertheless, according to Wells’ campaign statement, the conservative Republican Mayor “has been endorsed by more than a dozen notable elected leaders, including Mayor Steve Vaus of Poway and Mayor Richard Bailey of Coronado.”
Wells is not ashamed that he grew up in an atmosphere where he would be least likely to succeed.
He said at his press conference, “My announcement is not unlike that of so many other Americans. My family legacy was to be an alcoholic, to struggle for every dollar and every single meal, to never realize my potential. That was the destiny of my father. I was eight years old when a police officer came to the door to tell me my father had taken his own life, finally losing his battle with alcoholism.
Wells’ work career starting out with a San Diego Union-Tribune paper route in the Rolando neighborhood of La Mesa, rising to working at a Jack-in-the-Box fast food outlet when he was 16. It was during high school that Wells said he had “his first dream of a way out: college.” But that did not turn out to a bed of roses either, with his first marriage ending with a divorce and he lived as a single dad with sole custody of two young children in a studio apartment.
“I worked the graveyard shift at the hospital,” he said. “A neighbor would come and sleep at the house with the kids when I was working in the hospital. In the morning, I would relieve her and the kids would wake up and want to start playing. I would stay with them all day until the afternoon, when I would try to get them to take a nap.”
Wells recalled meeting his current wife, Bettie Wells, a therapist, at a church gathering, and feeling torn trying to gather the muster to ask her out on a first date.
“Knowing my situation was difficult and wanting to ask her, out I devised a strategy and decided to be brutally honest with her. Before I asked her out on a first date I told her, ‘You have to understand that I have two kids and have sole custody. I work at night, so I never sleep, I don’t have any money, and I live in a studio apartment with my two kids. And I have a car which is a Ford Escort which doesn’t go faster than thirty miles an hour.’ But even after hearing that, she decided to go out with me -- which basically makes me blessed and makes her a saint.”
He concluded his remarks by stating, “I’ve fulfilled many impossible dreams -- achieving a doctorate in psychology, starting my own behavior health services business, and getting into public office.”
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Updated March 22, 2018 with statement issued by Hunter.