REGION — Paul Kerr has a story to tell.
The Rancho Santa Fe businessman recently announced his candidacy for the 49th Congressional District, taking aim at longtime incumbent Darrell Issa and President Donald Trump.
But “Rancho Santa Fe businessman” isn’t all there is to Paul Kerr, the 62-year-old Democratic candidate said. Paul Kerr, he said, is the man whose childhood was rocked by his mother’s medical diagnosis, which underscored in his mind the need for universal health care in the country.
He is the man who served his country in the U.S. Navy, but struggled with life after the military.
He is the man who attended San Diego State University at age 29, but due to a rule that sunsets G.I. benefits after 10 years, was forced to pay his way through college and absorb a substantial student debt.
And he is the man whose life experience fueled him to success in business. It’s these aspects of his life story that Kerr said he believes will click with voters and lead him to victory in November 2018.
“I’ve led a very unique life, and I think that it will resonate with a lot of voters,” Kerr said. “I feel like I have a really unique story to tell about the military, about my struggles working in restaurants, to fighting my way through college, to living with a boatload of student loan debt, my family’s health issues … there are so many different areas that resonate with the people of this district and will ultimately help me to be successful with the challenge I am about to undertake.”
‘A unique life’
Kerr grew up the oldest of six children in Arizona. He said one of his first life lessons was the hard work of immigrants, when his father had him and two of his brothers get a job picking onions with migrant laborers between the summer of seventh and eighth grade.
He lasted two days.
“I didn’t last even close to that long,” he said about the summer job. “As a result of that experience, I have a profound respect for men and women who are working so hard to provide for a better life for their kids.”
A few years later when Kerr was 16 years old, the family’s life was turned upside down when his mother was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
His father’s company was about to shut down its operations in Arizona, which would have left the family in dire straits because his next employer would not have been able to provide insurance for his mother due to her pre-existing condition.
The company, Kerr said, created a job for his father in Southern California, and the family moved to Escondido. His mother died three years later.
Kerr has lived in San Diego ever since.
“Out of the kindness of this company, that is how I ended up in San Diego,” Kerr said. “That formed in me a very clear understanding of why we need universal health care in this country. I was this family.”
At age 17, Kerr, not seeing a path to college, decided to join the U.S. Navy. He served for three years during the Vietnam era (though makes it clear he did not serve in the Vietnam Conflict).
When his service term ended, Kerr said he wasn’t prepared for civilian life. Like many of his fellow service members, Kerr said he wasn’t prepared with the skills necessary to find good paying work.
“A lot of these guys get out of the service, like me, and I could land aircraft on the beach, but I didn’t have specific training applicable to civilian life,” Kerr said. “I understand why our veterans struggle, because one day you have discipline, missions and goals and then one day, I walk off of the 32nd Street Naval Station and it’s like, ‘What do I do now?’”
For the next nine years, Kerr said he worked in restaurants, as a waiter, a bouncer and a bartender. He then applied for a job in management at the restaurant and was denied because he didn’t have a college degree.
“I started thinking, is this it?” Kerr said. “I have to do something, so I enrolled in SDSU when I was 29 years old.”
U.S. G.I. bill benefits expired 10 years after one’s service ended at that time, Kerr said, so he wound up only having one year of his college education paid for. He worked to pay for college, but still graduated with $20,000 in student loan debt.
Following graduation, however, Kerr became successful in commercial real estate and “hasn’t looked back,” he said.
Kerr the candidate
Kerr, who has never held a political office, said he felt compelled to run for congress due to the policies of the current presidential administration under Donald Trump, which he said pose a threat to America’s poor and working class.
Issa, who narrowly defeated a 2016 challenge by Col. Doug Applegate, has not only not stood up to Trump, but has ardently supported his agenda, which runs counter to the wishes of the people in the district, Kerr said.
Kerr said that he feels the current political dynamics, in addition to fatigue over “career politicians,” could help him be victorious in the election.
“First and foremost, if Trump keeps going down the road he’s going, he could make it very easy to put it very simply,” Kerr said of a Democrat victory in 2018. “But assuming nothing else changes, I think people are fed up with professional politicians.
“The founders contemplated, when they put the system together, that people like me who have life experience would feel compelled to go back to Washington to serve,” Kerr said. “I think the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans are tired of the status quo, and as exhibit A you can look at any survey or poll on America’s satisfaction with Congress.”
Kerr said he’s working hard to communicate his message to voters in both San Diego and Orange County. His campaign, he said, is focused on six issues: assisting lower income and working poor families, solving the country’s health care problem, veterans issues, solving the nation’s immigration problems in a humane fashion, protecting the environment and making college education an affordable option for young Americans.
Each of the prongs of his platform comes from some aspect of his life experience, he said.
“I am going to be out everywhere, and I am going to get that message out,” Kerr said.
One thing he said he wants to do is get voters to know him beyond his current position in life, he said.
“I don’t think it will be hard to overcome,” Kerr said of the perception that he is a ‘rich guy from Rancho Santa Fe.’ “I’ve talked to you for about 15 minutes, and you already know where I’ve come from, and I don’t think you would identify with me as ‘just a wealthy guy.’
“I’ve beat back some really tough challenges and come through to the other side,” Kerr said.
Kerr said he feels he will also be successful with independents and moderate Republicans — many of whom comprise the voting bloc that is critical in South Orange County — because of his business background.
“That’s a big part of my life, and that is an area that they will look at and say, ‘he’s had to manage a budget, he’s had thousands of people work for him at his firm over the years,’” Kerr said. “I think those issues make me a very attractive candidate for the O.C. voter, especially for the moderates and independents.”
Kerr said he will spend much of the next few months networking and fundraising to increase his visibility with voters in what will likely be a crowded Democratic primary field, which includes Applegate and environmental attorney Mike Levin.
“It’s not something I have focused on or spent any time digging into or concerned with,” Kerr said about the growing field of Democratic candidates. “I appreciate and respect the fact that people feel motivated to do this and get out and run, but at the end of the day, I am laser focused on beating Darrell Issa in November 2018.”