El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells announced Tuesday he is running for Congress, challenging long-time Republican incumbent Rep. Duncan Hunter for a hotly-contested district that encompasses much of East County.
Wells, who has held the mayoral position since 2013, is seeking to take over the 50th Congressional District, which serves more than 730,000 constituents, including those in the North County communities of Fallbrook, San Marcos, Valley Center and Escondido.
Making the announcement at the Ronald Reagan Community Center in El Cajon, Wells said he aims to bring “conservative, Republican values to Washington, D.C.”
“Here’s what I stand for: limited government, the sanctity of life, property rights, a strong national defense and a secure border,” he said. “I will dedicate my time in Washington, D.C., to reducing the national debt, reject tax increases and unburden workers and small business owners to realize their full potential.”
Wells acknowledged he faces a strong incumbent in Hunter.
“I am up for the challenge,” he told a room full of supporters. “My life has been all about impossible dreams that I’ve somehow achieved, again and again.”
He said his “impossible dreams” included earning a doctorate in psychology, starting his own behavioral health services business and getting into public office.
Hunter is well-known among constituents and has significantly more name recognition because of his father — the district’s former representative — but an ongoing criminal investigation into his political spending has led many to believe that the otherwise safe seat will be up for grabs in the June primary election.
The FBI began looking into his campaign spending after reports that he used money from donors for his own personal expenses, from family vacations to oral surgery and private school tuition. Hunter denies all intentional wrongdoing and said he has paid back all funds that were spent by mistake.
As for the allegations against Hunter, Wells said, “I am not part of that investigation and know only what other members of the public know.”
Earlier this month, Politico reported that Republicans are worried about Hunter’s prospects for re-election. Some encouraged him to end his career in Congress by not seeking a sixth term.
Upon hearing that Wells was throwing his hat into the ring, Hunter minced no words.
“I'm a Marine who was elected to represent my constituents in Congress,” he said. “Wells and others are politicians. 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.”
Carl DeMaio, a member of the San Diego City Council from 2008-12, and also a Republican, has also expressed interest in the seat.
DeMaio lost to Bob Filner in a run for San Diego mayor in 2012 and also made a failed run for the 52nd Congressional District in the 2014 election, losing to incumbent Scott Peters.
“I appreciate all the San Diegans who have reached out to me to encourage me to run for Congress,” DeMaio wrote in a media release. “If we want better results from government, we must first start by fixing Congress and holding them accountable when they violate the public’s trust. I expect to make a decision in the next week.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been targeting the seat, and a political action committee was formed largely to attack the incumbent.
According to Federal Election Commission data, Wells and Hunter will face at least five Democratic rivals, including two who have raised more than $400,000 as of December. Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a small business owner who formerly served as a White House intern and public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Labor, has raised more than $520,000.
“Every congressional office has many community leaders interested in serving,” Wells said. “This race is not likely to be different. I will run on my record as a proven conservative leader and problem solver.”
Wells, 55, was also at the center of controversy earlier this year after the city placed a ban on feeding the homeless in public spaces.
The ban was meant to help prevent the spread of hepatitis A, which has killed 20 and sickened more than 500 people countywide — most of them homeless — but critics called it a punitive measure to dehumanize and criminalize the homeless population.
International media, including the BBC, picked up on the ban after about a dozen volunteers were arrested for staging a food-sharing event in one of the city’s most popular parks.
San Diego County officials ended the health emergency declaration in late-January and the city of El Cajon followed suit by lifting the ban.
Wells said if the city had to do it again, it would.
“This was always about preventing people from contracting hepatitis,” Wells said. “I will always do what must be done to protect the public health, even if it might be controversial.”
A doctor of clinical psychology, Wells owns and operates Broadwell Health, Inc., a behavioral health facility in El Cajon. He has a wife, three children and four grandchildren.
He entered politics as an advocate for a hospital employer at both the local and state level. He served on the El Cajon Planning Commission and in 2008 was elected to the City Council. In 2013, former Mayor Mark Lewis resigned and Wells was appointed to serve out the rest of his term. He was re-elected in 2014.
Wells told the crowd that he grew up in a family that was poor and struggling. He recounted that when he was 8, he lost his father to alcoholism, carrying some shame after that happened.
But Wells said despite the early challenges, he was able to make his way into college, marriage, family and career.
“I have found that the tough times in my life made the joyful ones that much sweeter,” he said.
Wells said he has been endorsed by former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, other regional elected officials and community leaders.
“It is my deeply held belief that holding public office is one of the greatest, most sacred jobs in America,” Wells said. “And I find it so incredibly American that even a kid like me from a broken and impoverished family can dare to dream of service in Washington.”