This is part of a series of articles about candidates for local office. Candidates who would like to be interviewed are invited to contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ammar Campa-Najjar has run continuously for three years for the 50th Congressional District seat of Duncan Hunter Jr. When he narrowly lost to Hunter last November by less than 4 percentage points, he didn’t even pause before announcing in January that he would run again in the 2020 election.
Asked if Hunter’s trial for misuse of campaign funds throws the district into a special election a year before the General Election might change his campaign, he replied, “Not a whole lot.” From his perspective, that campaign “got real ugly last year. I did a lot of self-reflection. I decided my focus is not going to be my personal politics with Hunter. I felt that a lot of the voters caught onto my message of focusing on peoples’ health, personal safety and dignity. That’s why nearly half of the district entrusted me with becoming the next congressman and almost gave me the win.”
This and the fact that he has now become imprinted on the public mind over three years gives him an almost pseudo-incumbent status—in his opinion.
He adds, “Our approach was to finish stronger by starting stronger. We announced January 1 and that gave us the tailwind to take on Hunter next year or in the next 100 days. Our concern is to focus in the district. I’m the only one who has talked to them about representing everybody with policy proposals tailored to them. The strength of our convictions and the policies we have proposed. And that I’m not a Johnny come lately. I’m literally one hundred percent focused—when I’m not working—on the needs of or district. That’s going to give us the edge. We have a pseudo incumbency. We have the second highest name recognition and should there be a special election, the top name recognition.”
What lessons did he learn from 2016? “One, is that trust takes time,” says Campa-Najjar. “All politics is personal. I spent a lot of time trying to connect with as many voters as I physically could. In two years, I took on a 40-year dynasty and came within a hair’s breadth of winning. Secondly, the voters are good people who voted their values, but not enough of them heard mine because of the mudslinging.”
With that experience under their belts, this time Campa-Najjar’s campaign retooled and rose above the mudslinging. Everyone has heard the saying, “When they go low, you go high.” Campa-Najjar prefers this variation: “When they go low, you go local. I’m not going to go blow for blow on the negative front.”
Locally he focuses on the kind of people he grew up with. “I talked to the Third supervisorial district, where there is no high school in Alpine,” he says. “What is sweeping our district is wildfires and not holding SDG&E accountable. Which caused the first fires and made promises to replace all the wooden poles with steel and haven’t yet. We should invest in modernizing the utility grid to protect us from brush fires.”
Homelessness is a big issue and not just the lack of access to affordable housing, but the mental health component, as well. “Our district is home to more veterans than any other in the country,” he says. “We have a large number of homeless veterans who are now on the streets due to mental health issues probably caused by their service. Rehabilitating them is key, and the most important aspect of that is vocational training.”
But the “biggest thing we face in the country today,” says Campa-Najjar, “is an economic system that rewards wealth over work and the deemphasizes (degrading the deemphasizes (degrading/deemphasis of) the dignity of work. You see it across the political and economic system. You see that money has more influence over politics than voters. They are drowned out by special interests. You see things that 80-90 percent of the voters support are eclipsed by special interests.”
On the economic front, he says, people work two or three jobs, “and barely get by.
In my district unemployment is double the rest of San Diego County. Because people don’t have access to good paying jobs and need to commute. We should invest in our district, to create good paying jobs. We have to be a country that rewards work on par with wealth. At a certain point, when you are wealthy the wealth works for you. I saw my mom work her tail off raising two boys through being broke and broken hearted. Everything she ever did and all she worked for was to help her kids and help them achieve their God given potential. She was shortchanged every way, because we had a political system and economic system rigged against working people.”
Conceding that the economy is high in terms of GDP numbers and high stock numbers, “But how many of us have stock? Does that reflect the true economy? People are struggling to get by.” He doesn’t believe in “trickle down, or trickle up economics, but middle-class economics.
That’s what gives us strong economic security and strong national security.”
Now we have a $22 trillion national debt, “of which two trillion have accumulated in the last few years. My generation will pay that back with cuts to our Medicare and Social Security and we are selling our debt to foreign countries. It creates a vicious cycle where middle class and working people are getting the short end of the stick and paying for a $2 trillion tax cut for the wealthy and which we can‘t afford and eighty percent of which goes to the upper one percent. I go to union halls and ask ‘How many didn’t get a tax refund? How many are owed by the IRS?’ At least half of the hands go up. They were sold a raw deal.”
Turning to Hunter, he says, “People are working hard and playing by the rules while they have a congressman who doesn’t. Whatever happens to Hunter, I’m willing to take him on or someone else. Its problematic that we have a congressman who doesn’t sit on committees, so we are getting fifty cents on the dollar. We know the important work takes places in those committees. Otherwise you are a footnote in someone else’s agenda. We want a fulltime congressman.”
Next on his list: “Creating good times jobs to our district. I want to attract big corporations to our district, because California is a nightmare for corporations. I want to bring them to the 18 Indian tribes our district has. Whose tribal leaders want to bring good companies to their area. The benefit is that these sovereign nations are taxed differently.”
The goal is to create economic safe havens similar to green enterprise zones. “Or what my opponents call ‘socialist,’ ” quips Campa-Najjar. “I want to bring in corporations and allocate about thirty percent of the jobs to the tribes and seventy percent to the community, residents around the district. I see it as a way to lift up everybody’s lives. Let Native Americans be the beneficiaries, not just the victims. It would be a win win for businesses. We could bring in vocational training, create an economic boom. The moment you create good paying jobs then affordable housing becomes less of a burden. You create the purchasing power of people in the district. A way to empower people so that they are not dependent on government assistance.”
The number one issue that he wishes reporters and others would ask him about is “Getting back to work and getting good paying jobs through apphenticeship jobs and vocational training. ” He adds, “No one asks about it because it’s not sexy. It’s a substantial effort to create public private partnerships. If we did, we would reduce the costs of unemployment. If we appropriated that to help people help themselves, they would have more dignity and people would be happier. Our country is tearing at the seams because of economic hardship. This could be the solution.”
How does he answer those who say the 50th is a conservative district and why would conservative Republicans vote for a Democrat? He says, “Look at the field we have running. We have Sam Abed, who is an Arab Immigrant and a republican. You have Carl DeMaio, an openly gay pro-choice Republican and you have me, a cigar smoking, gun shooting devout Christian Democrat. It reflects the healthy growth going in the district. My main focus is that the district is 100 percent American. They care about issues. I’m a Democrat but I understand the Democratic party has flaws. That’s why I’m working in the belly of the beast. I don’t believe Democrats should be the opposition party to Trump; it should be the opportunity party for all.”
Numerically the district is 40% GOP and Republicans have voted for him before. “In the governor’s race, I had a better showing by fifteen percent than the governor did in the district. I put country over party, people over party,” said Campa-Najjar. “I don’t believe in open borders. I don’t believe in taking everyone’s guns away. I don’t believe we should be blowing up our debt. I’m against the faction of my party that wants open borders. I don’t see how you could swear an oath to the Constitution and then have problems with the Second Amendment.”
He is fine with a wall, if Mexico actually pays for it. “We should look at the most cost-effective ways to patrol the border, such as using drones or paying Border Patrol agents better,” he said. “Be aware where the real problem is. The majority of problems come through the Port of Entry. Since we ARE footing the bill, not Mexico. Since we are paying for it; let’s do it right.”
That doesn’t do anything about the 11 million who are in the U.S. illegally. “We can’t backfill jobs at the rate Baby Boomers are retiring,” he says. “We have 800,000 Dreamers who live in this country, work, pay taxes, and who came out of the shadows. They are doctors, military, lawyers. Some don’t even speak the language of their origin country. They are Americans in every way. I think we should give them citizenship so they can contribute. Studies show the Dreamer population would contribute $480 billion to our economy over ten years, that’s $48 billion a year. They would pay for the wall twice in one year.”
He continues, “We need an immigration policy that reflects our values and our public safety needs. You have millions who can’t utter a word if they or someone else is a victim of a crime because they will be deported. We have millions who could be eyes and ears of law enforcement but stay quiet.”
Additionally, he says, employers hire undocumented workers and suppress wages. “If you bring them out of the shadows and give them status they would have to compete on the same level. I guarantee you that a worker who speaks English could out compete someone who just got their status.”
As to who can compete against whom, Campa-Najjar says, “Let the free market decide. Make us safer. I wouldn’t give status to criminals. But I think those undocumented folks would report criminals faster.”
Taking a shot at opponent Sam Abed, Campa-Najjar adds, “Sam Abed’s family came here seeking safety. Then he got citizenship. Now he’s running for Congress. Immigrants contribute.” He advocates “getting other countries on the hook to join the U.S. to prevent the cause of illegal immigration. If we help prop up those countries there would be no reason for them to come to our front door. They would rather be in a cage in this country than live in their own country. I think there’s room for pragmatism and having big shoulders and big hearts.
“My faith teaches me to care for the least of these—the words of Jesus—when you see people legitimately fleeing for their lives. Jesus was legitimately fleeing from a king who was killing newborns. It’s not just the right thing to do by the constitution. It is also the Judeo-Christian way to extend compassion.”
Historically, he says, “Every new wave of immigrants is hated on by the people who got here a hot minute before you. Doesn’t mean you have a country of open borders.”
Campa-Najjar says he would have supported trading the funding for the wall to allow the Dreamers to stay. “We’ve spent a lot of money on a 15-year war in Iraq on false premises. I’d rather spend it on giving Dreamers citizenship.”
On this issue, among others, Campa-Najjar differs from others in his party. Asked if he supports Democratic candidates who want to scrap Obamacare and replace it with Medicare for all, he says, “I think that’s a false choice. I’ve looked at health care issues for a while, mainly because of my family. It’s the American way to introduce healthy competition. That’s how you drive down costs. If you introduce a public option, and those who agree with Medicare for all are right, things will gravitate towards that. I don’t believe in forcing everyone to get government run health care. I support introducing Medicare on the exchanges of Obamacare in increments. That’s the experiment. If it works, it works. If it fails you admit it and try again.”
Asked his position on the proposed Green New Deal, Campa-Najjar, he said, “I think people are making a lot of hay out over something that asks what is the cost of doing something over the next ten years to save the planet, as opposed to doing nothing? Climate change is real. Dozens of military bases are not fully operational because of mud slides, fires and rising coastlines. It’s real for people who lost their houses in fires, and for farmers who aren’t able to grow crops in the district because of drought. It’s a reality and we need to face it. I think the Green New Deal is aspirational. You create goals and factor in costs. It’s a big golden agenda that provides pathways, doing nothing, or doing everything to save this planet.”
He supports investing in renewable energy. “I would reallocate funds we spend on gas and clean coal and move that into new energy. Get rid of subsidies we give the fossil fuels, so that renewable energy can compete,” he says.
He would provide vocational training for workers who will lose their jobs as a result. “I call it from coaling to coding,” he said. “For the guy who worked in the coal mine and has learned to retrain and retool. There’s nothing more American than helping people re-invent themselves. America likes comeback stories. It’s scary but it’s possible. We see these successful stories all over this country and I don’t see why we can’t see that in this district.”
Asked if he is a Nancy Pelosi or an AOC Democrat, he answers, “I’m my own guy. Duncan called me a Pelosi Democrat last year. Now he’s calling me an AOC Democrat. That’s the thing I hate about parties; you are pegged in a corner. I’m a common sense kind of guy. I think more Republicans will vote for me. I’m not running for office to give power to a party, I’m running to give power to my district. I’m the only candidate running who actually wants to represent everyone, not just the 40 percent who identify as Republican, but the independents and Democrats.”
Asked where he makes up the four points he lost last time in what was a maximum effort in a largely Republican district when his opponent was under federal indictment, Campa-Najjar said, “If you think about it, I only lost by 1.7 percent, I just need that much to get to fifty percent. Everywhere we went, we won. We need to go to more places and share our vision. Really go local when they go low. We are working tirelessly to win hearts and minds and not get caught up in the Washington blame machine. We are focusing on the issues and not getting stuck with identity politics.”
He concludes, “I’m not putting the district on layaway to see what happens to Duncan Hunter.
I care about this district. When I look at it, I see my mom, who worked hard and played by the rules, or people who remind me of my brother, but who are ambitious and fearful of the future. I’m very protective of my brother and my mom. I see people like them all the time. I see a lot of people like them who are taken advantage of by this congressman who lies about what he’s doing. We need to get someone who really represents this district, will serve on committees, get the goods and bring home the bacon. It’s time to treat the people of 50th with the dignity they deserve.”
Asked if Trump should be impeached, Campa-Najjar said, “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t like Trump, he should be beaten at the ballot box.”