The 50th Congressional District in California has been the dynasty of the Hunter family for nearly four decades. Beginning in 1981 with the election of Duncan L Hunter (Sr) and carrying on until the recent resignation of Duncan D Hunter (Jr) in 2020, the Hunter family has controlled the district for 38 years. Now, with the resignation, the seat is up for grabs by a group of 10 candidates. Leading the pack is Ammar Campa-Najjar (D), a resident of east county, who, in the last election, came closest to ending the Hunter dynasty.
Campa-Najjar is leading the district race based on his ability to excite and motivate the voters. Focusing on issues important to voters – healthcare, employment, climate change – grabs their attention, but speaking on issues like campaign finance reform (getting big money out of politics) and overturning Citizens United (corporations aren’t people) is what excites many of the people to whom he speaks, on both sides of the aisle.
I recently sat down with Campa-Najjar at his campaign office in Escondido. We discussed a number of topics in the hour and fifteen minutes we spent together. His answers to my questions were honest and straightforward. After having run for this position for three years, a few of the answers felt rote and had been honed over time, but the sincerity with which he answered the questions was not.
Campa-Najjar has faced criticism since the publication of an interview in the San Diego Union Tribune. We chatted about that interview and I offered him a chance to expand on some of the answers which he offered. Overall, I left our conversation with the impression he has the best interest of the 50th Congressional District and its constituents at heart.
This pragmatic approach to running his campaign can be disconcerting for some. Critics, especially after the UT interview, have accused him of not being progressive enough or not being conservative enough, which comes from his perceived middle-of-the-road positions. As he said when asked about his opponents, “Maybe I’m blind to partisanship, and it is to the chagrin of both parties. People on the left want me to be ‘more left’ and people on the right want me to be ‘more right’.”
If you are a strict partisan, this style of campaigning might be off putting. In his words, the race for the 50th Congressional District is not a question of “left versus right, but people inside the Washington machine versus people on the outside.”
“I served in Washington long enough; not for it to break me, but to see how broken it was,” he recounts during an answer about his opponents. “Issa is an 18-year insider who has taken every side of every issue. DeMaio wants to go to Washington to save California. My opponents just want the seat to keep it ‘red’. My campaign motto is ‘Country over party; people over politics’. I want to give the 50th Congressional seat back to the people of the district; to give people a voice in Washington.”
The Most Conservative Congressman in San Diego
One of the quotes highlighted by the UT in their article was, “I will be the most conservative congressman in San Diego, and I’d make no qualms about that.” I asked Campa-Najjar to clarify this remark, especially in light of other comments I’ve seen him make on social media saying he’d be the “most progressive” congressman in San Diego.
“The comment was tongue-in-cheek. Honestly, being the most conservative congressman in a county where every member is a Democrat is a low bar. Even the most conservative congressman in San Diego could be the most progressive congressman in the 50th’s history,” begins Campa-Najjar. “Traditionally, the district is conservative, but it is changing. The district is split with 40% of the people agreeing with more conservative views and 60% agreeing with more progressive or moderate views. Representatives should reflect their district.
“I want to introduce legislation which will overturn Citizens United; I want to bring legislation which will promote voluntary public finance for elections and take big money out of elections; I want to protect open space and end sprawl development. I want the people of the 50th District to live, work, and retire with dignity; to have access to good healthcare; and I want to protect the environment. All these things are progressive. I also own a gun and believe in sane, trained and law-abiding gun ownership. That’s a low bar for ‘being conservative’.”
These views of reflecting his district were present throughout the course of our interview. He truly believes the seat, and the representative who sits in it, should be reflective of the district from which they come. “The people of the 50th District are my boss. You’re my boss, (pointing to the volunteers in the campaign office) they’re my boss, and I’m your employee.”
I asked Campa-Najjar which of the House Committees he would want to serve on when he gets to Washington D.C. He listed three committees to which he would prefer to be assigned, though he understands he might not have a choice.
“First, I want to serve on the House Education and Labor Committee,” he begins. “My background in Washington is working with the Labor Department’s Employment Training Division. I want to work on projects which will help people get into jobs. I have ideas for a Veterans’ ‘Helmets to Hardhats’ program, helping at-risk youth find jobs, and helping people re-entering society after incarceration.
“Second would be the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. California has the fourth largest homeless population in the United States, and our Veteran homeless population is the second largest in the United States. We need to work to get everyone, especially our veterans, off the streets. But housing isn’t the only issue, removing the stigma to mental health and providing resources, wrap around services and vocation training is key.
“Third, if I can swing it, I would like to serve on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. I believe the future for our district is through innovation. Companies like Space X don’t want to come to California because of what they believe to be a harsh business environment. In the 50th, there are a number of tribal nations and Native American reservations which could play host to these companies. These connections could help the companies and can help the tribes overcome unemployment with good-paying jobs and upward mobility.”
Solving Homelessness – More Housing is Not Enough
I followed up on Veteran homelessness. In recent weeks, the House has passed changes to the HUD Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) Voucher program, now allowing veterans with Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharges to take advantage of housing assistance. With the changes made to the VASH voucher system, I asked Campa-Najjar what more can be done.
“The solution is more than just ‘more housing’; this is a key issue, but not the only issue,” he answered. “There is a mental health component, a vocational training component, and wrap-around services component which are vital to helping veterans and all homeless people. San Diego has the fourth largest homeless population in the United States; second largest homeless Veteran population. We are 20th in HUD funding. There is a mismatch between the needs and the resources in San Diego. A colleague of mine has a plan – I want to give credit where it’s due – to update and modernize the formula for HUD funding and bring more resources to San Diego.”
I asked if this should be a top-down approach, with the federal government instituting programs, or a bottom-up approach with the federal government supporting local programs.
“I think it is a ‘middle-out’ approach,” he replies. “There is a great need for public/private partnerships and the government needs to find those partners to provide services. And finding jobs is not the only part of what’s necessary.”
Campa-Najjar tells me a story of a homeless couple who “lived” outside of his home in Washington DC while he worked for the Labor Department. According to Campa-Najjar, they never asked for money; instead, they asked for work. “I thought,” he said while pausing in the story, “if I work for the Labor Department and I can’t help these people find a job, what good am I doing here?”
Campa-Najjar went on to recount the man’s successful finding of a job but failing after a week because as he told Campa-Najjar, “the idea of the dignity that came from a good-paying job only underscored the differences in his life.” The man would have to wave off having lunch with co-workers and offers of rides home because he wasn’t like them. In the end, the man went back to drinking and other substance abuse.
“Ending homelessness starts with ending the demonizing of those who are homeless and knowing they are our neighbors,” Campa-Najjar continues. “Most homeless people today are new to experiencing homelessness; they were one financial emergency away from losing their home and the worst happened. Most people have become homeless in the recent months; they aren’t the product of chronic homelessness. Getting the economic infrastructure in place to help keep people from becoming homeless in the first place is a start to ending the issue.”
From Delta Smelt to the Green New Deal
I steered our conversation toward Climate Change. I began with asking about the decades-long fight in Southern California over water release from the San Joaquin River Delta.
“We have tried curbing water usage and desal (desalinizing sea water),” he began, “but this hasn’t been enough to solve the issue. To be honest, by the time we find the proper solution, it will more than likely be too late. The fact is, the most urgent matter, climate change, leaves us 12 years to find the right answer. If we don’t find the solution, we won’t ever be able to reverse the effects.
“Our military, with bases all over the United States, says that Climate Change is the number one threat to our national security. Two-thirds of the military installations on the mainland United States are not fully combat ready because of the effects of climate change. When we aren’t serious about combating climate change, we’re just nibbling around the edges of fixing problems and, by the time we get serious, it’ll be too late.”
I asked what we could do to make these changes. “I want to see a World War II level of mobilization in our country to fight climate change. When we have our military telling us that climate change is the number one threat, we need to take this as seriously as we’ve taken all the other great threats to our country.”
“The problem,” Campa-Najjar continues, “is the lack of political will to tackle climate change. We still have conversations with people who deny that climate change is a problem. Hunter once said global warming is good because there are cold areas of the world where people are dying. Voepel (Randy Voepel, Assembly member for California’s 71st District) has said warming is good because it is focused around the equator and that’s where terrorists live. We have to change these conversations, take the threat seriously, and find the political will to take the steps to tackle climate change. The good news is political will is a renewable resource; we can find someone who has it to take someone’s place.”
Campa-Najjar was criticized by many for expressing his lack of support for the Green New Deal, a proposal authored and offered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Representative from New York’s 14th Congressional District. I asked if, in fact, the Green New Deal wasn’t a good place to start.
“The Green New Deal is a non-binding resolution,” says Campa-Najjar. “We need a binding resolution, with laws and funding backing it, to move forward. I respect the work and ideas around the Green New Deal, but we need to take action. As I said, we have 12 years to do something and we won’t get them back. We need to take immediate action.”
I ask him next about federal funding and assistance for alternative energy generation, storage, and distribution. How do we reduce the barriers to entry for cities, counties, and states to begin expanding renewable energy?
“I support new innovations like Community Choice Aggregation.The first step is to revolutionize and modernize the existing grid,” says Campa-Najjar. “We can find those public/private partnerships to help, but we need to shake the tree and get more funding back into California. As a state, we are the 5th largest economy in the world and we are the number one payer of federal taxes. We do not see a return in that investment. We must get what we put in.
“Once that happens,” he continues, “we can look to the partnerships I mentioned; look to Elon Musk who will invest in housing, neighborhoods, energy, and all that stuff. When we can bring someone like him to California, we can really begin to drive the costs of renewable energy down with private investments.”
The Race to November
In a poll done by SurveyUSA released on January 13 by the San Diego Union Tribune, Campa-Najjar leads the district race with 26% of the vote. In November of 2018, Campa-Najjar narrowly lost to Hunter Jr. While there is no possibility of an outright victory in this race in March – top two vote getters go to the General Election in November – it is almost guaranteed he will advance through the primary. To win the election, he will need to continue to draw voters from all parties, including independents, something which his philosophy is helping him to do.
Alianza North County is proud to endorse Ammar Campa-Najjar for the 50th Congressional District and we look forward to watching him champion the causes of the district in Washington, D.C.
In the second part of this interview, Campa-Najjar and I discuss immigration and border security, impeachment, and how we move legislation through a potentially grid-locked Congress.