Activist, entrepreneur, and former Obama administration staffer Ammar Campa-Najjar spoke to about 40 UC San Diego students at the College Democrats’ meeting last Tuesday.
Campa-Najjar, a San Diego native and San Diego State University alumnus, is running to replace Republican Duncan D. Hunter as the United States Representative for California’s 50th Congressional District. The district comprises many of San Diego’s northern and eastern suburbs, including Lakeside, Poway, Ramona, La Mesa, and Spring Valley.
His appearance at the College Democrats’ event came on the heels of a major victory at the California Democratic Convention last weekend in Downtown San Diego. There, he won the statewide party’s endorsement, decisively outpacing Democrat and former Navy SEAL Josh Butner.
“I’m really proud of the fact that in a three-way race with three Democrats, we got 97 percent of the delegate vote and got the California Democratic Party endorsement,” said Campa-Najjar. “It’s been a long, long, long journey…I wasn’t the establishment’s pick by any chance.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Campa-Najjar stressed the importance of working to unite people from all backgrounds and related how he connects with even the staunchest supporters of President Trump.
“Especially in my district, I talk to people all the time who say, ‘I don’t want terrorists that come and kill us.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, me neither,’” Campa-Najjar said, to laughter. “I don’t go into—‘well, the KKK kills more people’—what the hell is that? It’s a fact. But we live in a post-fact world, where you can’t talk about the truth unless you build trust. And there’s no trust right now in politics. Nobody trusts anybody.”
Part of the fascination surrounding Campa-Najjar lies in his background. He’s the Protestant child of a Mexican American mother and a Palestinian father, born in California but raised in Gaza. However, while Campa-Najjar embraces his heritage, he emphasizes that he’d rather have people take him seriously on the issues than continually exoticize his identity.
These issues, especially in poverty-stricken east San Diego County, are myriad and complex. They range from high unemployment to the countywide housing crisis. Campa-Najjar comes to the campaign trail with a variety of plausible ideas to solve them, including investing in apprenticeship programs and Medicare for all—something he says contrasts with the incumbent.
“Everything he’s done hasn’t put the 50th first. He says we need a wall, I say we need to build up working families,” he said of Hunter. “[On the GOP tax plan], he said if people don’t like it they can leave but we’re not going to make the rest of the country pay for California’s socialist tax plan—what?…If I get to him in the general, oh my god. We’ll have so much fun with him.”
If elected, Campa-Najjar says that he’d be most interested in serving on the House Committees on Foreign Relations; Education and the Workforce; Energy; and Science, Space and Technology. The last is in line with one of his grander ideas regarding jobs in East County.
“I really, really like the idea of bringing SpaceX to my district,” he said. “There are 14 tribal reservations in my district. And 30 percent of Native Americans are in poverty. So if we can bring jobs to the tribal community and also surrounding communities, that would be huge…I care about economic justice for everyone.” He went on to stress that SpaceX would need to be more labor-friendly for him to agree to a deal.
Campa-Najjar ended his appearance by fielding questions from students in attendance. One brought up the recent disruption of ethnic studies and critical gender studies courses by white supremacists, an event Campa-Najjar wasn’t familiar with.
“There’s been a lot of efforts trying to put those violent types of groups on a terrorist watchlist, and treat them with the same severity we would a more traditionally conceived terrorist group,” Campa-Najjar said after listening to the student’s description of the incidents. “One that looks not like them, more like us. I think I would take those measures and take them seriously. It’s a fine line…I don’t know if saying to leave it to the teachers to figure out is the most responsible thing to do.”
The Triton briefly spoke to Campa-Najjar after the meeting regarding his support of the Uniting and Securing America (USA) Act, a bipartisan bill that provides a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, or Dreamers, and implements new security measures along the Mexican border. The Trump administration planned to end renewals for DACA recipients’ work permits on March 5. Injunctions filed by judges in California and New York—currently under review by the appropriate courts—have effectively pushed back that deadline, allowing renewals to continue to be processed.
Campa-Najjar described his support as tepid at best, saying that he would rather see the original Gang of Eight bill proposed in 2013 be pushed through. However, he knows that the Republican-controlled Congress and White House would never pass that bill, which would create a path to citizenship for almost all undocumented immigrants who arrived before a certain date.
Rather, Campa-Najjar emphasized compromise to find solutions protecting Dreamers against unemployment and deportation. The USA Act doesn’t solve the problems faced by most undocumented immigrants, nor does it prohibit Trump from building a new border wall. But it does allow the 690,000 DACA recipients who renewed their protections before October 5 to continue working and contributing to the nation’s economy.
“[I talk to people who say], ‘We don’t want criminals and rapists and drug dealers to come and hurt our communities,’ but you know who they hurt the most?” Campa-Najjar asked the crowd. “Other immigrants. But they can’t say anything about it, or they’ll get deported…They left everything to be safe in this country, so let’s not make this about us versus them.”
Questions remain as to whether Campa-Najjar is the right person to flip the 50th district. He’s the child of immigrants running in a predominantly white, firmly red district on strongly liberal policies. The incumbent Hunter’s father served as an East County congressman for 28 years.
But at the College Democrats’ meeting, these concerns were superseded by a general approval of Campa-Najjar’s politics. He urged support for select local Democrats, and excited students by suggesting that he could be the first millennial in Congress.
“Long after those members of Congress are gone who are old, or after our parents are gone, we have to live with the worst calamities of climate change. We’re going to have to inherit the soul-crushing debt. We’re going to inherit an education system that doesn’t lead to good-paying jobs anymore—not because of immigration, but automation. That’s going to be our problem to deal with. And if we don’t do something now, the American Dream is going to skip a generation.”
Rohan Grover is an Assistant News Editor at The Triton.