Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar tells Moneyish why he has a shot in his red California district, what he learned from Hillary’s campaign, and why it might be time for Trump to go
He’s a biracial community organizer who bills himself as “a skinny brown kid with a funny name.” Raised by a single mom, he peppers his speech with sweeping metaphors (“I’m really just the tip of the spear,” he says. “The people are the rod behind this movement.”). Oh, and he wants Joe Biden to come stump for his congressional bid.
Maybe he reminds you of a certain ex-president.
“I think I pale in comparison to him, literally and figuratively, right?” Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 28-year-old self-described “Obama baby” who worked on the 2012 campaign, tells Moneyish. “But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that as a man, (Barack Obama) really inspired me … I don’t think God makes too many men like that.”
Campa-Najjar was born to a Mexican-American Catholic mother and Palestinian-American Muslim father and spent most of his childhood in San Diego, save for a stint from ages 8 to 12 in Gaza, where his mom brought him and his brother to be closer to their now-estranged dad before war erupted. Having witnessed “some pretty horrific things,” Campa-Najjar returned stateside the August before 9/11 with both physical wounds and PTSD. “I always asked God, ‘Why all the pain?’” he says. “I feel like the pain was given purpose, and it’s really to live to tell the story.”
After graduating San Diego State University in 2012 with a degree in psychology and philosophy, he served as a deputy regional field director on Obama’s re-election campaign, a White House intern, communications director for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and eventually a public affairs officer at the Department of Labor.
He’s now one of five Democrats vying to unseat Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter — a three-term congressman, former Marine and vaping enthusiast — in the 2018 race for California’s deeply red 50th district.
The 50th, comprising much of San Diego County, is 42.9% registered Republicans and 27.2% Democrats. Hunter trounced his last three races by margins greater than 25%, and constituents elected President Trump in November. But the long-shot candidate sees his path: From April to June, Campa-Najjar outraised the Republican’s $155,625 with $165,330 of his own, a feat he chalks up to small donations under $25, his volunteer staff of 400 and “a really aggressive digital presence.” San Diego County has seen a recent surge in Democratic voter registration; the district is roughly one-third Hispanic and has a large Chaldean (Iraqi Christian) community. Campa-Najjar’s ability to “talk about middle class values and champion diversity,” he insists, gives him an edge.
“If you look at the headlines, it’s not optimistic,” he says. “(But) all the headlines said Trump shouldn’t win … the trend lines were going in his direction.”
After announcing his candidacy in April, Campa-Najjar also gained mild celeb status as the internet crowned him a long-lost Jonas Brother (BuzzFeed headline: “People Are Thirsting Hard For This Hot Guy Who Is Running For Congress”). Admitting all the salivating probably drew more eyeballs to his campaign, he pleads for a return to substance. “I really take issue with people sexualizing and objectifying candidates. I face it on a very low and humorous level, but Hillary Clinton faced it, (Sen.) Kamala Harris faced it … (California Lt. Gov.) Gavin Newsom faces it,” he says. “It’s flattering, I’m sure, on some level, but you’re not taken as seriously and that’s a problem.”
Another source of his ire: out-of-touch politicians, Washington’s so-called “swamp” and folks who insist on relitigating the 2016 election. “You look at these people and they’re like, ‘You know, I’m an illness away from losing my home.’ One woman told me, ‘I had to miss my daughter’s birthday because I had to work overtime,’” he says. “If you’re thinking about Trump and Hillary and Washington when you hear those stories, you’re a f—ing sociopath. You have issues.” He’d rather talk poverty-stricken kids in El Cajon, homeless vets and the environmental impact of sand mining.
He bristles at a comparison to Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old documentarian whose play to win a historically red Georgia district fell short in June after the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history. Ossoff, charges Campa-Najjar, “campaigned in a silo, in an echo chamber” and became “the poster child for the Democrats.” “I didn’t see a single damn photo of him in a rural area of Georgia or talking to anybody across the aisle. He doubled down on his base, and he needed more than his base,” he says. “If we’ve learned anything about 2016, it’s (that) you can’t do that … So I am doing the complete opposite of that. I am reaching out to Trump supporters.”
Campa-Najjar, whose campaign schedule includes some 18-hour days, has also taken notes from Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid: “I am not gonna leave any precinct untouched — if this was a national race, I definitely would be going to Wisconsin a lot,” he says. He doesn’t plan to focus heavily on his opponent, who is under federal criminal investigation for alleged misuse of campaign funds. “This is not about running against Hunter — it’s running for the 750,000 people who call the 50th their home. It’s running on the things that keep them up that night: ‘Am I gonna get by with this paycheck?’ … ‘Do I have to get a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk on my drive home?’” he says. “I don’t really spend too much time talking about Trump or about Hunter, for that matter.”
He’s also reaching out to veterans, a sizeable voting bloc in San Diego, by advocating military models — single-payer health care, background checks and training before acquiring a firearm, and equal pay, for example — that just so happen to be solidly progressive policies. “I’m over here framing this stuff to dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, and they’re embracing it,” he says.
Like his idol and former boss, Campa-Najjar has his reservations about the current administration. (That includes White House wunderkind and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who’s tasked with brokering peace in the Middle East. “There was a moment when people were flirting with the idea: ‘What if you and Jared worked together on this?’” Campa-Najjar says.) He’s at a loss for words at Trump’s stalled legislative agenda and weekly self-sabotage. “I don’t want to say he’s crazy, I don’t want to say he’s racist, but he is definitely incapable,” he says.
Campa-Najjar, a devout Christian, also voices deep concern for the President’s “unconstitutional” immigration ban on a handful of majority-Muslim nations. He says one incident from March, when he returned from a European trip to Washington Dulles International Airport, weighs on him: An official at customs dressed in body armor asked, “Do you need me to repeat that to you in Arabic?” When Campa-Najjar laughed, he says, the man replied, “You think I’m joking,” pulled at his armor “pretty aggressively, to show strength or dominance,” and sent Campa-Najjar to the back of the line to have his photo retaken. “I can’t imagine if I was a refugee and he was having a bad day,” he says, “or I was just a couple shades darker, and we were in an alley and not in an airport.”
“I don’t think anything that this President does on that issue will be constitutional, because the spirit of the law is pretty clear, regardless of the letter,” he adds. “He wants to have a total and complete shutdown of immigration from the Muslim world.”
In the days since Trump equated anti-racism protesters with white supremacists at a recent press conference, Campa-Najjar — who once hoped to find common ground with the commander-in-chief over job creation, infrastructure and fair trade — has joined the chorus of Democrats clamoring for POTUS’s ouster under the 25th Amendment. “If he continues down this path of being unpredictable, uncooperative with his own administration and self-destructive at every turn, then yeah, we have every reason to invoke the 25th Amendment,” he said. “And I’ll be calling for that. If in 2019 I’m sworn in and this is still happening, absolutely. There’s just no way we’re going to do this for another year and a half.”
But first, there’s that election 15 months away.
“To have the first Latino-Middle Eastern congressman,” Campa-Najjar says. “That, in the Trump era, would send a resounding message about who we are as a country — not just to our country, but to the world.”
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