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By Miriam Raftery and Briana Gomez

August 16, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – With pandemic relief stalled in Congress, economic uncertainties, healthcare concerns rising, racial justice protests across the nation, and climate change fueling wildfires and water shortages, candidates running for the 50th Congressional district debated these and other hot topics on August 13tth.

Ammar Campa-Najjar, 31, a Democrat from Jamul who formerly worked for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and at the U.S. Labor Dept., faced off against Darrell Issa, 66. a Republican who formerly represented the 49th Congressional district in North County and south Riverside.  The winner will fill the seat left vacant for months due to the resignation of Duncan Hunter who pled guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds and has been sentenced to 11 months in prison. The district includes most of East County as well as portions of North County and Temecula in Riverside County.

The forum was moderated by Donna Bartlett-May the League of Women Voters and hosted by Community Action Service & Advocacy (CASA)  in collaboration with the East Region Collaborative Network, East County Homeless Task Force, Ninth District PTA, and media partner East County Magazine.   

Each candidate gave a two-minute opening statement, with one minute to answer questions sent in by the public for the virtual debate held via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opening remarks

Campa-Najjar emphasized his roots in the district, where he was raised by his mother after his father left the family.  “A broken system rewards wealth more than work,” he noted. “We see this even today in the era of COVID-19.”  He said he went to work as a janitor at age 15 and praised the many people in the district who helped him achieve his dreams. Now he says he wants to return the favor “to make sure people can work, live and retire with dignity.” He noted that he’s been running for this seat for four years, nearly defeating Hunter with 48.3 percent of the vote in 2008, adding that if he’d received 1.7% more votes, “We’d have a Congressman today instead of an absent one.”  He promised to represent everyone in the district. “I’ll be voting for you – for your family’s healthcare, to make sure you have a decent living,” he pledged.

Issa said when he first ran for Congress in 2000, he sold his business and investments in stocks and bonds to avoid conflicts. His tenure included “dealing with the longest war in history, supporting our troops” and dealing with other challenges that America faced.  Four years ago, President Trump appointed Issa to serve in the administration, so “I reluctantly gave up my seat in Congress.” But a filibuster stalled his appointment and others, preventing his confirmation, Issa stated. “Now is the right time to go back to do what I loved doing and believe I did well,” he said, noting that a third of his former district is in the 50th district in North County and southern Riverside that he represented for 12 years.

Water in the West

The first question asked candidates what policy steps they endorse to protect water in western states.

Issa said he’s worked on this issue, which is not partisan. He indicated that efforts by Northern California to deny the free flow of water to the south has caused problems.. Some of those challenges can be met by desalinization using federal funds. He proposed utilizing Colorado River water for some minor desalinization, an effort he said is also backed by San Diego Democratic Congressman Juan Vargas.

Campa-Najjar agreed with those proposals but went farther. “San Diego could do blue energy (ocean-driven power) and green energy (from renewable resources) here, and have clean drinking water available.” He said climate change is at the root of the West’s water shortage and says he’s talked with farmers across the district who tell him that crops are “withering on the vine.  Extreme weather patterns are why we are seeing a scarcity of resources. The military has said the greatest threat we face is climate change, which is also contributing to wildfires,” he said, noting that the military has called climate change an even greater threat than ISIS, Ian, China or other foreign threats. 

Affirmative action

Candidates were asked their views on Proposition 16, a state ballot measure backed by minority groups that would restore affirmative action eliminated by Proposition 209.  Affirmative action required government agencies and universities to prioritize hiring and admissions of women and minorities to correct historic discrimination and institutionalized racism.  Critics claimed it promoted reverse discrimination against men and whites; some minorities also objected to a perception that they were hired only to meet quotas.

Campa-Najjar noted that this is a state issue, not federal, but noted that some families have started off at a disadvantage from birth in families unable to build wealth, such as African Americans who “helped build this country for generations” but who were “segregated and criminalized.” Disadvantaged veterans did not receive GI Bill benefits or affordable loans. “The idea of affirmative action is to allow these communities that are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, due to institutional racism, an opportunity to get level footing,” he said.

Issa was cochair of the Proposition 209 campaign, which repealed affirmative action in California. He believes this prevented discrimination or preferential treatment. The goals of affirmative action should instead be supporting by “looking for legitimate outreach on other issues,” he said. “Prop 209 has worked. The minority graduation rate has risen.”

 Federal law enforcement reform

Candidates were asked what federal law enforcement reforms they would support.

Issa suggests looking at mandatory body cameras for police officers but added, “Also remember that men and women of law enforcement the majority of the time are victimized by someone who is aggressive and has a gun.” He wants to hold people accountable and “enhance anyone who fraudulently files a police report.”

Campa-Najjar says he has a 10 point plan for institutional changes in police departments that does NOT include defunding police.  He notes that some areas don’t have enough police officers. He is open to shifting some responsibilities.  “I’ve talked to police officers who say they didn’t get into the business to deal with mentally ill people or homeless people.” He wants to see “national standards of training for disengagement and deescalating” as well as updating federal laws to allow police offiers to purchase protective gear such as helmets, boots and goggles, but “not weapons of war we see on streets today.”

Public safety

A related question asked how candidates would increase public safety.

Campa-Najjar backs reforms to align police with "values of the people they protect and serve."  He wants to increase outreach to at-risk youths such as investing in childcare and early pre-kindergarten, citing studies that have shown this is a good return on investment that means at-risk youths are “more apt to be responsible Americans working full time or having a business of their own…with a pipeline to a good middle-class life” instead of leading a life of crime.  He noted that at the Department of Labor, he helped provide summer jobs for at-risk youths, partnering with law enforcement.

Issa touted his endorsements from law enforcement groups including the San Diego Deputy Sheriffs Association and groups representing Riverside deputy Sheriffs, Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. He attributes those to “years of working to get funding for ant-gang activities and the courts, “ as well as his support for federal help to procure “many defensive weapons that allow standoffs and police surveillance…I’m proud of that,” he says, adding that he backs making streets safer through a “well-trained, coordinated effort with the federal government.”

Gun rights

Candidates were asked their views on Second Amendment rights.

Issa recalled an investigation he led some years ago into actions of then-Attorney General Eric Holder for what Issa characterized as a “failed, botched program that put 2,000 weapons into the hands of the worst of the worst in Mexico. Sometimes to protect the Second Amendment, you have to protect against attacks on it.”  He said he is endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Campa-Najjar said he is a gun owner, with two shotguns. “I believe in the Second Amendment,” he said, praising our nation’s founders for “incredible wisdom” and words in the Constitution protecting a “well regulated militia.” He noted that his brother just joined the Navy and went through a background check, a psyche evaluation, training and learned about safe storage. He supports training and background checks, measures he says are backed by many gun owners “without infringing Second Amendment Rights.”  He also wants to focus ono mental health aspects of gun violence.

Student loan forgiveness

Candidates were asked if they support student loan forgiveness.

“Absolutely,” Campa-Najjar stated. He noted that many teachers and public servants receive loan forgiveness now after 10 years. “I think we should expand what public service means” and “create a pipeline to loan forgiveness.” He also backs more investment in vocational training and making college more affordable with less debt. “I save money to send my daughter to college and now both of us are in debt…Why did education of one person cause debt for two generations? This is the heart of the problem.”

Issa took the opposite view.  “No, I don’t support loan forgiveness in the broadest sense,” he said.  He takes a conservative stance, seeking to drive down costs of healthcare and education through competition. While he opposes loan forgiveness, he does support making student loans tax-free. He claimed problems with such debts occurred when government took control away from banks.

Special education

Another question asked if the federal government should fully fund special education.

Issa noted that the federal government has promised to fully fund special education since Jimmy Carter was president, but that the problem is “costs have gone up, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars per student…We have to get smarter, recognizing that some of what’s called special education is in fact very expensive care for people who may never be able to work or whose work skills can’t be brought up to a level of competition.”

Campa-Najjar said he was “troubled by that last statement” by Issa.  “I think everybody has value” adding, “Just because you have special needs doesn’t mean you can be locked out of opportunities.” He said the federal government has never lived up to its promised to disabled students adding that “Right now with COVID, the children affected the most by this are children with special needs.” For example, students with autism may struggle with distance learning. “We need to be moving heaven and earth…to do everything we can to resume life as normal for these children, and one of those ways is making sure they have school in person,” he said of special needs youths.

Small business aid during the COVID-19 pandemic

Candidates were asked if they support small business assistance during the pandemic and in the future.

Campa-Najjar cited his work at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he said represented 4 million businesses that contributed a trillion dollars to the economy. “Two thirds of all new jobs in the U.S. are provided by small business and half of all people in the U.S. are employed by small businesses,” he said, calling small businesses “the engine of ingenuity and job creation.”  He said he supports making sure that small businesses have access to capital, including women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses.  He also wants to be sure small businesses are “Getting PPC (Paycheck Protection Plan) loans that are running out…and that multinationals are not skipping to the front of the line because they are well connected…they shouldn’t be applying for it in the first place.”

Issa said he’s been a small businessman who built his car alarm company to hire hundreds of people. “I am acutely aware of what it takes.”  He praised his former colleagues in Congress for coming together at the start of the pandemic to pass the CARES Act by a 419 to 6 vote, providing over a trillion dollars in relief. I know they made mistakes but it was a bipartisan attempt to do the right thing. The concern is that broke down” in aid extension efforts.  Democrats in Congress want more aid for individuals, as well as some aid for businesses.  Isa says his priority is to “help small business stay alive” so that people can get back to work.

Minimum wage

Do the candidates support a national minimum wage? Neither directly answered the question, but both provided comments on issues of the current system.

Issa balked at the proposal, noting that minimum wage doesn’t count tips. He said that before the pandemic hit in March, the national average wage was over twice the federal minimum wage. “We need to get back to an economy that looks at minimum wage as the starting wage for a new employee,” he said.

Campa-Najjar noted that the federal minimum wage now doesn’t account for cost differences among counties. He voiced concern that some minimum wage jobs are being replaced by automation, such as a machine that makes hamburgers in 27 seconds. “We have to fill the skills gap. Before COVID, we had more jobs than people looking for work.” He wants to invest in renewable energy and says solar technician is the most sought-after job vacancy. He also wants to improve wages for caregivers of the elderly and disabled.

Postal service funding

Two weeks ago, President Trump drew controversy for appointing a former rival of the U.S. Postal Service to head up the agency. Since then the new appointee has been eliminating postal sorting machines and ripping out many mailboxes.  On a nationally televised interview, Trump admitted his reason for opposing funding for the Postal Service is that he opposes mail-in voting. Critics contend defunding or slowing down mail service to influence an election is unconstitutional; the action is expected to be challenged in court.

Candidates were asked whether they believe the federal government should asure that the U.S. Postal Service is funded and efficient.

Campa-Najjar replied, “Absolutely…People get medicine and Social Security checks (via mail.)  Veterans get support from social services. Now in the middle of an election we need to make sure there is funding and that it is running efficiently.  I’m the candidate that really supports postal services,” a position he said polls show is shared by 80% of Americans. “It’s important we not undercut and malign them like some have done,” he said of the Postal Service, “and with a very important election, undercut the ability to get mail-in ballots.”

Issa took a contrarian view. He claimed the Post Office has been losing money for a decade. He said that when he worked on “real reforms” in Congress as a committee chair, even with a promise of no layoffs or forced retirement, the postal carriers union would not accept what Issa thinks are Common sense reforms  like cluster boxes” instead of door-to-door delivery now provided by mail carriers in most areas.

Wildfires and climate change

Candidate were sked how the federal government should address the problem of increasing wildfires due to climate change.

Issa said when he was in Congress he worked on getting modern aircraft and drone with technology to fight fires day and night. He wants California and the federal government to clear brush that make fires unstoppable.  “We cannot let debris build up in the name of ecology.”

Campa-Najjar says he’s talked with Supervisor Dianne Jacob and agrees we must prepare for fires that are inevitable with better preparedness.  He pledged to stand up against efforts to cut federal firefighting funds, and faulted the Trump administration for trying to punish Democratic states this way. “Fires don’t discriminate between Democrats and Republicans,” he said. He also wants to “hold people accountable who started fires,” noting that SDG&E started wildfires in2007 and still hasn’t replaced all of the wood poles with steel as promised. He also wants to assure relief to people who lose their homes.

More broadly, another question asked candidates how they would combat climate change.

Campa-Najjar called climate change the “mother of all problems” but said it can also be the “mother of all solutions.”  He reiterated that the Pentagon, under Pres.Trump, has called climate change the biggest security threat to our nation.  “Half the military facilities in our country are not operation-ready due to mudslides, hurricanes or fires” being fueled by climate change, he said. “We need to stop denying that it’s happening. It is happening.” He calls for investment in renewable resources along with military contractors as part of that to “not cede the future of our energy to China.”

Issa said that changing climate is a global issue, along with “the basic problem of sustainable ecology.”  He said when people talk about climate change, they need to understand that there are “7 billion people eating more food than the land supplies.” Issa added, “We have to deal with it all, sustainable ecology and renewable resources for electrification is certainly part of that.”

Healthcare access

How can Congress promote more inclusive access to healthcare?

Issa responded to this question by blaming the federal government as a creator of some healthcare problems,, saying Medicare raites have ben set too low. Issa, who opposed  the Affordable Care Act despite rallies in his district in support of it, faulted “Obamacare” for shifting the burden of costs for healthcare based on age. But he offered only limited options such as “tort reforms to reduce malpractice lawsuits, transparent pricing so people can shop for competitive healthcare options, and shortening up the time for new drugs to be approved.

Campa-Najjar said healthcare is important to all of us and noted that how long people will live depends largely on the quality of healthcare received during one’s lifetime. He criticized Congress for being “hypocrites” since members get 78% of their healthcare paid for by subsidies funded by taxpapers, ie subsidized members while many taxpayers struggled to afford healthcare.  “Members need to have the same healthcare as the rest of us,” he said. He wants to create competition with a national plan to compete against private ones and give people an option to buy in earlier, before they reach Medicare age. He also wants to drive down costs and increase acces to care. “May the best plan win,” he said. In addition, he would allow purchase of medications from some countries such as Canada to reduce prescription drug costs.

Extending unemployment benefits during COVID-19

Congress adjourned for the month of August without extending the extra $600 a week in umemployment benefits that ended July 31 (begun in March to help those out of work due to the pandemic.)

Candidates were asked if they support continuing unemployment benefits due to COVID-19.

Campa-Najjar said, “I do. The best way to go about that is a Paycheck Protection Plan” to focus on businesses going under which are forcing people into unemployment. He also believes some modest unemployment should be extended for workers along with incentives to “get them back on their feet…They want work, not welfare.”

Issa said some people have been paid more to stay home with extra unemployment benefits than they were making on the job. Therefore, he supports an incentive for people to be paid more for working than not working, a response that addresses a real problem faced by some reopened business owners, but that fails to address the issue of workers whose employers remain shut down due to the pandemic.  Issa also talked about the president’s push to rush development of vaccines and treatments, so it will become “more reasonable for people to come back to work, especially younger people, while protecting the elderly.” 

Immigration, refugees and asylum seekers

Both candidates are descendants of immigrants and both of Arab-American heritage; Campa-Najjar is also the son of a Hispanic immigrant mother.The Congressional hopefuls were asked their opinions on immigration reforms and the needs of refugees and people seeking asylum in the U.S.

Issa said he served on an immigration committee in Congress where he worked on H1B visa reform legislation along with Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) to assure highly skilled immigrant workers would be available to fill jobs. “I will reauthor that if I return,” he said.  Issa said he visited camps in Lebanon and Jordan with Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) to look at the plight of people who want to come here. “I support that kind of asylum for people who have applied here and cannot return where they came from.”  He was silent on the issue of immigration reform to assist some 11 million undocumented immigrants including Dreamers, or young people brought here as children.

Campa-Najjar said to Issa, ”My father became a citizen thanks to the man behind you, Ronald Reagan,” referringto a photo of former Pres. Reagan displayed behind Issa during the debate.  “When he said make America great again, he was referring to the prowess of immigrants," Campa-Najjar said of Reagan. He took a subtle jab at Issa's change of views on immigration reforms since Issa shifted to the more conservative 50th Congressional district. "Rather than run away from it, I would complete the bill Darrell Issa authored in 2013 to give status to 11 million people and give them certainty.” Campa-Najjar wants to bring immigrants “out of the shadows” by providing path to citizen so they can “live, work and retire with dignity,” though he also supports reporting any “bad apples” which elsewhere he has clarified means potential deportation of people who committed serious crimes. Campa-Najjar supports both “comprehensive border security” and "comprehensive immigration reform."

Voting rights

In light of recent weakening of Voting Rights Act protections, candidates were asked their views on voting rights and policies to promise safe and fair electons.

Campa-Najjar praised the late civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis, for his efforts to bring people together through nonviolence to pass the original Voting Rights Act. “We need to take up the [new voting rights] bill that was renamed in John Lewis’ honor.”  He wants to “make sure people are able to vote regardless of economic or ethic background.” He denounced laws that seek to prevent people from voting who may not support those in power.”

Issa dodged the question of support for the new Voting Rights Act. Instead, he said he doesn’t believe it should cost money to vote or have a ballot delivered to vote or to get ID to verify your right to vote in states that require IDs. 

Money in politics

Candidates also addressed the problem of big money in politics.

Campa-Najjar stated, “I’ve rejected all PAC (political action committee” money.” He supports legislation undo the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has allowed virtually unlimited special interest money to flow into political campaigns, such as from corporations and unions. Campa-Najjar says he wants to give power back to the people. “You are my employer – not the special interests,” he says.  He added Duncan Hunter “wasn’t a bad apple; the barrel is rotten,” noting that the system is set up to encourage corruption. “Money is the corrosive part of our democracy.  If you do that one that, get money out of politics, all these other things are possible.”

Issa disagreed Although he said most of his money has come from smaller donations (as well as self-funding), he believes that a company’s “free speech whether about a candidate or project should never be stifled.” He would however support disclosure of who pays for campaign ads to provide transparency. 

View the candidates' campaign contributions at and click on the tabs at the top to view a breakdown of their contributions by industry and major donors. To date, Issa has raised over $515,000 and Campa-Najjar over $890,000.

Community engagement

Asked how they would stay engaged with the community if elected, the candidates gave these responses.

Issa said when he was in Congress before, he took 40 trips a year to his district plus trips to cover foreign affairs issues worldwide.  He said he’ll be available for meetings in the district and that Zoom will be a “big asset”  since meetings such as Chamber of Commerce events often occur when he is in Washington D.C.

Campa-Najjar promised, “I will have at least one town hall every single month, in person or virtually.” He faulted Issa for dodging a town hall by “hiding on his roof.” Campa-Najjar said he’s campaigned all over the district, such as an event this past week with Republicans in Ramona. “Our responsibility is to let voters make us uncomfortable and push us to be better” at representing everyone.. That’s our job.”

Closing statements

Campa-Najjar said the election isn’t about left vs. right, but about “all of us in the 50th district – the forgotten people” adding, “I will never choose another district because this is my community. I don’t believe politicians should pick voters. Voters should pick their politicians, so I hope this election you will choose an East County son, someone who has devoted himself to this district for the past four years now.” He promised to be “honest and up front” trying to work with both Democrats and Republicans and now kowtow to anyone.  “Part leaders tell me where to sit, but I know where to stand – I stand with the people of the 50th district..I will never take money from special interests, I will never sell out my votes to the highest bidder in Washington, and I will always focus on the common person trying to live, work and retire with dignity just like my mother tried to do and just like I’ve tried to do in my life.” He emphasized that he is from East County and concluded by noting the importance of “coming together” to address “issues that are bigger than all of us.”    

Issa said he was born in Cleveland, Ohio but has been invested in the area since 1985, when he moved to San Marcos and started a business that grew to employ many people. He cited his endorsements from the regional North County Chamber and greater San Diego Chamber, as well as the mayors of Temecula and El Cajon.  “For 12 years I represented a substantial portion of the district” he said, adding that when the district was cut up by “gerrymander” he stayed in the portion with Camp Pendleton, while Hunter took on East County representation. Issa said he’s running on his record, adding, “I have a track record and when I return with 18 years of seniority, on day one, I’ll know how to get things run.”

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I had this long reply written out above. It didn't get posted.

Summary of above comment : Darrell Issa is not from East Country. His old seat represented primarily North County. He doesn't even live here. All his comments were about business and his main concern is keeping businesses open so people could use them. People who are homeless and hungry won't be doing lots of shopping Darrel. He is so out of touch with citizens here he has no idea of their wants and needs. His platform has no comparison with Ammar Campa-Najjar talking about what people need and having real solution Issa talking about what businesses need. Our Constitution reads 'for the people, by the people" not for business to take priority over people. Seems like Republicans are voting for Issa just to keep a Republican in office. Bet they are the same ones who voted for Trump. Look how that has turned out.