By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor and Miriam Raftery, Editor
“We are one nation, under God, indivisible. But right now, I think that notion is being tested at our deepest core. I think it is time for us to lead with our values again as a nation." -- Ammar Campa-Najjar
September 17, 2019 (Alpine)—At a town hall meeting in Alpine on August 18, some 100 East County residents heard Congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar field questions on a wide range of issues. He offered thoughtful responses, many moderate positions and at times, maverick views on topics such as healthcare, gun violence, climate change, jobs, education, immigration and more.
The Jamul resident and Democratic contender has worked at the national level on both business and labor issues. Now he’s running for the 50th Congressional district seat held by indicted Republican Congressman Duncan D. Hunter, whose federal corruption trial begins in January.
Dressed in a long-sleeved sports shirt and blue jeans, the 30 year-old hopeful emphasized that to win in 2020, he has to attract voters across party lines. The Republican party still holds a substantial registration advantage, but Campa-Najjar came within three percentage points of ousting Hunter in 2018 in what had long been considered a GOP stronghold.
First, Campa-Najjar gave an overview of his platform. Next he answered questions on 10 topics randomly pulled from questions submitted beforehand. Then came live questions posed by audience members at a microphone.
“We are one nation, under God, indivisible. But right now, I think that notion is being tested at our deepest core,” Campa-Najjar said. “I think it is time for us to lead with our values again as a nation.”
Joking that he has been running a campaign “for three years so I can serve two years,” he said that he is out campaigning to “put country over party.”
He pledged to always be honest with voters on his views. “Democrats and Republicans will each find some things to like and not. I want to make sure that every person can live, work, and retire with dignity.”
Campa-Najjar shared his strong yet humble East County ties, from working as a janitor, groundskeeper and handyman at a church starting at age 15 to studying at Grossmont College and San Diego State University. He lovingly spoke about his Latino mother and her sacrifices for his brother and himself. “Dad took off when I was eight or nine,” he recalled.
He touted his experience helping to create jobs both at the U .S. Department of Labor and at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where he also worked with former House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump.
While working at the Labor Department, he said he would always work towards “sensible” solutions. “I have a small business, I teach, and I will have a town hall a month if I’m elected,” he pledged. “You will always be able to call on me when an issue comes up.”
He also shared his experience being a White House intern to President Barack Obama. “I kept applying and on the third time that I sent in my letter I got accepted.” When the Affordable Care Act was being rolled out, Campa-Najjar says he helped choose 10 letters from citizens for the President to read each day. “These people were the moms…people who were one illness away from losing their home, a Viet Nam who had to sell his medals in order to get medical care, and people who had served their country and had been deported.”
Today, he believes, “Both parties are a mess.”
Businesses rely on predictability. But President Trump’s policies are unpredictable and it’s hard to know what he will do, Campa-Najar noted, adding that this impacts trade partners and allies. “People want a businessman not a showman. Even people who love him [Trump] wish he would ‘tweet’ less.”
Holding public office means being a public servant, he believes. “It’s not a place to get famous. I'm not running to be part of the squad. I'm not running to open borders and take everyone's guns away and not say pledge of allegiance to the flag…I'm not running to be the next sexy guy in Washington.”
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON THE ISSUES
Here are some selected quotes and opinions from the issues that Campa-Najjar addressed in his responses to questions posed by voters.
“The Pentagon calls climate change one of the greatest threats of national security,” he said, noting that some U.S. military bases are not being fully utilized due to mudslides and rising sea levels. The difference between ice and water is one degree.”
He supports a shift toward clean energy technologies and predicts that as with cell phones, the price will drop as use become widespread. “The moment the price of renewable energy sold is less than fossil fuel, we change our earth forever.”
He discussed how at the Dept. of Labor, he worked on a program to transition coal workers to coding jobs at far higher wages In a new green economy, he added, “I want to make sure working people who built American are on the front lines, not the sidelines.”
“San Diego has the fourth highest homeless and homeless veteran population in the nation,” he said, adding that homeless vets “deserve to be treated with humanity.”
“There’s a “mismatch between funding and need. California has the fifth largest economy.”
“We put more into the federal government than other states. It’s time we get more out of the system.”
California is 11th in HUD funding, according to Campa-Najjar. “We need to change the formula and get more HUD money including for the middle class to own homes.”
He returned to his goal of creating more apprenticeships that can pay triple what some college graduates earn. If people had good paying jobs, he said, “They could afford housing and healthcare without subsidies.”
Public Education and Trump Tax Cut Results
“California is in 47th place in education spending.”
“We overlook special education...We need funding we’ve lost in education.”
He says tax cuts for the wealthy have led to cuts in education funding. He emphasized that he won’t raise taxes on the middle class, but adds that “just two cents a dollar more paid by those making more than $50 million a year would only impact 75,000 families--and none live in the 50th district,” but these funds would help fund important projects such as money for public schools, as well as more money for Social Security and Medicare, which Hunter wants to cut.
“Investing in youth is the mother of all solutions.”
How to Reach Reaching Republican Voters
Governor Gavin Newsom lost the 50th this district by 18 percent, but ““50 percent of the people who voted for Cox (Newsom’s Republican challenger) voted for me.”
“I won’t take guns away. I own some guns at home. I’m not for open borders.”
“I’m a cigar smoking, gun shooting, Christian Democrat.”
“There are flaws in both parties…Let’s get the working class working again.”
He says political action committees (PACs) such as those for the telecom and healthcare industry have donated huge sums to politicians and some “are lying to you…I take zero corporate PAC money.”
Wild cards in the race are some 7,000 voters who decline to state party affiilation, whose votes could prove pivotal in this race.
Repairing U.S. Standing Around the World
Has Trump hurt our standing? It depends on which country.”
He says the U.S. is not getting our “fair share” from NATO and the United Nations. But he adds, “There has to be a strategy…not day to day changes, confusing our own cabinet…Countries that helped us defeat the Nazis don’t understand…Changing positions constantly reduces our standing in the world, and so does meeting with dictators and getting nothing.”
“America leads by its power,” he stated, adding that we have a “moral” imperative.
“We need to reenter the Paris Climate Accord.”
Drawing a red line can lead to mistakes, he said, adding that Obama made some. “Syria, he did nothing. Iran, he wasn’t strong enough.”
On Trump, he says, “Don’t bully…Bullies are insecure; we must rebuild relationships with our allies and hold them accountable at the same time.”
“We need a steady hand at the helm. Declaring war is a power of Congress.”
Native American Rights
He pledged to “be sure the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) is well funded, respect tribal sovereignty and work to bring economic opportunities to tribal lands.
“Tribes pay no state taxes,” he says, noting that this creates opportunities. “Corporations hate taxes. I want to bring corporations to Native American land – not just casinos. Thirty percent of Native Americans live in poverty.”
My pet project – I want to bring SpaceX to the 50th district on a reservation such as Viejas or Pala. “Who doesn’t like rocket ships?” He says this would create “great paying jobs” in engineering, coding, supply chain positions and more, as well as providing contractors with a “piece of the pie.”
He wants to “start making peace more profitable than war” and “create economic mobility throughout the district…”
He opposes free healthcare for undocumented immigrants, stating, “I think everyone should be paying in (for healthcare).”
“One in five American dollars goes to healthcare and we suck at it. $3.5 billion was spent on healthcare last year… Many have country club membership (health insurance plans) but can’t afford to go to the doctor.”
“The American way is to introduce competition. I haven’t heard one Republican idea on healthcare…Issa, he resigned because he couldn’t answer why he supported the ACA repeal (Affordable Care Act) with no replacement.”
“Hunter’s big bold idea is to live longer, until age 72. before getting Medicare.
We need competition. I don’t see why seniors should pay more, they already have paid taxes.”
On Medicare for all as some have proposed, “There’s no clear way to pay for it.” Those touting this have “a lot of foam, not a lot of beer.”
“I don’t believe in government run healthcare. I propose buying into Medicare at age 50 or more; premiums would go down.”
“160 million people have healthcare through their jobs. They should not be forced off. They paid into this, unions fought for it.”
His plan would allow people to buy into Medicare at 55, then 45, then 35 (over a period of years) and ultimately let everyone buy in to compete against private insurers.
This would be similar to VA, Tri-Care and Native Americans healthcare benefits. “I’m not in favor of increasing taxes on the middle class. I’m for Medicare for all who want it.” (Not those who don’t).
“25% of costs in healthcare is pharmaceuticals.” He notes many medicines are cheaper in Canada and Mexico. “We’re being taken advantage of,” he says of pharmaceutical companies that are price gouging. He is open to allowing people to buy from regulated markets such as Canada and allowing Medicare to buy medicines in bulk and sell to consumers at reduced prices.
“Reduce cost and increase quality without forcing people’s hands.” He favors “more choices, not less.”
“For 20% of seniors in this district, one in five, Social Security is 90% of their monthly income. It’s heartbreaking. 40% of Americans retire with less than $500 dollars in their bank accounts.
“f a spouse dies you must choose which plan – yours or theirs. Earned dollars should go to a spouse.”
Right now people aren’t paying in on earnings over $130,000 a year, so not enough is being paid into the system. He wants to raise that cap. “Billionaires don’t want it,” he notes, adding, “We need to make sure my generation is working and paying in…A lot of people don’t feel like they have dignity; they’re working three jobs..”
These are “earned benefits, not entitlements.” He says Hunter doesn’t know the difference and feels “entitled” to his Congressional seat.
He criticized Republican candidate Carl DeMaio, saying DeMaio “wants to get rid of death benefits for police and firefighters..He’s trying to rip away benefits of working people.”
“Everything I propose will be revenue neutral, or ask those earning over $50 million to pay two cents more…We need an economy that rewards work, not just wealth.”
Left vs. Right
On some issues he sounded a fiscally conservative tone that was Libertarian or Republican leaning, while in other ways he stood with Democrats.
He referred to the battle over an Alpine High School, where voters wishes were not respected and kids still have to drive a long way to schools far away. “That’s not who we are.”
He called Democrats “the opportunity party for all. We’re a party of broad shoulders and big hearts”
In making decisions as a Congressman, he says, “I want to say I was on the right side of history.”
Gun Violence and White Supremacy
“I’m brown, so you know where I stand on white supremacy,” says Campa-Najjar, who is of Mexican-American and Palestinian heritage. “We just reject all forms of violence and terrorism, domestic or foreign.” But he notes that not every act of gun violence is white supremacy related.
He says he supports the 2nd amendment and does not support taking guns away. But there are things we “can do” noting that 80% of Americans support background checks to buy a gun.
“I like what the military does – before you get a gun” citing background checks, a psych evaluation, and safe storage requirements.
He says he supports red flag laws and securing communities of faith. He called the mass shooting at a Poway synagogue by a gunman who previously set fire to a mosque in Escondido “devastating.”
“We do need some gun safety.”He supports guns for hunting and personal protection “We have a big problem in this country--the wrong guns in the wrong hands. Vegas had a lot of good guys with guns” but there was still a concert massacre, he notes. “We do have limits on tanks, flame throwers.”
“It’s a very complicated issue; it won’t be solved with just one thing.”
“We have to change the underlying culture – mental health, disease of despair, kids bullied 24/7 online. The moral fabric of the family is being torn apart.”
But a ban on guns though would mean more sales illegally, he says.
“I told you I’d piss off and impress all of you!”
“I believe the point of impeachment is to send a message. It’s too late. If you don’t like him, beat him at the ballot…but I don’t like when Trump says either do legislation of do investigation…that’s a BS excuse. If Clinton could do it, he could do it.” He faulted Trump for refusing to back a bipartisan bill for repair of roads and bridges as long as he was under investigation. “He blew up a $2 trillion infrastructure bill.”
Favorite Comic Book Superhero
“ Batman because he’s just a dude.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Dr. Helen Horvath, who is running against Campa-Najjar as an independent, asked about a two-state solution. She says Palestine must renounce fanatics and accept the existence of Israel, then asked how Campa-Najjar can separate from his family background and do this.
Ammar says he has a brother in the Air Force, and an uncle and stepdad who are in the military or are veterans. His dad was an American citizen. He recalls Bill Clinton almost had a two-state solution but Arafat would not accept it, so Clinton failed.
”I have a partner I’ve very committed to and she’s Jewish,” he said.
Of a two-state solution: “I’m very committed to this.” He says occupation on disputed land is “counterproductive to peace.”
He says he has “the same position and Trump and Obama. Unless we forge a solution, we will have conflict for generations…We have to set aside our ancestors for the sake of our children and those yet to be born.. We must get both sides to compromise…both sides are not happy with what I’m trying to say. I’m not appeasing either side.”
“Hamas has threatened to kill my dad, and they would kill me because I’m Christian.”
An audience member who knew a teacher grazed by a bullet in the Granite Hills school shooting said students have been through lockdowns at local schools. He asked, “Will you sit down with us who will research this deeply and revisit?”
“Absolutely,” Campa-Najjar said. “I want CDC (Centers for Disease Control) funding to understand the cause of gun violence..We did that with cars…It lowered fatalities. We need to do the same thing with guns.”
Immigration Reform, the Dream Act, family separations and criminalization of those seeking asylum
“Immigration is the economy…I will piss everybody off” on this issue.
“I would have supported building the fricking wall if we’d gotten Dreamers protection.” He suggested that if these young immigrants were allowed to become citizens, work, pay taxes and start businesses, “They would pay for the wall.”
“Democrats shut down our government over Dreamers, Republicans shut down the government over a wall.” Both were failures, he says.
“Seeking asylum is a legal right. Can you imagine what people must be going through to come to a country that hates them?”
We need more immigration judges, he says. He wants a 72 hour maximum hold for most refugees. But if someone is a threat to security “We get you out of here.”
“Who is oppressed most by drugs and gangs? Undocumented immigrants who can’t report crimes,” he notes of those in the shadows.
“One in ten U.S. jobs is created by immigrants. 1 in 5 small businesses is owned by an immigrant. 45% of Fortune 500 companies are owned by immigrants.”
Trump is hypocritical given who his family is, and his wife.” (Trump’s wife and parents were immigrants.)
“We need to be honest and treat people with dignity. Help them learn English; if we take them out of the shadows employers could not take advantage and keep wages lower.” We need to keep employers accountable and also know that farmers need (immigrant workers).
“There is an “economic and moral imperative” for immigration reform.
“One party picked values, the other picked a wall. That’s why I’m fed up. We need both.”
How This Campaign Is Different
“This time I’m starting stronger and earlier…I believe the people in this district are good people, good voters. But not enough of them heard my values.”
He voiced dismay at the “mudfight” in the last campaign due to Hunter’s attack ads (which the Washington Post called the most “racist” campaign ads in the nation).
“I’m not for exploding the deficit. I’m for putting party over country and people over party…We don’t need a Hunter. We need a gatherer.”
Asked about comments by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likening immigration detention centers to concentration camps, he called the remarks “a huge distraction.”
He noted that “Jews are the most persecuted people in history” and agreed that the killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust is no comparison to today’s detention facilities.
But he added, “WE don’t have to compare. We can condemn the Holocaust and also say people today, because of their brownness, are being targeted. Don’t divide the community of people who are compassionate.”
“We need to respect holocaust survivors.” As for conditions for families detained at the border, he said, “Look at what’s happened and it will bring tears. These are just children and they want a better life. We need less rhetoric and more action…pain is pain.”
A Cuban immigrant talked about “kids in cages” and said we should not make assumptions based on how people look. She denounced the growing hatred and racism in American, then said, “I see you in 20 years being our president.”
Ammar voiced empathy for children who came home on their first day of school to find that their parents were taken from their workplace and ordered deported.
“In East County, we’re called bigoted backwoods people. We’re not. If I win, it will send a message about who we are in this district.” He called on voters to help “take back our country, and our district by working together.”
He learned that government “can’t do it all” and recalls helping a homeless man get an apprenticeship, only to learn the man started drinking again.
”I learned we need wrap around services. I took him to church and asked my pastor to help. He had him help build a church.”
Wildfire Prevention and Protection
Miriam Raftery, ECM editor, asked what he would do to better protect our region against wildfires.
“Our district is susceptible. We need to be able to treat that as an emergency, he said.
He noted that the Trump administration is “cutting money for Cal Fire and federal firefighting” because they paid out $1.5 trillion under the tax bill, giving “tax breaks to the wealthy. They are doing that at the expense of funding firefighters and being sure they can send money to counties.”
He supports more funds for firefighters to be working, “not taking away their pensions and death benefits” as DeMaio has proposed.
He said SDG&E is doing a lot to improve fire safety, but has not fully replaced all wood poles with steel… We need to replace or bury wood [utility power] poles.”
More can be done. SDG&E has to do their fair share.”
To make California safer from wildfires, he says, “I don’t think raking forests (as Trump once proposed) is going to do that…We need a reappropriation of funding to combat wildires and drought.”
He slammed Hunter’s record on helping wildfire survivors. “This is why he never wants to debate me! He voted for the first version of the tax plan with no relief for people who lost homes in fires – even Darrell Issa voted against this plan to hurt California..It’s a statement of values.”
Special Interests and Transparency
I got in a lot of trouble for not supporting the gas tax,” which most Democrats backed.”I will always tell you what I believe… “I’d lose my seat” before siding with special interests against the interests of this district, he adds.
Water and Environmental Issues
Sixty percent of our water comes from the Colorado River, he notes, adding that the Green New Deal is nonbinding, but aims to retool the fossil fuel industry. “We need that and also desalinizaiton, water purification, and conservation.”
He wants to power federal buildings by solar and other clean energy sources, but “not hurt the middle class and farmers. “Some things in the Green New Deal have nothing to do with environment.”
“Millennials are graduating with crippling debt.”
He wants to get rid of a tax loophole, spend $6 million to give free community college and $11 million to pay down college debt.
He notes that with rising use of drones and automation, including in the military, there are fewer opportunities for graduates. “Automation, not immigration is causing the jobs loss.”
He would cut fraud, waste and abuse in government, and put that savings into lowering college costs and increasing vocational training. “You could make college more affordable.”
A man in the audience said his daughter got addicted to crystal meth and later heroin. They found a methadone clinic but there’s a stigma, and addiction treatment is not easily available or affordable, including to vets. His daughter is now a nurse in a psychiatric hospital dealing with addicts and homeless people. “We’re writing off lots of people, and fentanyl is worse than heroin,” the man stated.
Campa-Najjar replied, “Thank you for your courage to speak up as a father.” He called in unacceptable that 22 vets a day die of suicide, and countless others, some due to drugs. “That could have been your daughter…We criminalize instead of treating addiction as mental illness…Countless people like your daughter are waiting to be saved….I’d love to meet her and I promise you to shine a light on this issue.”
”These are real people talking about real issues, not just tweeting.”
“When you run for Congress, you make a decision that your life is no longer your own…Even if you don’t vote for me, I will vote for you.”
He says Hunter served honorably in military but “that man never made it back from Washington…There is an easy way” of “taking money from special interests” and a “hard way of never selling out.”
He promised to do the latter.
OTHER CANDIDATES AND ELECTION DETAILS
Besides Campa-Najjar, several Republican stalwarts have announced plans to run or file exploratory committees. They are El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, retired Congressman Darrell Issa, former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, retired Navy Seal Larry Wilske, and Temecula Councilman Matt Rahn. Independent candidate Helen Horvath, a military veteran, behavioral analyst and consultant, has also announced plans to run.
The top two winners in the March 3rd primary will advance to the November general election.
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