“This campaign is about solving economic injustice, regardless of your views or hues. Regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, pain is pain.”—Ammar Campa-Najjar
By Miriam Raftery, East County Magazine
May 29, 2017 (San Diego’s East County) – Earlier this month, we sat down for an in-depth interview with Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democrat running for the 50th Congressional district seat held by Republican Duncan Hunter. (Hear the full interview, which aired on KNSJ radio, by clicking the audio link and scroll down for highlights.)
He has a rare combination of qualifications, with background in helping promote job creation both as public affairs officer for the Labor Department under President Obama and as director of communications for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
A native San Diegan of Hispanic and Arab descent, he’s also the son of immigrants and a Christian who’s worked with his church to help working people and deported veterans. Now he says he’s running to listen to the problems faced by all people in the district, use his experience in Washington to bring good-paying jobs to East County including rural areas, and bring “national pride, not national shame” as our region’s representative in Congress.
Though he’s worked for the Obama administration, he says he doesn’t support everything the administration has done. His view on trade pacts differ, for example, as he wants to support jobs for American workers. But as an organizer for Obama’s campaign, he was impressed by those working “in the name of humanity.” He praised those who fought for “people like me” to pursue his dreams and says he’s running for office to “give back” and help other people achieve their dreams.
“This is a `Where were you?’ moment in the life of our country,” he reflects. “ People will look back and say, `Where were you when people were literally fighting for their lives” as well as fighting for healthcare, constitutional rights and more.”
He says he’s been traveling the district meeting with people from all walks of life, from veterans in VFW halls to people at protests “listening and learning, what every single elected officials should be doing. What I’m hearing is people saying ‘I’m just an illness away from losing my home. I’m hearing from a veteran who said he had to sell his computer just to get medicine.” A mother working two jobs told him she rarely sees her children, who are in overcrowded classrooms, he adds. “They deserve better than this, and they deserve better than Duncan Hunter.”
He differs sharply with Hunter on healthcare. Hunter, at a Townhall meeting in Ramona, stated, “I don’t believe healthcare is right.” Najjar believes it should be. “The Affordable Care Act did good on care. It did not do good on affordable, he says.”We are still the most expensive healthcare system in the developed world. We need to address this as pragmatically and fast as possible.”
He supports single-payer healthcare but pragmatically would fight to expand Medicare to include everyone over age 50, with those between 50 and 65 paying a small amount so that they could have affordable healthcare at a time in life when many people most need it –and are being priced out of the market both by private insurers and Affordable Care Act policies. He says the modest payments by younger seniors would lower costs of services and force the free market to compete with Medicare. He adds that he’s spoken with veterans who support the idea of single-payer, noting that single-payer under the Veterans Adminsitration (VA) worked for them and their families.
Hunter by contrast cast the deciding vote to repeal the ACA (Obamacare) and pass a Republican healthcare measure that the Congressional Budget Office just reported would cause 23 million people to lose healthcare coverage and force some poor seniors to pay 850% more for healthcare insurance, meaning many would likely not be able to afford coverage.
Congress voted to exempt itself from those new requirements and keep Obamacare, which Najjar calls “hypocrisy.”
The Republican plan will also hurt many veterans and their families, he notes, adding, “I have seen war myself. I was born in San Diego and grew up in a war zone.” He says when he meets veterans, he thanks them for being “willing to lay down your life so that someone like me has the freedoms that I have,” such as freedoms to fight for income equality and healthcare, “that’s something I could never, ever repay.”
(Photo, right: Ammar Campa-Najjar and East County Magazine radio show host Miriam Raftery)
AS for Hunter’s campaign finance scandal and a Justice Department criminal investigation into some $60,000 in personal expenses charge to his campaign (which he later repaid), such as an Italian family vacation and first class airfare for a pet rabbit, Najjar says, “It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, and shameful. While he was doing that, I was fighting for people’s healthcare in Washington D.C. I was helping people to start businesses in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and I was helping people in this district punch their ticket into the middle class with good-paying jobs.”
On women’s equality, and Hunter’s votes against equal pay and rights for women, Najjar notes that his mother worked two jobs raising her two sons. “I wouldn’t be where I am without her. The idea that someone like her doesn’t deserve the same rights and the same pay is insulting to me.” He believes providing women with equal pay and jobs with living wages would also help reduce abortions.
Immigration issues are personal to Campa-Najjar. Born here, he traveled with his mother to the Middle East and was there when war broke out. “My father came to this country after his parents were killed in front of him, at the age of 11,” he says, noting that his father chose to reject radicalism and come to America “and thank God America chose him.” His father came on a student visa, started businesses here, and had two sons – one who recently graduated from the University of California, San Diego, and the other, Najjar, is now running for Congress. His family has lived “that American miracle” that he knows many others aspire to achieve.
He agrees with three federal judges who have now ruled Trump’s travel ban unconstitutional. “I am against the Islamic ban. I am against Islamophobia. I am against anti-Semitism. I am against every kind of prejudice and bigotry…including some of the rhetoric that I hear against the white working class. I really think that a lot of them are ignored…We have to listen to them. I’ve talked to a lot of Trump voters and when I talk with them and share my values, it resonates with them.”
He believes poverty and hopelessness drove some in rural areas to vote for Trump – an issues that’s huge in East County. “One in three children are in poverty in El Cajon,” he notes.”
He believes protecting our nation’s security is important, including protecting new immigratnts and refugees from being terrorized in their new home in America. “I wholeheartedly believe we have to protect our border,” he says, but instead of a wall that fails to keep out the 40% who fly here and simply overstay visas, he wants to see smarter means utilized and then take cost saved by not building a wall and invest those funds in healthcare, caring for our veterans, and building “infrastructure leading to rural areas so we can invest there and get jobs there.”
“A lot of people in this district are self-starting, bootstrapping people who want to start their own businesses,” he adds. “They want access to credit, capital and contracts…Small businesses are engines of economic renewal.” He has ideas for helping small business owners through the Small Business Administration and more, he says.” “Here is the driving theme for me: this campaign is about solving economic justice regardless of your views or hues. Regardless of whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, pain is pain.”
He notes that the Obama administration created 16 million jobs, though 5 million were lost in the recession, leaving 11 million net new jobs. But while Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans gained more jobs than they lost, the one class that hasn’t bounced back has been the white working class, he observes. That’s largely because businesses were investing in urban areas accessible by mass transit.
“But we also see 27% poverty in the African American community, 26% in the Hispanic community, and 30% in Native Americans, “ he observes. “So we have joblessness on one side, and poverty on the other.” The solution is to bring big city jobs to rural areas, he believes. He has ideas to bring jobs to rural parts of East County – ideas that were put into place while he was at the Labor department. For instance, a “coal to coding” program taught out of work people in a coal community how to do computer coding and earn $60,000 a year.
“Economic stability is the mother of all solutions,” he says. “It will help reduce tensions between communities…and I know that I could do that.” He says just as others fought for the rights of people in his community, as a Hispanic-Arab American, “I think that the white working class needs a fighter who maybe isn’t from that community, but who understands.” That means revising trade pacts so workers here don’t lose their jobs overseas, he says.
On education, he views Trump’s policies as “sorely misguided” by diverting funds out of public schools and into charters and vouchers. Noting that 80% of kids are in public schools, he says, “We need to invest more in our teachers so they can teach and mentor better” as well as reduce class sizes.
He believes in moving toward free or low-cost community college and adding more vocational programs, and upgrading technology. For those who can’t afford community college he’d also support a GI-type bill for civilians, where students could do community service for a couple of years and get their student loan debt forgiven.
On climate change, he believes it’s the most serious challenge of all. “If we get 10 billion tons of carbon out of the earth every year and put it into the environment, do you think that’s a problem?” he asks. “Are we contributing to climate change. I think so.” He adds that climate change is also a health issue and economic issue. America should strive to be energy independent an “invest in our own sources of energy to be what America is: a pioneer.” He also supports giving communities choice on how to achieve energy savings, such as choosing rooftop solar over a wind project.
He notes that all big transformations include some false starts, but we shouldn’t be discouraged from moving forward on progress. “What if we’d said `Flying a plane is hard, let ‘s just stop now?’” he asks. “American workers can outbuild and out-compete the rest of the world.” That’s what should be done on energy, he believes.
He says he’s found common ground even with owners of military-style weapons, agreeing that Second Amendment rights to bear arms should be protected, provided reasonable background checks are done to assure people know how to safely use weapons and that they don’t fall into the wrong hands.
He differs sharply with Congressman Hunter on his views about the Trump administration’s recent controversies over ties to Russia.
His opponent, Hunter, has been a defender of Trump early on, including defending Trump giving classified information to the Russians and has refused to answer questions about whether he supports a special prosecutor in the wake of Trump firing the FBI director, to look into Russian ties to the administration.
Campa-Najjar says he’s “deeply concerned” and wants a “full review” adding, “No matter who the President is, they have to be subjected to full scrutiny and have full transparency…We have to hold power accountable…and make sure the most powerful voice is the voice of the people.” He would urge Trump to let the process go forward adding, “If you are not guilty, the best anti-bacterial is sunlight.”
Campa-Najjar says he believes it’s important to send someone to Washington who has been there and not been corrupted. He’s spent five years in Washington D.C. but says he’s still speaking out about the working class, healthcare, and climate change. “I do not have a single corporate donor,” he says, adding his financial backers are “the people,” and has succeeding in raising more money than his competitors because “I’m talking to people…listening to what they care about…and they are saying `I think you’re capable of leading.’”
His message to voters is this. “What I’ve learned is you just want someone who will listen to you, someone who will bring national pride, not national shame” to our district and who will care about families here. “You want someone who will fight for you. This election is about accountability, responsibility and trust…I believe the path to the truth is trust, and I’m building that with people from all walks of life.” No matter your background, he pledges, “You’d better believe I’ll be fighting like hell for you if I’m elected.”
You can read more about Ammar Campa-Najjar at his website, www.CampaCampaign.com.