By Miriam Raftery
Photos, top left to lower right: Bill Wells, Sam Abed, Matt Rahn, Larry Wilske, Ammar Campa-Najjar, and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter
July 7, 2019 (San Diego’s East County) – With Congressman Duncan D. Hunter slated for trial starting in September on 60 federal corruption charges, one Democrat and four Republicans, all men, have established campaign committees to run for Rep. Hunter's seat in 2020. At least two other prominent names have been floated as possible contenders, with more entries possible.
Here are the contenders to date:
First to throw his hat in the ring was El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, the only Republican candidate who lives in East County. He ran against Hunter in the 2018 primary before after media broke news of apparent campaign finance violations, but before criminal charges were filed against Hunter. Since becoming mayor in 2013, Wells has succeeded in both lowering the city’s sales tax and building up a surplus. Wells has said he wants to reduce the national debt, make national defense and border security a priority, and respect the “sanctity of life.” He has indicated he does not believe that climate change is a problem caused by human activities. As mayor, he oversaw a broad program to address homelessness. As a health professional in the psychiatric field, he wants to bring more help to those with mental illness if elected to Congress.
The latest Republican to announce is former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, founder and president of a real estate development consulting company. He served as mayor for eight years before losing his reelection bid in 2018. Abed has touted his fiscal conservatism. But his hard-line stances on immigration resulted in the city losing a lawsuit filed by the ACLU over the city’s blocking of a shelter for migrant children. An abed-backed law banning landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants was repealed by the city council after civil rights groups threatened litigation challenging it on Constitutional grounds. Abed says his immigrant stances align with the heavily Republican 50th Congressional district but says he won’t run if Hunter is in the race.
Temecula Councilman Matt Rahn, also a Republican, holds a law degree and has over 20 years experience in higher education and university research and as a land use and policy professional, according to his bio. He’s served as a consultant on projects ranging from wind energy to transportation. He serves as the director for the CSU San Marcos Environmental Leadership Institute and Wildfire Program, and is the lead instructor for the Environmental Leadership Academy and coursework in wildfire science, CEQA, water management, conservation planning, and energy, according to his LinkedIn page and helped lead efforts against the controversial Liberty Quarry.
Retired Navy SEAL Larry Wilske has worked as a maritime charter business operator and consultant on military logistics in recent years. A staunch conservative Republican, he has praised the voting record of Hunter but says voters deserve a choice. He has indicated his priorities if elected would be supporting the 2nd Amendment, immigration reform, border security, and continuing tax reform. Wilske previously ran unsuccessfully against Congresswoman Susan Davis in the 53rd Congressional district and against Assemblyman Randy Voepel.
The Democratic candidate
Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democratic contender, came within four points of defeating Hunter in 2018, before the indictments against Hunter were filed but after media had reported on the prospect of criminal charges being filed against the five-term Republican Congressman. He brings significant funding and campaign muscle, with backing from the national Democratic Party hoping for a rare pickup of a seat in a conservative district.
Raised by a working class mother, Campa-Najjar is a former White House Labor Dept. official, business owner and past advocate for small businesses with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He says he was to restore America’s core values of “responsibility from all, opportunity for all” He wants to bring high-wage apprenticeship jobs to the district, support affordable healthcare, and protect Social Security, Medicare, the environment and working families.
More possible contenders
Two other names floated as possible GOP candidates are Darrell Issa, who retired from San Diego’s 49th Congressional district, and Carl DeMaio, a KOGO radio conservative talk show host and former San Diego City Councilman. Neither live in the district, which is not a requirement in a Congressional race.
Issa was appointed by President Donald Trump as Director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. He formerly chaired the powerful House oversight committee, conducting investigations into the Obama administration. He was named richest member of Congress multiple years; he also was named by Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington as among the most corrupt member of Congress.
DeMaio pulled papers to run against Hunter in 2018 but later dropped out. He ran unsuccessfully against Bob Filner for Mayor and lost a Congressional race in the 52nd Congressional District to Scott Peters. He has championed various anti-tax measures including chairing a committee to repeal the gas tax statewide, as well as advocating for reforms to reduce the city’s pension liabilities.
The window to file with the Registrar of Voters for the June 2020 primary has not yet officially opened, so more candidates could enter the race and some who formed campaign committees to raise funds and test the political waters could opt not to run.
It’s also unclear whether any of these candidates will be running against five-term incumbent Congressman Hunter, whose father held the office before him, or whether it could become an open seat.
Duncan D. Hunter: The first Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran elected to Congress, Rep. Hunter has focused on a strong military and border security. He is currently stripped of serving on committees pending outcome of his trial, so is able to vote only on measures before the full House. His campaign site states, "I fight for our district, our values and our nation."
Values among his conservative and evangelical base could be an issue for Hunter if he stays in the race, since the indictments allege not only criminal misuse of $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use, but also that Hunter spent donors' money on affairs with five women, including lobbyists and Congressional staffers. He is married with three children. His wife, Margaret, recently pled guilty to one count of conspiracy and is cooperating with prosecutors in the case against her husband.
While Hunter could legally run for reelection even if convicted, unless formally ousted by the House of Representatives, the Republican Party could withhold endorsement or back another candidate. Thus far Hunter has said he has no intention of resigning. But that could change if he accepts a plea bargain or is convicted, ramping up pressure from within the party to step down.
If Hunter resigns, depending on the timing, a special election could occur sooner than the March primary and November general election.