ESCONDIDO — A group of more than 90 people filled the pews at Escondido’s First United Methodist Church on Aug. 28 to hear Ammar Campa-Najjar — the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives 50th Congressional District seat — answer questions from the audience.
Because his opponent — the Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter — denied an invitation to participate in the town hall-style convening, the 29-year-old Campa-Najjar flew solo for the evening. The First United Methodist Church of Escondido — which explained in introducing Campa-Najjar that it does not endorse candidates for office — has maintained the tradition of candidate forums of this sort for years in the city for elected office.
“It’s unfortunate Congressman Hunter couldn’t make it today. It would’ve made for a more robust conversation, but I’m happy to take the time to speak to all of you,” Campa-Najjar said in his opening remarks. “We’ve been working hard and some of our opponents have hardly been working and that’s what’s kind of been shown in this election. Now I think it’s just a question of who is going to lead us into the next adventure for this district.”
Answering a question asked by The Coast News, Campa-Najjar addressed what he saw as the biggest policy and social issues facing Escondido.
“The biggest issue in Escondido is I want the local chamber of commerce to create business opportunities,” Campa-Najjar said. “I want to provide more access to credit, capital and contracts with small businesses, which create two-thirds of all jobs in this country. I want to create new jobs: that’s critical.”
Campa-Najjar also called for more public funding to go toward schools, public libraries and other institutions in the city, pointing to the recent outsourcing and privatization of library services in Escondido as a case in point. Gang violence, too, is an issue Campa-Najjar said needs addressing in the city.
“There’s a lot of gang-related crime that not a lot of people talk about on my side of the aisle, but we need to start working on that,” Campa-Najjar explained. He said many programs are available and stressed the importance of “getting at-risk youth in these programs and … demonizing them, making sure your zip code doesn’t determine your destiny.” He then asked, “How do we reach out to those people?”
For Escondido, Campa-Najjar also addressed the issue of the political power of real estate developers and their connections in City Hall.
“When it comes to the real estate developers, I’ll do it when it’s the right thing to do, but I won’t do it because they’re cutting me a check,” he said. “I don’t accept any corporate PAC (political action committee) money.”
Pledging to take no corporate campaign donations for his race for Congress, Campa-Najjar said he believes doing so will make him more accountable to voters and less so to special interests.
“I think what happens is when you take special interest money, you lose your way,” Campa-Najjar remarked at the forum. “Because you can literally win elections with never having to do this. You just spend your way to winning.”
Hunter and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were recently indicted by a federal grand jury for using campaign money for personal expenses, such as flights and vacations. Though no questions were asked about this by the audience, Campa-Najjar found an opportunity to broach the topic when asked a question about his grandfather’s background.
Campa-Najjar’s grandfather Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, who died 16 years before the birth of his grandson in 1973, was the head of the intelligence wing of the Palestinian political party Fatah, which had a splinter group named Black September which committed acts of terrorism. One of those acts was the attack in Munich at the 1972 Summer Olympics, which was orchestrated by Yusuf al-Najjar, an act for which he was assassinated by the Israeli military in 1973 under the auspices of what was dubbed Operation Wrath of God.
Though Campa-Najjar grew up in the East County portion of San Diego County, he lived in the Palestinian territory of Gaza from 1997 to 2001.
The Bill of Rights calls for “every man to chart their own course and choose their own destiny. Every person is responsible for their own choices,” Campa-Najjar stated in response to the question. “So, how about this? I’m not responsible for choices and actions of someone else and Hunter is then responsible for his own choices … If my opponent has to dig back three generations on me, then you’ve got a pretty clean candidate because I can go back to last week on Hunter.”
Campa-Najjar has called for a two-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories, which he said will require “generous concessions” on both sides of the bargaining table. Overall, the forum primarily focused on domestic issues, such as health care, creation of a federal jobs program, immigration, the debate over imposing a federal gas tax and the issue of the ongoing debate over the U.S.-Mexico border wall, among other things.
Hunter, despite the indictment, still leads in the most recent poll taken by Survey USA — 47 percent to 39 percent — an eight-point lead in a district which has long voted Republican. Duncan Hunter’s father, Duncan Hunter Sr., formerly served as a Republican congressman for the district. On the day of the forum, Hunter spoke in front of the organization Women VIPs in Washington, D.C.
At 6 p.m. Sept. 28, the First United Methodist Church in Escondido will host another forum at focused on local elected officials running for office for the Nov. 6 midterm elections. This will include candidates for both City Council and the mayoral election and the event is open to the general public.