For nearly 40 years, voters in eastern San Diego County have picked a Republican named Duncan Hunter to be their representative in Congress. Duncan Lee Hunter came first, and then his son and current Congressman Duncan Duane Hunter.
Could 2018 be the year they change course and go with 29-year-old Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Palestinian Mexican American who spent part of his childhood in the Gaza Strip?
Until Tuesday, election analysts said no.
But after Hunter, a five-term incumbent, and his wife were indicted by a federal grand jury this week for misusing $250,000 in campaign dollars to fund their own lavish lifestyles, Campa-Najjar’s longshot bid seems less of a stretch.
“We are in a really weird situation,” Campa-Najjar said. “You got two names on the ballot, which one do you want? Hunter is hardly working and he is only working to enrich himself.
“Give me two years. You don’t like it, kick me out.”
Campa-Najjar, who worked on President Obama’s reelection campaign, has never before run for public office.
His campaign was dealt a serious blow in February when an Israeli newspaper reported that his grandfather, Muhammed Yusuf al-Najjar, was one of the leaders of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics that left 11 athletes and coaches dead. Israeli commandos killed his grandfather in 1973.
After the story came out, Campa-Najjar said he was an advocate for peace in the Middle East and had left his family’s “dark past behind.”
“I think a man should answer to his own crimes,” he said. “I answer to my own issues.”
Campa-Najjar weathered the crisis and advanced to the general election to challenge Hunter. His endorsement by the state Democratic Party helped him beat five other candidates, including — in a district with a strong military presence — former Navy SEAL Josh Butner.
He supports Medicare for all and a speedy shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
His family history could become fodder for an attack ad in the future. But he also faces other tough realities in the race against Hunter. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has devoted scant resources to his candidacy, treating other California contests as higher priorities.
He made it out of the primary with only 17% of the vote, compared with Hunter’s 47%.
Campa-Najjar hopes his working-class background will resonate with voters now that Hunter is under indictment for alleged misuse of campaign money for travel and other personal expenses.
“I think we learned a lot about this man that makes him unfit to serve,” Campa-Najjar said. “This is a man who inherited his seat from his dad, then he sold out the district.”
On Thursday, Campa-Najjar joined a couple dozen protesters outside the San Diego courthouse where Hunter was arraigned. With 15 news cameras recording the scene — an extraordinary media presence for any congressional campaign — he thanked Hunter, a former Marine, for his service, then went on the attack.
“I think Washington chewed him up and spat him out and engulfed him in the corruption that has plagued Washington for too long,” he said just before Hunter emerged from the courthouse to shouts of “shame on you!”
Campa-Najjar often tells voters he was raised — mainly in the San Diego suburbs — by a single Mexican American mother who worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office. He recalls seeing her cry at the edge of her bed, stacking bills on top of one another, prioritizing which to pay and which to ignore.
“She was playing the saddest game of solitaire,” said Campa-Najjar, whose Palestinian father left the family when he was 8.
Growing up, he said, he was unsure of where he fit in. He was half Palestinian, but when he spent time as a youth in war-torn Gaza in the Middle East, people viewed him warily because he was from the United States, he said. When Campa-Najjar came back to a post-Sept. 11 America, more questions lingered in his head as anti-Arab slurs were hurled at him.
“I was really wondering,” he said, “if this country would accept me.”
Campa-Najjar started looking for a job at 15 and found one on the facilities staff of EastLake Community Church in Chula Vista. He cleaned toilets, patched walls and scrubbed tiles with a toothbrush.
He started the job as a self-described “angsty rebel” in need of work close to his high school. He sported a lip ring and played guitar in a garage rock band that performed covers of songs by heavy metal groups such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses.
At work he struck up a friendship with Kevin McPeak, one of the pastors at the nondenominational Protestant church.
During services, the church sometimes played U2 and other secular music. Campa-Najjar and McPeak eventually starting talking about bands they liked and discovered they were both fans of Sting. Soon Campa-Najjar picked up a guitar and performed during services.
“I started playing, and it really spoke to me,” said Campa-Najjar, whose mother is Catholic and father is Muslim. He began to worship at EastLake and eventually joined its youth ministry. The more he read the Bible, the more redeeming he found it.
“I was not looking for religion, but it found me,” he said.
McPeak said he has stayed friends with Campa-Najjar and they still attend concerts together.
“It is always gratifying to see people grow up to become awesome, responsible adults,” McPeak said.
Campa-Najjar said he found a series of what he calls “step-in” fathers, including McPeak, to stand in for his own.
He said Barack Obama’s book, “Dreams of My Father,” and his election as president inspired him to get through college at San Diego State and find meaningful work. In addition to working on Obama’s campaign, he did press work for the U.S. Department of Labor and the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce before starting his own public affairs business.
Campa-Najjar is comfortable these days with who he is. He plays Christian rock artists such as Chris Tomlin and Lincoln Brewster between campaign stops.
Now, with details of the Hunter scandal — prosecutors say his campaign was charged with items such as a plane ticket for the family rabbit and expenses from a cigar lounge — dovetailing with criminal convictions of top advisors to President Trump, Campa-Najjar likes his odds.
“I haven’t embezzled $250,000 from my campaign,” he said. “I don’t like rabbits that much. I do smoke a cigar every now and then, but on my own dime.”