How Do You Defeat a Bigot?
Indicted by the feds for misusing campaign funds to pay for lavish vacations, tequila shots, and liasons with multiple women who are not his wife — Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) is trying to save his San Diego-area House seat by stoking Islamophobia against his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar.
Campa-Najjar is a dashing 29-year-old endorsed by Barack Obama. “I worked at the White House for a little bit – working on those 10 letters a day that the president would read, back when we had a President who read,” he tells Rolling Stone. Campa-Najjar is half-Latino, half-Arab — and Christian.
In recent days, Hunter has lied that Campa-Najjar is part of a conspiracy by “the radical Muslims” who “are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.” He is running dark ads and sending inflammatory mailers claiming Campa-Najjar is a “security risk” based on his Palestinian heritage. On Tuesday, Hunter’s father — also known as Duncan Hunter, who previously served in the same House seat — joined in demonization campaign.
These are vicious smears orchestrated by a desperate and reckless man. Rep. Hunter is free on a $15,000 bond and has been stripped of his House committee posts by Republican Speaker Paul Ryan who cited the “deeply serious” charges against him. Hunter did not respond to an interview request.
Duncan Hunter once led a charmed life. A veteran of three tours of duty, he was elected to the House in 2008, taking over his father’s seat, to become the first post-9/11 combat veteran to serve in Congress. But according to federal charges, Hunter and his wife turned his campaign warchest into a personal slush fund. As laid out in an indictment, “the goal of the conspiracy was for DUNCAN HUNTER and MARGARET HUNTER to enrich themselves… by converting Campaign funds for their own personal benefit and enjoyment.” The Hunters have pleaded not guilty.
“The HUNTERS illegally converted and stole more than $250,000,” the indictment alleges. They used the cash to pay for daily family expenses (including “two Punky Brewster items” at Target), lavish vacations in Hawaii and Italy, Pittsburgh Steelers NFL tickets, rental cars, hotel rooms, rounds of golf, and a bachelor party where Duncan Hunter spent “$462.46 in Campaign funds for 30 shots of tequila and one steak.”
Hunter has alternately blamed the indictment on his wife and the “deep state.” He told reporters: “They want to rig the election their own way, because they can’t beat me in a real election.”
In fact the Democrat who is seeking to beat Hunter in the real election is Ammar Campa-Najjar, whose heritage is half Mexican and half Palestinian. His mother is Catholic; his father is Muslim. He became a Protestant after working as a teenager as a janitor and groundskeeper at community church.
I met Campa-Najjar this summer in at his campaign office in Escondido, California — a bustling hub of San Diego sprawl where law offices have signs in Spanish reading, “Abogado de Inmigración.” Campa Najjar was dressed in a sharp dark suit, and his jet black hair was on point. But he’s not a morning person. It was just after 10 in the morning. At first he couldn’t find the office light switch. Then he couldn’t find a bottle of water. So he cracked open a Bud Light from the campaign fridge, taking a swig before we sat down for a 45 minute interview.
Campa-Najjar is not a secret Muslim radical. When it comes to national security he can sound a lot like the late Sen. John McCain: “I have a very hawkish view when it comes to terrorism,” he says. “I’m proud of having served a president who chased Bin Laden to the gates of hell. We should do the same thing with al-Baghdadi,” he says, referring to the ISIS leader.
Hunter is seeking to tar Campa-Najjar with the sins of his Palestinian grandfather — who was a leader of the Fatah party, and implicated in the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar was, in turn, assassinated by an Israeli commando raid in 1973. Ammar Campa-Najjar was born — 16 year later — in 1989.
Now 29, Campa-Najjar likens his family history to that of the 50th district he hopes to serve: “This district has a really rough past. There’s a city called Santee. They used to call it ‘Klantee’ because the KKK had stronghold there. In Fallbrook they used to burn crosses. It’s a bygone era and nobody today is responsible for things of that past,” he says. “We’re all trying to move forward to live out of better life for kids in the future.”
Rolling Stone spoke to Campa Najjar at length about his upbringing in the U.S. and Gaza, his meeting with Donald Trump, and the political power of showing up.
Rolling Stone: You beat an impressive Democrat in the primary, Josh Butner, a retired Navy SEAL who was backed by the DCCC.
Campa-Najjar: The people in the district want to see something new — a stark contrast. My colleague in the primary, his biggest strength ended up being his biggest weakness. Because he was trying to out-veteran the veteran who has been a household name.
It’s hard to out-Hunter the Duncan Hunter brand.
Hunter has the name ID. His father was here for 30 years. He’s been here for 10 years. But Hunter does not show up in the district; he’s constantly absent. One of his biggest strengths is his obscurity, because the less he gets out there, the more people can think he’s his father — and vote on the ballot thinking it’s the same guy that they’ve known for 40 years.
How did the younger Duncan Hunter go sideways?
Hunter was a person who I respect a lot for his service to our country. People like him serve abroad so people like you and me can even have the luxury of what we do here at home. But the real question is: Is he it’s the same guy? Something happened to him. And he changed. In the district he’s known as “Drunken Hunter.” I’m not sharing anything new with you. Even Politico did a report where he’s been known to drink at noon. [Looks down at the beer he’s drinking.] I can’t judge.
[Laughs.] This line of attack would be working better for you if there wasn’t a Bud Light on the table —
The difference is he’s doing it at the Capitol. In a subcommittee hearing, he was [reportedly] slurring his voice and yelling at Paul Ryan about the funding strategy for defense. He does a lot of self-indulging on the Hill. This is what his Republicans colleagues say about him. Earlier this year there was an effort to push him out.
How do you contrast yourself to voters?
I was born in this district to a single, working-class mom who made $16,000 a year – barely enough to raise two boys. And she struggled. I had to work as a janitor at the age of 15-and-a-half to help her pay the bills. And bless my mom. She helped give me a good childhood. But I didn’t inherit anything. I had to earn every single thing – despite a lot of odds — with the support of community.
Hunter’s the complete opposite. He literally inherited the seat. And he sells his votes to the highest bidder. He takes this district and the seat for granted. He doesn’t even do the work of showing up. How do you represent people that you don’t show up for?
I went to a Chamber of Commerce here in Escondido — I showed up in the lion’s den. It’s a conservative organization. They’re all looking at me, Why is he here, and Hunter’s not? And they were welcoming because I at least showed up. Then I went to a Bible study last Thursday that people have been inviting Hunter to come to, and he’s never gone. People say, “You know Ammar shows up.” I’ve been doing his job, part-time, for two years and I’m take happy to take it off his plate and do it full time.
Is your biography a challenge with voters?
Based on all the hoopla you hear, what percentage of the district do you think is veterans?
If I had to guess, what, 40 percent?
It’s nine. Nine percent. The Latino community is 35 percent; the Middle Eastern Community, believe it or not, is 15 percent because El Cajon is where most of the Chaldean population immigrated to in the 1980s. It’s called Little Baghdad. Outside of Michigan, it’s the biggest Christian Iraqi population.
By ethnicity the district is half me.
Karl Rove had this saying – it’s probably the only thing I agree with Karl Rove on – he said the way to win elections is to turn your opponent’s strengths into weaknesses and your weaknesses into strengths. I’m a skinny brown guy with a funny name running in California’s 50th District. That’s a weakness to most people.
How do I turn it into a strength? How do I lean into my diversity to turn out the diverse emerging electorate that we’re going to need to win – young people, minorities, women. [How do I draw on the experience of] my single, middle-class mom to empathize with working people? How do I lean on the fact I lived in a war zone?
This is Gaza you’re talking about?
I lived in a war zone. I was in Gaza between 1997 and 2001 so I came back August 2001 – right before 9/11. Leaving war, and then war followed us.
How did you go from here to there?
It was a very Obamaesque, Dreams of Your Father, situation. My mom said go get to know your dad. So me and my brother and my mom went to Gaza in 1997. It was supposed to be a small stint. And then the war broke out; it made it hard to travel.
That must have been traumatic.
I always wondered, Why all the pain in my life? My dad wasn’t around. I was not Latino enough for Latinos. Or Arab enough in Palestine because I was considered the oppressor, because I’m an American. And then, I wasn’t American enough after 9/11.
I think the reason why we had so much success: It’s a marriage of my story and the district’s story. I’m running in a district that’s half me ethnically. Working class people — unemployment’s double the rest of San Diego. And then you’ve got veterans who are marred with the scars of war. And it’s in those broken places that I share a bond with veterans that’s really beyond words. You can’t really explain it. A fisherman recognizes another fisherman. You know when you’ve seen things that literally, physically, emotionally rattled you. Especially the Vietnam veterans, who have a lot of sympathy for children who’ve seen war. There’s a bond that I share with veterans that goes beyond, What branch of the service were you in?
This is still a red district.
When Republicans come up to me and they say, “I’m not going to vote for you.” I say, “Well I’m going to be voting for you when I’m in Congress, so just start talking.” I tough talk them. Sometimes people will say, “I voted for Trump I never going to vote for a Democrat.” I literally just show them this photo. [Pulls up photo on his phone of him standing next to Trump.]
Where did that come from?
I worked the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for about four years. My job in 2016 was to convene forums with all the candidates. So I met with Hillary, Bernie, O’Malley, Jeb the whole circus — and Donald Trump.
Michael Cohen was there. Hope Hicks was there. Trump was super nice. When you’re in D.C. for while you can smell B.S. a mile away. But he was genuinely nice, which was shocking. We came in, he said, “What do you have to be supermodels to work at the chamber?”
I recorded the conversation. I deleted it. I’m sure Michael Cohen has it. I told Trump immigrants benefit the economy — even undocumented immigrants. And then my boss said, “The hospitality industry also benefits from undocumented workers, which is what you built your empire on.”
And Michael Cohen said [Campa-Najjar adopts a goodfella voice], “We don’t do that. We don’t do that. That might be true about other people, but we don’t do that.” And Trump said, “Shut up Michael. We all do it.’” I’m like, fuck, I wish I had that recording still.
What’s your pitch to Trump voters?
I’m willing to work with Trump on infrastructure, trade and jobs — if done the right way. He’s done it all the wrong way. With trade, he’s hurting the very people that got him elected. I will not work with him on things that hurt our way of life in this district — like this tax plan that Hunter voted for. Hunter said the this bill is going to hurt California and New Jersey disproportionately. And he’s still voted for it!I He doesn’t put California first.
I tell people it’s not about left or right. It’s in and and out. There are people on the inside like Duncan Hunter. He doesn’t care about our interests; he cares about special interest. That’s why he doesn’t show up; you’re not his stakeholders. You’re not the people he needs to get elected. But for me, you are the person I need to elected. That’s why I’m here and he’s not. And they’re like, “Oh shit, that makes sense.”
I’ve been going everywhere. The Turkey Inn it’s the oldest bar in San Diego. They love Trump and NASCAR — that demographic of people. I went in a couple months ago and my friends are like, “You’re crazy man. They’re going to kill you. They get into bar fights at least once a week. It’s a pretty intense place.” I’m like I lived in Gaza. I’m fine.
I want to talk to Republicans. All of my consultants are like don’t bother with them. Just focus on Democrats and decline-to-states [voters who don’t register with a party preference]. But the way I look at this — the day after Trump is no longer president, what does that look like? This isn’t just going to stop. I think a lot of people in my party are being myopic about this issue. You can’t unring this bell.
We have to get on the road to recovery. The day after he’s gone, if we did nothing but divide, it will be the undoing of this country. I really believe that. So I’m trying to start to try to repair the breach now, because I think it will be too late after he’s gone.
How to you understand Trump voters?
My big is observation is that Trump voters aren’t ignorant — they’re ignored. By their party, by my party, by the country. And when you’re ignored about your livelihood you’re angry — you scapegoat people. That that’s what people are doing — they’re taking it out on their neighbors. And the only way to deal with this, to bring people back to together is to say “I get it.” Love is love. Liberals talk about that. Yeah, but pain is pain too. And these people are going through something serious. The up-ending of their culture and their lives — because automation and globalization. But they scapegoat immigrants. And if you don’t speak to that pain, then they almost have the right to dismiss you.
People peg you as a “progressive.” Do you use that label?
I guarantee you there’s some things that progressives don’t see eye-to-eye with me. When I talk to about Medicare for All, I want to see it in a revenue-neutral fashion. If we can’t do it that way then I don’t want it. The big policy that I’m pushing is expanding Medicare for people who are 50 to 64 years old as a buy-in option. Conservatives like that idea.
My district does not look like Orange County. The Republicans are not wealthy people. They’re the ones who are snubbed from both sides. We fight for good wages, good jobs, an honest day’s work being rewarded. They care about those things. They care about the environment. And when I say I don’t take corporate money, they’re like, cool he’s not part of the Washington establishment that’s trying to undermine our way of life and tell us how to live here.
I’m against the gas tax in California. It’s a regressive tax. That makes no sense to me. The gas tax is so unpopular in my district, but liberals statewide love it. I think it’s foolish.
So you’re not a new Ocasio-Cortez?
No. No. I love her – she’s great. I have a lot of respect for her. She took out a titan in the establishment that’s incredible. I’m doing a similar thing with Hunter on the opposite side of the aisle. But I think some progressives get ahead of their skis and say we want this utopia, but they have no idea how it’s going to be paid for. So that’s the difference between me and progressives: How are you going to pay for it?
I lived too much of a different life — I’ve seen war; I’ve seen really bad circumstances — to have a rosy colored lens on the world. I know we have to protect our country. I know how fragile safety and security is. I think some progressives comes from a place of privilege sometimes when they talk about these things. I’m a little splash and dose of reality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.