Dem challenger says he can work with Trump
A California Democrat looking to flip a House seat in next year’s midterms believes he can appeal to both sides of the aisle — and even pitch progressive ideas to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE.
Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 28-year-old communications staffer and former campaign worker of Mexican and Arab heritage, says his background and resume put him in a position to succeed in the red district he hopes to represent.
“I talk about never being Arab enough in Gaza, Hispanic enough in the Barrio or American enough in the post-9/11 world,” he told The Hill during a recent interview.
“I just don’t come in with this preconceived notion of prejudice. … It allows me to have an open mind and be tolerant, see the world from their vantage point.”
Now Campa-Najjar is taking that perspective home to California’s 50th Congressional District, where he’ll face an uphill battle against GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter.
Campa-Najjar could eventually become part of a new generation in a party looking for fresh faces. But first he has to make it through a crowded primary election before taking on Hunter, a Marine reservist who won his last race by nearly 30 percentage points.
While other Democrats hope to capitalize on anti-Trump energy, Campa-Najjar is pitching himself as a politician willing to work with Trump. And Duncan’s electoral chances might falter next year following an ethics investigation into accusations he used campaign funds to pay for vacations, video games and even flights for the family’s pet rabbit.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into Hunter’s potential ethics violations. Campa-Najjar acknowledged the issue in an interview with The Hill but said he won’t make it a major part of his campaign.
“I don’t know how to run a negative campaign,” he said.
“I’m hoping that in my little island of America, this campaign can be one of unity, not division, and a redeeming moment for people who felt that 2016 was from a different world.”
A San Diegan by birth, Campa-Najjar moved to Washington, D.C., after working as a deputy regional field director for former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE’s 2012 reelection campaign. The campaign job brought him to the White House and later to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where he led the group’s communications shop and became a regular face on cable news.
He also worked at the Labor Department, an experience he says helps him understand the struggle of blue-collar whites who feel left out in the post-recession economy.
“A lot of people probably [have questions when] this brown guy walks into the district, with some red rural areas, and shares his story,” Campa-Najjar said.
“The white working class still has a deficit of 700,000 jobs because they live in places where businesses can’t fly to, drive to, or get a metro to,” he added, arguing his fluency in those issues helps him connect with those Americans.
Campa-Najjar’s family moved from San Diego to the Gaza Strip in 1998, returning to California in 2001 amid unrest in Palestine. That brought him to America just months before 9/11, a pivotal experience for Campa-Najjar as an Arab-American.
It’s that experience that Campa-Najjar says gives him a nuanced perspective on Trump’s controversial immigration policies, including the unimplemented travel restrictions on citizens from six majority-Muslim countries.
Campa-Najjar, a contributor to The Hill’s opinion section, believes that the travel ban is “immoral and unconstitutional” by virtue of Trump’s December 2015 campaign promise to ban Muslim immigration. Courts have cited Trump’s comments while blocking his executive orders in court.
“Nothing Trump does on bans is constitutional from here on out,” he said.
“His policies are forever tethered to his campaign pledges. It’s the spirit of the law that makes it unconstitutional. The authorization is unconstitutional because of the authority.”
But Campa-Najjar, who converted from Islam to Christianity, says he’s sympathetic to Americans concerned about national security threats. But he also wants to find a balance between the need to shore up America’s refugee vetting with the need to protect civil rights.
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“I’m against the ban, but how can we make sure that [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi’s threats to exploit the immigration system never come to fruition while making sure, at the same time, we are not inviting discrimination?” Campa-Najjar said.
If elected, he wants to work with consulates and embassies to shore up vetting procedures without using blanket bans.
Campa-Najjar’s time in Gaza also informs his opposition to Trump’s proposed wall on the border with Mexico. Trump has compared his plan to the border fence between Israel and Gaza, a comparison endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Campa-Najjar slams that comparison as “dishonest,” noting that Israel and America have little in common when it comes to border security.
Campa-Najjar points out that America’s largest illegal immigration problem is people who overstay visas, who wouldn’t be affected by the wall. And while he left before the fence was built, Campa-Najjar said that the wall has had a negative effect on Gaza residents.
“Living in Gaza, I felt the fear that plagued us all, and the otherness and hopelessness the wall now embodies,” he added.
Still, Campa-Najjar believes that Democrats have to be willing to work with Trump on issues like infrastructure, job creation and fair trade. During his work for the Hispanic Chamber, Campa-Najjar sat in on meetings with the new administration.
Campa-Najjar said a progressive groundswell could persuade Trump to work with Democrats in the name of “political expediency.”
He compared Trump’s potential to Lyndon B. Johnson, who voted against civil rights legislation in the Senate but ultimately pushed the Civil Rights Act through as president years later.
“LBJ was a far greater ideologue than Trump,” he said.
“Donald Trump is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. So if you create the political pressure where progressive ideas are more expedient for him, I guarantee he’ll embrace them. I think he’d rather become a Democrat than a failed president … not in name, but in deed.”