Ammar Campa-Najjar has an unusual background for a congressional candidate, even in diverse California. His mother was Mexican-American and his father Palestinian-American, and he spent three years of his childhood in the poverty-stricken and very dangerous Gaza Strip. He, his mother, and his brother moved back to California when he was 12, and he grew up in very modest circumstances. From then on, his biography is very American Dream–y: He went to community college, graduated from San Diego State University; worked on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign; worked at the White House, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S. Labor Department (where he focused on apprenticeship programs), before returning to his hometown of San Diego. On the tender side of 30, Campa-Najjar launched an unlikely congressional campaign, but proved to be a remarkable fundraiser and championed a progressive platform at just the right time, defeating the national Democratic Party’s favorite, ex-Navy SEAL Josh Butner.
Campa-Najjar’s incumbent opponent, Duncan D. Hunter (not to be confused with Duncan L. Hunter, his politician father), represents quite a different background and outlook. His father was elected to Congress when he was 4 years old. He, too, graduated from San Diego State, and he worked as a tech consultant before joining the Marines the day after 9/11. He served as a field artillery officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. He basically inherited his father’s congressional seat in 2008, and he spent years happily voting a hard-core conservative line. His personal and campaign finances got very tangled up, however, and at some point in 2016, the FBI began investigating him on multiple fronts.
Going into this election year, Hunter was under a cloud of uncertain magnitude. But in February, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz drew some unwelcome attention to the fact that Campa-Najjar’s Palestinian grandfather, Yusuf al-Najjar, was one of the perpetrators of the infamous Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Haaretz did give Campa-Najjar the opportunity to comment on this history, and he was pretty clear about it:
Campa-Najjar doesn’t defend the actions of his grandfather, calling them “horrific. Innocent civilians were murdered. There is never justification for killing innocent civilians.” His thinking is also different from that of his father, whom, according to a 1996 Washington Post article, was proud of Yusuf al-Najjar and refused “to accept that killing athletes was more repugnant than the violence of Israeli occupation over the years.”
According to Campa-Najjar, “I’m against ‘comparisonism’ — competing who suffered more. Too many people have been killed. What my grandfather did was inexcusable. The goal is for our generation to be better than our predecessors, and find a way to end this conflict.”
Some other aspects of this “story” minimized its apparent impact on the campaign. Yusuf al-Najjar died (he was killed by Israeli guerrillas in retaliation for Munich) 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born. He had no association with Palestinian activism in his own career. He was immediately defended by San Diego rabbis. And he’s not a Muslim; the mother who raised him was Catholic, and he is affiliated with an evangelical church where he worked as a janitor during high school.
It might not have been much of a campaign issue in this normally very Republican district had not a calamity struck Hunter’s campaign in August: a federal indictment of Hunter and his wife, who was his campaign treasurer, for hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal misuse of campaign funds for personal uses. The 48 pages of details cited by the Justice Department were abundant and deeply embarrassing, ranging from airfare for a pet rabbit to phony congressional business and lots of entertaining in Washington and in California. And the overall picture it painted of Hunter was of a man whose life was out of control. He probably did not help himself much by alternating between blaming it all on his wife and alleging a preposterous Democratic-controlled conspiracy by the office of a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney.
So with Hunter’s political condition rapidly deteriorating, the incumbent, as some of us unhappily predicted, went after Campa-Najjar with the closest blunt instrument he could find: aggressive Islamophobia. It was no less offensive or potentially effective for the fact that its target is not himself Islamic. This ad is probably the most outlandish item in Hunter’s mendacious assault:
This and other smears have aroused considerable outrage at Hunter’s campaign. Campa-Najjar’s pastor trashed the idea that this member of his flock was somehow part of a radical Muslim effort to “infiltrate” Congress:
As the pastor of his non-denominational Christian church, Mike Meeks, explained in a statement, “I have known Ammar since he was 16 when he became part of our youth ministry.” Meeks added of Campa-Najjar’s time in the Obama administration after college, “When he served in federal government, we talked regularly about life and the faith challenges of following Jesus in today’s world.”
Hunter has also released a letter signed by retired Marine generals calling Campa-Najjar a “security risk.” Campa-Najjar has a pretty tart comeback:
To be fair, the rumored boozing and fooling around are not part of Hunter’s criminal indictment, and Hunter voluntarily (if under informal duress) resigned from his Armed Services Committee spot. But he doesn’t exactly have the clean hands needed to complain about any of that.
There’s some legitimate concern that Hunter’s nasty campaign tactics are working; a Monmouth survey late in September showed the incumbent up by double digits (though a University of California poll released just before it showed a very close race). But it’s worth remembering that this is a profoundly Republican district, which Donald Trump carried by 15 percent in 2016 (Hunter won that year by 27 points). Even an indicted congressman is going to have a big advantage in a district like that. But even if he wins, Duncan Hunter will not only have to face a trial; he may never live down the cynically un-American campaign he’s run against Ammar Campa-Najjar.