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Last week, out of the blue, I got a text from Ammar Campa-Najjar. The two-time San Diego County Democratic congressional candidate wanted to let me know that he’d just been commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserves, assigned to the Pacific Fleet.
What an unexpected twist.
“You turn your pain into purpose,” he told me when we spoke Monday. “Now this story has its closure.”
When last I checked in with Campa-Najjar, the San Diego native, then 29, was on the rebound after a hard fought unsuccessful 2018 campaign to wrest control of California’s 50th Congressional District, a traditional GOP stronghold, from Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former Marine and scion of a local political dynasty.
Hunter kept his seat even though he was under federal indictment for stealing a quarter million dollars from his campaign. Later sentenced to 11 months in prison, he was pardoned by former President Trump before we got the chance to see him behind bars, which infuriated even conservatives.
Attacks against Campa-Najjar, the son of a Mexican American mom and Palestinian American father, with whom he lived in Gaza for four years as a child, had a similar flavor to the birther conspiracy pushed against Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, and once lived in Indonesia as a child.
Hunter warned that his opponent was a national security threat trying to “infiltrate” Congress. The awful anti-Muslim rhetoric was made worse just before the 2018 election, when Hunter’s father, a former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, staged a phony “security briefing” at the USS Midway, the aircraft carrier that is now a museum in San Diego.
Hunter Sr. invoked Campa-Najjar’s grandfather, an alleged Palestinian terrorist who was killed by Israeli commandos 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born, and his father, who had worked for the Palestine Liberation Organization and was widely acknowledged as a promoter of peace with Israel, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Mind you, by that point, Campa-Najjar, now 34, had already worked in the Obama administration, which required an FBI security clearance.
The attacks picked right back up in 2020, when Campa-Najjar sought the seat again. The hard-right billionaire and former congressman Darrell Issa had swooped in, and recruited then-President Trump to record a nasty ad accusing Campa-Najjar of being “anti-Israel” and a dangerous socialist. Again, Campa-Najjar made a respectable showing but lost.
Was the young man finished with politics at that point? He was not. In 2022, he ran for mayor of Chula Vista, the border city where he went to high school and junior college. With a relatively outsized war chest, and in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans, he still lost. Questions about his actual residence and lack of previous interest in the town’s issues — trash pick up was a big one — worked against him.
Unlike the political battlefield, the military is a place where Americans with unusual backgrounds like Campa-Najjar can find a good fit.
He told me he’d always wanted to serve in the military, and even tried to enlist at 17 before his mother put a stop to it. Now he's added another detail to his only-in-America backstory: receiving his Navy commission at the Midway, the very site of the most outrageous political attack against him.
I give him a tremendous amount of credit for the ability as a candidate to stay focused and unbowed by ugly personal attacks that might push a less mission-driven person out of politics.
That ability to stick tenaciously to his talking points should make him a perfect fit for the Navy’s Public Affairs Office, where he has been assigned.
But given his very recent past as a political partisan, I wondered how any feelings he might have about American military misadventures like the invasion of Iraq, or even the Vietnam War, might come into play. Campa-Najjar wasn’t having it.
“I am 1,000% focused on serving my unit and leading our sailors,” he said. “I trust the chain of command and the oversight. My role will be discharging the duties of the oath of office that I have taken.” (As a reservist, he can still keep his day job as a consultant for small businesses and government entities.)
Campa-Najjar seems relieved to leave today's politics behind. "I've scratched that itch," he told me.
“The military doesn’t have the luxury of getting into these cultural disputes trying to divide us,” he continued. “Where some people have seen my heritage, my background as a liability, the Navy says those are not liabilities, they are assets. A command of the Arab language, fluent in Spanish, having lived in the Middle East, my cultural competency, gives us a strategic advantage,” he said. “My Arabic is actually more fluent than my Spanish.”
I wish Campa-Najjar was a little less guarded in conversations. For instance, he did not want to discuss his personal relationship with Democratic U.S. Rep. Sara Jacobs, whom he met in 2018 when they were both running for Congress, and both lost. Jacobs, the granddaughter of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, ran again in 2020 and won, and now represents portions of San Diego and its eastern suburbs.
As for the end of Campa-Najjar's political aspirations, I’m sure he’s telling the truth.
At least for now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.