Column: Duncan Hunter is finally off to prison. Good. Now who will take his place?

Robin Abcarian
Former U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, second from right, leaves the federal courthouse in San Diego on Tuesday. He was sentenced to 11 months in federal prison for campaign finance violations.  (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Tuesday, a sordid chapter of California political history came to a close, with the sentencing of former U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter to 11 months in federal prison.

Hunter, that upstanding pillar of Congress who was reelected in 2018 despite being under indictment for stealing about $250,000 in campaign funds, will report to prison on May 29.

You’ve probably read about his profligacy — he illegally used campaign money for family trips, restaurant tabs, personal items and, according to prosecutors, to finance extramarital liaisons with at least five different women. He also spent at least $600 to fly Eggburt, his family's pet bunny, across the country.

Initially, Hunter denied the charges, claiming he was the victim of a partisan witch hunt. Then he blamed his wife, Margaret, for misusing the funds: "Whatever she did," he said, "that'll be looked at too, I'm sure, but I didn't do it." Then he demanded that reporters "keep my wife out of it."

By the time Hunter pleaded guilty in December 2019, his wife had been cooperating with authorities for months. With a husband like that, who could blame her? On April 7, when she is sentenced for her role in the scheme, her cooperation is expected to win her a far less severe penalty.

The fact that Hunter, a staunch conservative who essentially inherited his seat from his well-regarded father, was reelected under such a dark legal cloud says much about the ideological leanings of his district, the 50th, home to many active and retired military personnel.

Until Hunter’s indictment, his Democratic opponent in 2018, Ammar Campa-Najjar, had been considered a long shot in the conservative district, which includes eastern San Diego County and parts of Riverside County. Suddenly vulnerable, the wounded Hunter waged one of the most disingenuous and disgusting congressional campaigns races of the cycle.

Campa-Najjar, the son of a Palestinian father and a Mexican American mother, was demonized. Hunter resorted to Islamophobia, calling Campa-Najjar a “security risk,” accused him of trying to “infiltrate” Congress and predicted he would leak classified military information if he won.

The vile tactics were successful; 2018’s blue wave failed to touch the shores of the 50th, though it came very close. Campa-Najjar lost by only 3.4 percentage points.

Now that Hunter is out of the picture, the question is whether the district will move leftward, as so many other traditionally Republican Southern California districts did in 2018, or remain in the GOP’s hands.

Campa-Najjar, 31, who describes himself as a “cigar-smoking, gun-shooting, whiskey-drinking, devoutly Christian Democrat,” has never stopped campaigning for the seat.

On March 3, he placed first in the primary, ahead of three Republicans, including second-place finisher Darrell Issa, 66, the former Republican congressman who represented the 49th district, which straddles Orange and San Diego counties.

When Issa, who was the richest member of Congress, could see his district was becoming Democratic, he tried moving leftward, shifting positions on issues such as funding for Planned Parenthood. But he could see the writing on the wall. In January 2018, he announced he would not seek reelection. (And indeed, Democrat Mike Levin won the open seat.)

Instead, Issa would try to secure a post in the Trump administration.

President Trump nominated him to lead the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. However, his nomination hit a roadblock in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, as The Times’ Sarah D. Wire wrote “amid concern over something in [his] FBI background file.” What that something was remains a mystery, and the agency is currently led by an acting director.

Issa has now set his sights on Hunter’s former seat. As an Arab American himself, Issa can't run the kind of racially tinged campaign that worked for Hunter. But that doesn't mean he's not trying to appeal to his voters’ basest instincts.

In a recent fundraising appeal, Issa accused Campa-Najjar of being a “Democrat-Socialist” and of having a “radical social agenda.”

“Make no mistake,” Issa wrote in the March 3 missive, “the left is manufacturing crisis after crisis, in an attempt to whip the American people into a frenzy. From wildfires to sea-level rise and even the outbreak of viruses. ... These latest end-of-times scenarios are just a desperate gasp.”

Campa-Najjar found the Issa letter puzzling, noting that wildfires in the state have been deadly and that coronavirus has already killed dozens of Americans.

“I’m not going to go negative on his history,” he said. “I’m going to focus on his record, his voting to cut Social Security and Medicare and wanting to raise the retirement age. Why should the 50th welcome a congressman that didn’t win the favor of his own voters?”

Given the fear-mongering employed in the last election, there is a certain irony that, regardless of who wins in November, the 50th will be represented by a congressman with Arab roots. That's what I call progress. We can thank Duncan Hunter for that.

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