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A young, American-born man of Latino and Arab heritage decided to throw his hat in the political ring after working as a community activist and in the Obama administration.
Ammar Campa-Najjar, 28, announced his candidacy Thursday in the hopes of unseating a long-term Republican representative in California’s District 50 in 2018.
Campa-Najjar is the fifth Democrat entering a crowded battlefield that includes Josh Butner, Pierre “Pete” Beauregard, Patrick Malloy and Gloria Chadwick. He hopes his experience as a community organizer during former Pres. Barack Obama’s second presidential campaign will give him an advantage.
Campa-Najjar, whose mother is Mexican American and whose father is Palestinian American, says he spent a lot of time speaking to Hispanic voters in his district to get them to the polls. In 2012, the district voted for Obama, but four years later did not show support for Hillary Clinton.
During his time with the Obama administration, Campa-Najjar was a public affairs officer at the Labor Department and also worked in the President's office handling constituent correspondence and being a liaison with the community.
He was also a Director of Communications for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He tells NBC Latino he hopes to use his experience "to win some hearts and minds," like he did in 2012.
“My district voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the election, mainly because of the main issues people cared about: jobs and the economy," he said. "Those are unifying issues, and my district and our country need a voice of unity. These voters don’t care if it comes from a Republican and Democrat.”
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Campa-Najjar has spoken and written about his childhood, which was spent in Gaza, Palestine and later in California.
He says the prospect of a wall on the southern U.S. border is personal for him an his family. He also remembers the moment the second Intifada broke out and what it felt to be "stuck" within walls.
Campa-Najjar and his family moved back from Gaza to the U.S. in August 2001 to seek refuge, only to find sanctuary just before the September 11 terrorist attacks. After spending his formative years in the San Diego area, Campa-Najjar made the deeply personal decision to convert from Islam to Christianity while in high school.
“I see it time and time again in the Middle East and parts of America that aren’t welcoming to me, but hard work bridges divides both personally and professionally,” Campa-Najjar said. “Right now there is an anxiety about what the future holds."
Arab Americans have faced stereotyping and discrimination after the 9/11 attacks. But Campa-Najjar believes he can use his experience in Gaza and California to bridge divides and listen to voters’ anxieties about terrorism.
“A lot of those folks who think of my family and me differently, they would understand where I am coming from,” Campa-Najjar explained. “We are in a very challenging time for our country, and I go about it by talking about my experience, the fear of terrorism and those people trying to impose the American nightmare on all of us. It is not a popular position, but I would lead with the truth, and that our differences do not outweigh our common humanity.”
On November 8, about 63.5 percent of voters in California’s 50th cast ballots for Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former U.S. Marine who served three tours in Iraq. He was first elected in 2008, succeeding his father Duncan L. Hunter. Voters also checked off Republican Presidential (then) candidate Donald Trump.
Despite Hunter’s military experience and the numerous Democratic hopefuls in the field, Campa-Najjar says he hopes he can harness his experiences with the Chamber of Commerce and the Department of Labor and tout a pro-job growth platform.
The unemployment rate in his district is hovering just below the state average at 4.7 percent, which is less than California’s overall 5 percent. Though these numbers are not bad, he says a key is to focus on what workers need when today's jobs become obsolete tomorrow.
“One of the few bipartisan things we can do together is to help American workers back on their feet,” Campa-Najjar said. “Apprenticeship programs are great. People used to think of them as traditional programs for workers in construction, but they are becoming a primary tool for employers looking for talent in advanced manufacturing and healthcare.”
Campa-Najjar has raised about $20,000 for his campaign.