SAN DIEGO (AP) — Democratic congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old who's never held elected office, was working on a TV advertisement to boost his exposure when news broke that his opponent, the heavily favored Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, had been indicted on corruption charges.
Campa-Najjar suddenly found himself thrust in the spotlight — fielding calls from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, supporters, even some local Republican elected officials. Within 24 hours of Tuesday's indictment, he received hundreds of emails and gave nearly two dozen interviews to local and national media outlets.
It was the attention, Campa-Najjar said, that his campaign deserved. And needed.
The former Obama administration Labor Department official received only 17 percent of the votes in the June primary, 30 points behind Hunter, an Iraq war veteran who has represented the most Republican district in Southern California for 10 years.
After months of knocking on doors, Campa-Najjar is seizing the opportunity to introduce himself to voters in the 50th District.
"We're excited," Campa-Najjar said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I don't crow over the misery of other people. I feel for him and his family, but I feel more for the people of our district who deserve some much-needed representation after many years of not having a real representative."
The Hunter family is a political dynasty in the area. Hunter's father, also named Duncan, was elected to the seat in 1980 and held it until his son won in 2008. The younger Hunter has been handily re-elected each time in a district where Republicans have a 15-point registration advantage over Democrats.
Campa-Najjar said he was hopeful of breaking the Hunter family's nearly 40-year hold on the district that runs largely east of coastal San Diego, abutting Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and stretches toward a remote area near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Campa-Najjar, whose father is Palestinian Muslim and mother a Mexican-American Catholic, vows to reach people who had voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and eight years later backed Donald Trump. He said "they are not ignorant. They are ignored, by my party, their party and the country."
He said he offers "sensible solutions" that cross party lines, including Medicare-for-all if it does not increase government debt and free college tuition based on merit and need.
He does not believe in abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency like some liberal candidates have advocated.
Campa-Najjar, who lives in Jamul near the U.S.-Mexico border, says walls are not the answer when 40 percent of those entering the U.S. illegally come by plane or overstay their visas. He supports tougher fines for employers who break immigration laws and believes that immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should be given U.S. citizenship.
Campa-Najjar said his motivation for running is personal.
His mother, who divorced his father when he was 8, did not have the government support she needed to raise Campa-Najjar and his brother, he said. At 15, he worked as a janitor to help her pay the bills.
Born in San Diego County, Campa-Najjar spent part of his childhood in Gaza and is fluent in Spanish and Arabic.
Campa-Najjar said he is proud of his heritage but is American first. He has made clear that he has no personal connection to his grandfather, who was the member of Black September, a Palestinian terror group that orchestrated the attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
His grandfather was killed by Israeli commandos 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born.
"I'm happy to take responsibility for my own choices and my own decisions," he said. "I think other men are responsible for their own crimes, whether it's somebody who I share a lineage with and nothing else, or a sitting congressman who's being indicted and could be facing serious charges in the future. "
About a third of the district is Latino and it is also home to one of the largest Iraqi Chaldean populations in the United States. One of Campa-Najjar's two campaign offices is in the city of El Cajon, near a business district with falafel shops, taco stands and signs in Arabic, English and Spanish, reflecting the district's changing demographics as immigrants and refugees have settled there.
The office is in a dilapidated home with yellow tape around the front porch. A paper sign under Campa-Najjar's portrait on a red, white and blue poster told visitors to knock on the back door.
Through June 30 Campa-Najjar had raised more than $1 million bu also spent much of it, federal records show. His campaign committee reported $280,000 in the bank, with $25,000 in debts.
Hunter has reported raising $850,000 but had over $350,000 on hand at the end of June.
It remains to be seen whether the Democratic Party will pump money into a race they had believed less winnable than other districts with vulnerable Republican incumbents. President Donald Trump won Hunter's district by 15 points while losing statewide by more than 4 million votes in 2016.
A Campa-Najjar victory would be an upset even with the allegations against Hunter, 41, and his wife Margaret. The couple has been charged by a federal grand jury with using more than $250,000 in campaign funds to finance family trips to Italy and Hawaii, golf outings, school tuition and theater tickets. The Hunters pleaded not guilty Thursday.
Hunter says his "constituents are not easily misled" and he will fight the allegations the same way he fought as a Marine.
Campa-Najjar said he feels "saddened" that a combat veteran returned from the battlefield and lost his way, becoming the "poster child of corruption" for Washington. He added that voters, including Hunter's base, want honest politicians.
"If we are a nation of laws, then you cannot in good conscience vote for Duncan Hunter," he said.
Blood reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers John Antczak, Christopher Weber, Robert Jablon and Michael Balsamo contributed from Los Angeles.