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Local Democrats Angered By 50th District Candidate Campa-Najjar’s Interview With Far-Right Group

Ammar Campa-Najjar speaks with the media outside the federal courthouse downt...

Photo by Matt Hoffman

Above: Ammar Campa-Najjar speaks with the media outside the federal courthouse downtown, August 23, 2018.

Ammar Campa-Najjar is the Democratic candidate for the 50th District U.S. House seat. Yet last week, he told the far-right group Defend East County he’s not sure who he’ll support for president, Joe Biden or Donald Trump.

“I don’t care who wins, I will work with whoever,” Campa-Najjar said in the Oct. 7 interview, which was posted on the group’s private Facebook page. “You think I will vote for Biden necessarily, I still want to see how they perform in the debates.”

Listen to this story by Matt Hoffman.

Warning: This video contains foul language. Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democratic candidate for the 50th District congressional seat, speaks with Defend East County founder Justin Haskins on Oct. 7.

Campa-Najjar angered local Democrats both with his comments and his decision to do the interview with Justin Haskins, the group’s founder.

Campa-Najjar did say he had voted for Biden in the March Primary. The 31-year-old also said in the interview that he would likely support Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court and, if elected, would consider investigating Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He also reiterated stances he’s previously made in support of Trump’s border wall and against his impeachment.

In an interview with KPBS on Saturday, Campa-Najjar walked back some of the statements he made to Haskins.

Defend East County, or DEC, formed after a racial justice protest on May 30 in downtown La Mesa. The protest had been peaceful during the day, but turned destructive in the evening hours with looters setting fire to cars and buildings and causing millions of dollars in damages to businesses.

Reported by Matt Hoffman

RELATED: Protests Erupt Into Rioting, Leaving La Mesa In Flames

Members of the loosely organized group, which has a large following on Facebook, say it exists to protect residents and businesses of East County. But its followers have on the Facebook page espoused right-wing conspiracy theories, made racist statements and called for violence against Black Lives Matter protesters.

In the video, Campa-Najjar and Haskins are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and not wearing masks. They are smoking cigars and drinking whisky.

Democrats react

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the San Diego Democratic Party, said in an interview Saturday that Campa-Najjar’s comments crossed a line.

“Some of the comments and views that Ammar Campa-Najjar has expressed are definitely not in line with our party,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said.

That said, Rodriguez-Kennedy said he recognizes the 50th is a conservative district and that the Democratic party is a “big tent party." But he expects activists to be let down by Campa-Najjar’s comments.

“The judgments of those positions that he has expressed are really for the voters in the 50th to determine — whether or not they will support him having heard his views,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said.

There is no indication that the party would pull its support from Campa-Najjar.

On Friday, Campa-Najjar said via Twitter that he does not condone violence or threats of violence, and released a statement that said: “It has been brought to my attention that some in this group (DEC) have made overt threats to people’s lives, I categorically denounce those words and actions. I regret not knowing about these incidents at the time of this Q&A and condemn these statements and actions fully and have made that clear to the group's leaders.”

Issa interview

Darrell Issa, Campa-Najjar’s Republican opponent in the 50th District race, also did an interview with Haskins last week, in which neither socially distanced or wore masks.

Photo caption:

Photo by Gregory Bull / AP Photo

In this Sept. 26, 2019 file photo, former Republican congressman Darrell Issa speaks during a news conference in El Cajon, Calif.

During the interview, Issa falsely claimed that Black Lives Matter movement is a for-profit entity and its leaders encourage rioting and looting. He also disparaged the anti-fascist movement known as “antifa.”

“So when I look at Black Lives Matter or I look at antifa, I see two things: People who are willing to take away your rights and your freedom and justice for you — by using violence and destruction,” Issa said.

“Looting of stores amidst riots — those looters aren’t antifa they’re just thieves, they’re just criminal elements — but these organizations have not only been doing destruction, but they’ve been empowering them because that part of it, is part of their agenda even if they’re not the actual thieves.”

He also expressed support for Defend East County’s vigilantism.

“You guys were pretty important as law and order was breaking down (during protests) — so it was hard to miss you,” Issa told Haskins.

He later said: “A militia in fact is a personal right under the Second Amendment and your right to defend your community and to take charge, if your government fails you, or to take arms if your government turns on you; those are your constitutional rights.”

RELATED: 50th Congressional Race: Republican Darrell Issa Vs. Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar

Issa’s campaign did not make him available for comment about his appearance with the group. Throughout the current campaign cycle, Issa has repeatedly ignored requests for interviews with KPBS.

Campa-Najjar's explanation

In his interview with KPBS, Campa-Najjar, whose heritage is Latino and Palestinian, said he wanted to sit down with Haskins to address specific issues. They include racist and conspiratorial views of him promulgated by members of Defend East County.

Campa-Najjar said he would no longer be interacting with the group unless Haskins issues a written statement that disavows white supremacy and the threats of violence from their followers.

“Until this organization completely moves off of the more violent, extreme elements within its ranks or denounces those who are extremists, I won’t be re-engaging,” Campa-Najjar said.

In an interview with KPBS on Sunday, Haskins said he has already publicly disavowed white supremacy and those in Defend East County who have threatened violence. He indicated that he would be willing to do so again, but didn’t expressly commit to a written statement.

“I have already done it and will continue to do it again and again,” Haskins told KPBS. “We have 22,000 people (in the Facebook group). Some people are angry and people post things they shouldn’t. But we are not about violence, we don’t want to incite violence or encourage violence ... The only time violence is acceptable is in defense of yourself, your family and your country.”

Campa-Najjar said he understands why Democrats would be upset by some of the things he said in his interview with Haskins and apologizes to those he may have hurt. But he described himself as a “moderate” Democrat in a conservative district who, like the late Republican Sen. John McCain, is not always in lockstep with his party’s establishment.

“There’s a lot of people in the establishment who would rather me be a more vote party-line kind of a Democrat and I’m a maverick … McCain made Republicans uncomfortable and I make Democrats uncomfortable.”

But he said he has no desire to leave the party and walked back some of the comments he made during his talk with Haskins. Regarding his vote in the upcoming presidential election, he said there is a 99% chance that he’ll vote for Biden.

“What I meant was that whoever wants to be President has to earn my vote,” Campa-Najjar said. “Joe Biden has endorsed me, more likely 99% chance I am voting for Joe Biden barring something unexpected happening.”

Regarding the pending confirmation of Coney Barrett, which is controversial both for its timing right before the election and her views on abortion and the Affordable Care Act, Campa-Najjar reminded Haskins in their interview that U.S. senators, not members of Congress, vote to confirm Supreme Court justices.

However, he said, Coney Barrett “seems very qualified” and that if he were in the Senate he would likely vote to confirm her.

In his interview with KPBS, Campa-Najjar downplayed his comments, saying it was a completely hypothetical conversation and if he was a senator he would reserve judgment until he was able to question Coney Barrett directly. If she told him the [Affordable Care Act] was not constitutional, then he said he would not vote to confirm.

Haskins also asked Campa-Najjar multiple questions about whether he would investigate Clinton and Obama in relation to the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s involvement with Russia. Trump has continuously said, without evidence, that both Clinton and Obama spied on his campaign in 2016. Trump’s accusations have become a rallying cry for his followers.

In response to Haskins' questions, Campa-Najjar said he would be willing to continue investigating, but that everyone should be investigated. “I’m going to investigate Trump, Biden, Hillary — all of them,” he said. But he also said “I think the country needs to move on” from the investigations.

He later told KPBS “the Clintons and Obama shouldn’t go to jail, there wasn’t anything there,” adding that “everything in the past I think is debunked, but if there’s new information let’s look into it … (but) not like a full congressional investigation”

Regarding his lack of social distancing and mask wearing during the interview with Haskins, Campa-Najjar acknowledged it was a bad choice on his part.

“That wasn’t the most responsible thing I’ve done,” he said. “That was the exception not the rule … that was a very glaring exception.”

San Diego News Now podcast branding

50th District Candidate, Ammar Campa-Najjar participated in an interview last week with a group called Defend East County. In the interview, Campa-Najjar made a number of controversial comments that have ... Read more →

Aired: October 13, 2020 | Transcript

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Matt Hoffman
General Assignment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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