Blue Wave: 29-year-old Mexican-Palestinian-American Ammar Campa-Najjar is shaking up California

With his opponent embroiled in a corruption scandal, the Medicare-for-all candidate who says "my existence is a resistance" suddenly has a shot at success.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This is the eighth in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the other seven here.

When Ammar Campa-Najjar was nine years old, his Palestinian father moved his family to Gaza, the narrow strip of Palestinian territory that has been under an Israeli blockade for over a decade. His family was living there when the second intifada broke out in 2000, and Israeli security forces crushed a violent Palestinian uprising with deadly and often indiscriminate force. He remembers when the electricity and water supply were cut off and sheltering in his kitchen while his neighbourhood was bombed. He remembers how a military Hummer crashed into his family’s car, causing him to burn his back and fracture his thigh and putting his younger brother into a coma.

“It was a pretty formative experience. I saw the deep economic injustice that was happening and certain conditions that are better left imagined than described. But then you see them happening here, in America too, the wealthiest and most powerful country,” Campa-Najjar tells me when we speak on the phone. “I thought to myself when I came back to America… why am I seeing similar conditions in the US?”

Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old former Obama staffer whose boyband good looks have inspired Buzzfeed and Vogue articles, as well as much Twitter mirth, is running for Congress is California’s 50th district on a progressive agenda. Like many of the candidates New Statesman America is profiling ahead of the midterms, he has been endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group that is likely to emerge as a leading force should the Democrats flip Congress this year. Its members support policies such as Medicare-for-all, an increased minimum wage and an expansion of social security.

The Californian 50th district has been held by Republican Duncan Hunter for over a decade, and before that it was held by his father. Donald Trump won the district by 15 points in 2016. But Campa-Najjar’s chances were boosted significantly in August when Hunter was indicted for using more than $250,000 of campaign funds for personal expenses. Campa-Najjar has also launched a powerful grassroots campaign and has the endorsement of his former boss, President Barack Obama. Recent polling has put Campa-Najjar within one or two points of Hunter in the midterms.

“In the wealthiest and most advanced country in the world, there are certain basic benefits that should be met for voters and people who pay their taxes,” he tells me. “If you pay taxes your Medicare and your Social Security should never be threatened. If you are trained or educated you should be guaranteed a good job… America’s basic bargain is that when you take responsibility you’re given opportunity, but a lot of people are locked out of opportunity, even when they take responsibility for themselves and their lives. People like my mum.”

Campa-Najjar’s mother and siblings returned to the U.S. in August 2001, just a few weeks before the 9/11 terror attacks. His parents separated and his mother, who is from Mexico, raised him as a single parent, “broke and broken-hearted”. She worked as a receptionist and for Walmart, and later in real estate. At 15 he worked as a janitor in a church to help pay the bills, later becoming a youth leader, and Campa-Najjar often talks about his Christian faith.

After graduating from San Diego’s State University, Campa-Najjar went to work for the Obama administration. He had worked as a campaigner for Obama in 2012 and following the election he was invited to work for the president’s executive office, answering his letters. By the time of Donald Trump’s election he was working for the U.S. Department of Labor, on issues such as the expansion of apprenticeships, youth summer jobs programmes and aid for farm workers.

Campa-Najjar once wrote a moving piece for NBC in which he described how when he arrived for his first day at work for the White House he felt at home for the first time. “After not being considered Arab enough in Gaza, Latino enough for the barrio, or American enough in my own country, after so many shut doors, the door to all others finally opened,” he wrote in 2016. He tells me he felt personally inspired by President Barack Obama, who has written about his own mixed heritage, his feeling of always straddling two worlds: “Seeing President Obama navigate that journey helped me navigate my own.”

“People jokingly say, ‘My existence is a resistance, because of my ethnic background,’” Campa-Najjar says. As the race in California has tightened, his opponent Hunter has started attacking Campa-Najjar’s Palestinian heritage. In September, Hunter released a scare-mongering, xenophobic video describing Campa-Najjar as a “security risk” who is “infiltrating” Congress and drawing attention to Campa-Najjar’s grandfather, who was involved in the 1972 Munich terror attack, and who died 16 years before he was born. The Washington Post gave the video four Pinocchios and said it uses “naked anti-Muslim bias to scare Californians for voting for an indicted Republican incumbent.” “I’m not a threat to national security. That ad shows that I’m a threat to Duncan Hunter’s seat,” Campa-Najjar told MSNBC. He often points out to voters that, while Hunter has been indicted by the FBI, Campa-Najjar has twice been security cleared by the FBI for government jobs.

When I ask how he responds to voters on the campaign trail who raised questions about his identity, Campa-Najjar replies, “I tell them I am 100 per cent American, and we talk about the issues… I talk to them about how I will be there for their kids, because you know when they’re gone it will me and their kids trying to combat the worst problems of climate change and the soul-crushing debt we’re going to inherit, and an education system that won’t lead to good-paying jobs… I will make a vow to them that I will fight for their kids’ futures in a way that transcends partisanship, and that’s the kind of message I think resonates with them.”

Campa-Najjar supports Medicare for all, free university tuition, a raised minimum wage, and a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, the young people brought to the US undocumented as children who received protections from deportation under Obama, and other undocumented migrants. He has organised a formidable grassroots campaign and raised $2.4m mostly through small donations – more than double the amount raised by Hunter. Like a number of the candidates profiled by New Statesman America, Campa-Najjar believes that the Democratic party leadership have become out-of-touch with ordinary voters and too close to corporate interests.

“I don’t think we should be the opposition party to Trump. I think we should be the opportunity party for all voters, and for all people who are in America. I think we need to present a bold, clear agenda for what we stand for, in saying we want to get big money out of politics so we can truly, unapologetically and in an unbridled fashion champion the working class, champion a good education for young people, champion saving the planet,” he says. “On both sides, I think we need a brand-new leadership and real representation that’s not beholden to special interests.”

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.