Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar and Republican Darrell Issa, the two candidates for the 50th Congressional District seat who will face each other in the election in November, took part in a candidates forum moderated by the nonpartisan San Diego League of Women Voters Thursday, Aug. 13.
Campa-Najjar and Issa each gave their positions on various issues faced by their district and the country at large, ranging from water availability to health care, during the event hosted by the nonprofit organization Community, Service, Action and Advocacy.
In his opening statement, Issa made the case for his return to Congress – he served in the House of Representatives for 18 years, first from the 48th Congressional District from 2001-2003, then the 49th Congressional District until 2019. After winning reelection by a margin of about 1% in 2016, Issa did not run again in 2018.
“Almost four years ago now, President Trump was elected and I was asked to serve in his administration,” Issa said. “Reluctantly, I gave up my seat in Congress and stood in line waiting to be confirmed by the Senate. As happened to many, many people in that line, hundreds of us got filibustered and were never confirmed.”
He said when it became clear Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter would step down – Hunter later was sentenced to 11 months in prison for stealing campaign funds – Issa felt running Hunter’s seat was the right move.
“That created a situation in which I felt it was the right time to go back and do something that I love doing, that I believe I did well, and that I’m very dedicated to,” Issa said. “And fortunately, the 50th Congressional District is about one-third of the district I represented for 12 years.”
Campa-Najjar, a former Obama administration official, ran for the 50th seat in 2018 and lost to Hunter by about 2% of the vote.
“The reason I’m running for Congress here is simple,” Campa-Najjar said. “I’m from this community, my mom raised me in a certain way that made me feel like I wanted to devote my life to service. My dad left when I was relatively young, so my mom raised me on her own through being broke and brokenhearted. She worked multiple jobs, always took full responsibility but was always shortchanged on opportunity, and I realized later in life that was because we’re in the grip of a broken system that rewards wealth more than work and we even see that today happening as we’re battling COVID-19.”
Moderator Donna Bartlett-May with the League of Women Voters said attendees to the virtual event were asked to submit questions online before the event and also were able to ask questions while the event was ongoing. Questions were screened to avoid duplication and ensure that the questions with “the greatest interest” would be covered within the time allowed.
The first question asked by Bartlett-May was: “What policy steps would you endorse to protect water in the western states?”
Issa said water access is an issue he worked on in Congress that is not partisan and that lawmakers from both parties work together on. He said desalination could be an avenue for getting more water out of the Colorado River, which is an important source of drinking water in Southern California.
“Some of those challenges can be met as we have with the help of federal funding, with the desalination efforts, but some of them can be more uniquely met,” Issa said. “For example, the Colorado River could be used an additional what they call one or two turns of water through minor desalinization, and that’s an effort that is supported by (Democratic Rep.) Juan Vargas and myself and others that would provide a substantial amount of water where water already exists.”
Campa-Najjar said climate change needed to be factored into the question of water access.
“I think part of the solution is also dealing with ‘why do we have the scarcity of resources?’ and that’s because as the military has said, the biggest threat we face in this country is climate change,” Campa-Najjar said, “And part of that cascading effect is wildfires and also the lack of drinkable water.”
The candidates took opposing views when asked about their support for Proposition 16, which would amend California’s constitution to repeal 1996’s Proposition 209 that banned “affirmative action” preferential treatment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, public education or public contracting.
Campa-Najjar said he supports affirmative action.
“I think that’s obviously a state issue but think it’s important that we learn from history and understand that there are certain groups in this country who, from birth, they start at a different mark in life because they come from families that were not able to build wealth,” Campa-Najjar said. “I think there are some people who have had certain benefits in life from birth and then there are others who have just been set behind through no fault of their own and the idea of affirmative action is to allow those communities who have been disadvantaged through no fault of their own because of institutional racism to get equal footing.”
Issa said he had not just been a supporter of Proposition 209 in 1996 but served as co-chairperson for the campaign to get it passed.
“I object to it being removed,” Issa said. “You can support affirmative action by looking for legitimate outreach on other issues, people who have just come to the United States and would have been at a disadvantage in their education, people who are economically at a different level. There’s nothing in our constitution that prohibits outreach, but the fact is Proposition 209 has worked, the minority graduation rate has risen under this and I support the continuation of our constitution.”
The candidates also addressed economic issues, including the minimum wage.
Issa said he doesn’t support raising the minimum wage, and that most workers are making above the minimum wage.
“My position on minimum wage, quite frankly is recognizing that in a good economy, that we had up until, let’s say, March 3, we were paying far greater than minimum wage as an average wage to individuals, and I think it’s important that we get back to an economy that doesn’t look at min wage as anything other than a starter wage for maybe a brand-new trainee, and I support that,” Issa said.
Campa-Najjar said he doesn’t support a flat minimum wage across the country, but that workers should be able to earn a living wage for their area.
“I think having a standard minimum wage across the country doesn’t account for the fact that costs of living are different across state to state even within our county it varies, so people have to make sure they have a wage they can live on,” Campa-Najjar said.
However, he said making accommodations for workers who are going to be affected by increasing automation in coming years should be a focus, not just the minimum wage.
“The jobs that are minimum wage are going to be replaced not by immigration but automation,” he said.
The full video of the candidates forum can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zji1ffHxyk.
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.