PERSPECTIVE: Dead CV Candidate Outperformed Biggest Spender
The November election delivered two surprising results in Chula Vista: a candidate who died two months before the election still won the City Attorney's race, and the biggest spender in the City’s history lost his campaign for Mayor despite having major endorsements and multiple times the resources than his opponent.
City Attorney candidate Simón Silva, who passed away on September 3rd just a few days after the deadline to replace his name on the ballot, received more votes than his opponent, Dan Smith, but Silva also received more votes than mayoral candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar in 73% of the City’s voting precincts.
Since his loss, Campa-Najjar has spun the narrative that his campaign -although having been his third loss in three straight elections- helped elect other Democrats by driving out higher voter turnout.
He used the same narrative after each of his two losing campaigns for Congress in 2018 and 2020, trying to give a silver lining to having spent over $7 million of contributors’ money in three losing campaigns.
But, voter turnout records released by the Registrar of Voters last week suggest that Campa-Najjar’s narrative is simply not true.
Silva posthumously beat Smith by 756 votes, or 50.6% to 49.4%, a wide-enough margin to avoid an automatic recount that is required when candidates end up within 1% of each other.
But, the most interesting part of Silva’s victory isn’t that he died before the election, but that he still managed to outperform Campa-Najjar who raised and spent more money than any other Chula Vista campaign in history.
Councilman John McCann beat Campa-Najjar 52% to 48% -by 2,712 votes- in the race to elect the leader of the 2nd largest city in the County.
Campa-Najjar benefited from more than an estimated million dollars in campaign spending from his own campaign, two independent expenditure committees, the local firefighters’ union, and hundreds of thousands spent by the Democratic Party to help his campaign, but still lost to Republican McCann in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one.
More than a million dollars was spent on Campa-Najjar's losing campaign, yet Silva only raised $43,000.
Last week, just hours after the Registrar of Voters certified the election results and published its turnout report, Campa-Najjar sent out an email to supporters claiming that he “ran a once-in-a-generation transformational campaign” that “helped elect the next era of councilmembers”.
But, had he read the official election report from the Registrar, Campa-Najjar would have known that he received fewer votes than Democratic council candidate Carolina Chavez in an astonishing 91% of the precincts in her district on the Eastside of the City, and fewer votes than Silva in 73% of the voting precincts throughout the entire City.
Chavez, a first-time candidate, reported only spending about $44,000 on her campaign.
Even on the City's much more Democratic westside, Campa-Najjar only received the same or more votes than Democrat Jose Preciado in 55% of those precincts, but received fewer votes than Preciado in 14 of the area's 34 precincts.
Preciado, who edged out Republican Steve Stenberg by 131 votes, reported only spending about $41,000 on his campaign.
That’s hardly evidence that Campa-Najjar's expensive campaign effectively elevated him, or any other candidates, for that matter.
In fact, the report proves that thousands of Democrats voted for Silva, Chavez, and Preciado, but voted against Campa-Najjar in spite of him having the support of Governor Gavin Newsom, US Senator Alex Padilla, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, and nearly every elected Democratic politician in town, with the notable exception of Chula Vista’s incumbent Mayor, Mary Casillas Salas, and, even more curiously, local Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, Campa-Najjar’s girlfriend and obvious patron who lets him live at her San Diego condo and drive her Tesla sedan.
One thing is clear: Democrats did vote, but thousands of them purposely voted against Campa-Najjar.
The results show that McCann received just about every Republican vote in town, nearly all the Independent votes, and still enjoyed the support of thousands of Democrats in order to have finished ahead of Campa-Najjar in a city where Democrats hold a registration advantage over Republicans of more than 39,000 voters.
Campa-Najjar had previously lost two campaigns for Congress in 2018 and 2020, but those loses could be chalked up to running in the heavily Republican 50th District in the East County, and against two better-funded Republican Congressmen in Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa, respectively.
But Campa-Najjar’s run for Chula Vista Mayor in a heavily Democratic city, having more money and more endorsements than McCann, and the strength of the Democratic Party and labor unions behind him, is a much different situation.
There is no way to sugarcoat it: Campa-Najjar lost his race in a heavily Democratic city where three other Democratic candidates won with less money.
Chula Vista voters seemed not to be swayed by political endorsements, prognostications from political pundits, or tons of slick campaign pieces flooding their mailboxes.
Voters seem to have really paid attention to the details of the candidates, and thought about which of the two of them could best lead the City.
To his credit, McCann’s years of serving on the City Council, attending Little League games and local parades, and tireless advocating for the City -whether we agreed with him all of the time or not- clearly made an impression on enough voters to gain him broad support from across the political spectrum.
Much like national polls and predictions were wrong about congressional and gubernatorial races across the country, the popular political thinking in Chula Vista was wrong about the outcome of this race.
Big dollars flooded in for Campa-Najjar from the billionaire Jacobs family and their wealthy San Diego friends, from East County business owners, and from the out-of-state network of donors he cultivated in his two failed congressional races.
Campa-Najjar smelled like a winner.
But in the end, Tip O’Neill’s old adage that all politics is local seems to have applied in this race, too.
Voters didn’t decide on a candidate for Mayor based on the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade, or who had a picture with Donald Trump, or who used to work for a hugely popular president eight years ago.
They seem to have voted for the candidate they believed is more genuinely connected to the City, has proven his commitment through deeds -not words- and the one they trust more to keep the City’s best interest at heart.
They also seemed to have lingering questions about Campa-Najjar’s shifting narratives that he grew up in Jamul when that was a convenient message in his races for Congress, then that he grew up in Chula Vista when he shifted his sights to local office.
Campa-Najjar’s casual use of several relatives’ addresses to run for office in different districts may have been too much for Chula Vistans to understand, or believe.
When a higher percentage of Chula Vistans voted for a dead candidate over the best-funded candidate they’ve ever seen, it shows that election victories can’t just be bought, they have to be earned.
And so, too, must voters’ trust.
John McCann’s win is a huge upset that should send a clear message to future candidates that local elections are about local issues -not national political agendas- and that credibility still matters.
In the end, Chula Vista may be the second-largest city in the county, with nearly 300,000 residents now, but at its heart it is a small town with an informed electorate that cares about its city and who they elect to lead them.
Arturo Castañares is the Publisher and Editor-at-Large of La Prensa San Diego. Castañares won the prestigious Ruben Salazar Award for Excellence in Print Journalism and this year won 1st Place in the Politics/Government category at the Society of Professional Journalists’ San Diego Pro Chapter. Castañares, who was born in San Diego, grew up and continues to live in Chula Vista.