PERSPECTIVE: Like with Santos in NY, Most Local Media Ignored Campa-Najjar Issues
By Arturo Castañares
After a New York Republican congressional candidate won his campaign based on lies and exaggerations about his background, national news outlets began examining how the candidate’s opponent and local media failed to alert voters before the election, even though one local conservative newspaper did cover him and reluctantly endorsed his Democratic opponent, but the coverage was ignored by larger media outlets.
Something very similar was happening at the same time here in San Diego County, as well.
George Santos, who won election to New York’s 3rd District on Long Island, claimed he was a successful financial advisor, had graduated from prestigious universities, and even told stories of his Jewish grandmother’s plight to flee Nazi Europe during World War II.
But, after Santos defeated Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the November election, national media outlets confirmed what the local North Shore Leader newspaper had first reported months earlier: Santos lied about having worked for leading financial companies, never graduated from any college or university, and completely fabricated his “Jewish” past.
Santos has now admitted that he exaggerated his back story, clarifying that although he claimed he was a “Jewish American” on several occasion during the campaign, he is actually Catholic, but considers himself “Jew-ish”.
Republicans in Washington, D.C., including Republican leader Kevin McCarthy who needed Santos’ vote to become Speaker of the House, have remained mostly silent on Santos’ unraveling story.
Santos has so far resisted calls to resign, but this week he confirmed that he will not seek re-election in 2024 if he survives this first term.
National news outlets are now questioning why Santos’ opponent failed to discover and disclose the candidate’s obvious lies, and why local media outlets did not look into Santos themselves to better inform the voters.
One local Long Island newspaper did take a deep dive into Santos and called out many of his lies before the election, but other local and national news outlets ignored the coverage. Voters were apparently mislead and lied to on a scale that seems uncommon in local politics.
The cautionary tale of George Santos in New York, though, doesn’t seem to be a unique case, and local voters in Chula Vista may have witnessed a similar campaign in the race for Mayor between Councilman John McCann and perennial candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar.
Campa-Najjar ran for Mayor of Chula Vista after having lost two consecutive campaigns for Congress in 2018 and 2020. In those two races, Campa-Najjar claimed to have grown up in Jamul, and even called himself a “Jamuligan”, a slang term for local kids from the rural community East of El Cajon.
During those congressional campaigns, Campa-Najjar claimed he lived with his mom and stepfather, using their Jamul address as his residence for voter registration purposes, and also claimed he was a successful “businessman” as the owner of his own consulting firm, ACN Strategies, Inc.
During his 2020 congressional campaign against former Congressman Darrell Issa, Campa-Najjar criticized his opponent for moving into a new district, saying, “He keeps moving to different districts hoping he’ll find someone -a group- that will want him. He believes that politicians should pick their voters. I believe that voters should pick their politicians.”
But after his second loss, Campa-Najjar did exactly what he criticized Issa for doing; he changed his voter registration to an address at a Chula Vista condominium owned by a cousin in order to run for Mayor last year.
Seven other relatives use the same Chula Vista address as their residence for voting purposes even though Campa-Najjar admitted that only four of them actually live there.
Campa-Najjar was running for Mayor in a crowded field that included McCann, another current Councilmember, a former Councilman, a former Army helicopter pilot, and a community college administrator.
In May, La Prensa San Diego was the first media outlet to report critically on Campa-Najjar's background, including exposing that his consulting firm is not registered to conduct business in California, and that his official income filings during his congressional campaigns showed his business sometimes earned less than $15,000 per year; hardly a successful businessman it seemed.
La Prensa San Diego also reported that although Campa-Najjar had used several addresses as his voter registration residence in a continuing search for political office, several people close to him claimed he was actually living with his wealthy girlfriend, Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, in her downtown San Diego condo, not in Chula Vista.
Another La Prensa San Diego story before the Primary Election exposed how Campa-Najjar used a conventional candidate family picture of himself, a woman, and a child on the front of his campaign mailer without explaining that the woman was his cousin’s wife with her son, giving the misleading impression that the single candidate was a young family man.
No other media outlet followed up or expanded on La Prensa San Diego's reporting of Campa-Najjar’s residency and background claims.
McCann and Campa-Najjar ended up as the top two vote-getters in the Primary and moved on to face each other in the November General Election, setting up a classic Republican versus Democrat runoff in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one.
In September, McCann held a press conference and revealed that he had hired a former FBI agent to investigate allegations that Campa-Najjar was living in San Diego and not in Chula Vista, as is required for him to run for Mayor.
McCann revealed video recordings showing Campa-Najjar spending over 30 consecutive nights at Jacobs' downtown San Diego. Jacobs is the granddaughter of billionaire QUALCOMM co-founder Dr. Irwin Jacobs.
Sara Jacobs. Photo credit: Christopher Dilts
McCann and the investigator alleged Campa-Najjar was committing felony voter fraud by using his relatives' address to run for office when he actually lived with Jacobs in San Diego, showing pictures of packages and mail addressed to Campa-Najjar at Jacobs' condo just weeks before the election.
Mail packages addressed to Campa-Najjar delivered to Jacobs' condo.
But, what seemed like a legitimate campaign issue against Campa-Najjar quickly backfired on McCann as local TV station KUSI accused him of "stalking" his opponent, completely ignoring the serious charges of alleged voter fraud.
In fact, McCann was criticized for doing the opposition research that Santos' opponent failed to do, and which is commonplace in every serious campaign.
The San Diego Union-Tribune criticized McCann in its late endorsement of Campa-Najjar by saying he ran a "scorched earth campaign that asserts Campa-Najjar — a 2018 and 2020 East County congressional candidate — habitually lies about living within city limits" and alleged McCann "cavalierly abused Jacobs’ privacy" by tracking Campa-Najjar to her condo, ignoring the fact that a sitting member of Congress could be aiding and abetting voter fraud.
The Times of San Diego, an online media outlet, reported that Campa-Najjar released documents to "prove" his residency when he sent out copies of SDG&E bills and his driver's license showing the Chula Vista address, but not disclosing that those bills also showed that another Campa-Najjar relative was also using the same address so her children could attend local schools when they actually live in San Diego.
And during the Voice of San Diego’s celebrated Politifest 2022 event in early October where the Chula Vista mayoral candidates were invited to debate, the online outlet challenged McCann on what he hoped to establish by hiring a private investigator to track his opponent, without challenging Campa-Najjar on his residency.
Media reporters seemed to have conflated the rules and optics of running for office in different districts with the strict state elections laws related to illegally registering to vote -and actually casting votes- from an address that isn’t someone’s actual place of residency.
No other media outlet had challenged Campa-Najjar's casual use of voter registration addresses between his congressional and mayoral campaigns until La Prensa San Diego released an investigative story on October 23rd, two weeks before the general election.
The story, titled “Jamuligan” Running for CV Mayor Contradicts Himself on Residency Issues, documented Campa-Najjar's statements during a 2020 election news interview when he proudly called himself a "Jamuligan".
La Prensa San Diego pointed out that Campa-Najjar used a completely different narrative last year during his mayoral campaign endorsement interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, claiming instead that he grew up in Chula Vista, clearly contradicting his previous story, but neither the UT nor other media outlets challenged the young perennial candidate on his residency, work history, and business experience he claimed were the basis of his resume for running for public office.
After meeting with each candidate and challenging each on several issues facing Chula Vista, La Prensa San Diego published its endorsement on October 31st, just one week before the election.
In the endorsement, La Prensa San Diego explained that Campa-Najjar offered conflicting answers to questions about his residency, and that the unprecedented amount of money donated by Jacobs' wealthy relatives and friends should raise concern of outsiders buying the election.
As the oldest Hispanic publication in San Diego, La Prensa San Diego was not predisposed to support Republican McCann, but we remained concerned that local voters were not fully informed of the many inconsistencies of Campa-Najjar’s shifting narratives and addresses.
In the end, La Prensa San Diego endorsed McCann -a White Republican- over the multi-ethnic younger Democrat Campa-Najjar because of the lingering concerns over potential voter fraud being committed by Campa-Najjar and several of his relatives who use family addresses interchangeably for campaign purposes, and Congresswoman Sara Jacobs’ seemingly tacit support of his scheme to run in Chula Vista while she knew he has been living with her in San Diego and even driving her new Tesla sedan to campaign events.
Much like La Prensa San Diego’s endorsement of Barbara Bry over Todd Gloria in San Diego’s 2020 mayoral election, the endorsement of a non-Hispanic over a person of mixed races may have seemed unusually for the oldest Latino publication in San Diego, but was true to the newspaper’s mission of accountability of political leaders through complete transparency.
La Prensa San Diego's coverage and endorsements are not swayed simply by race, party affiliation, or skin color.
McCann won the election despite being outspent by hundreds of thousands of dollars in what is now the most expensive campaign in Chula Vista history.
After the election loss, the San Diego Union-Tribune ran a column saying Campa-Najjar would “take a break from running for office” and cited McCann’s hiring of an investigator as “one of the more controversial moves of this entire local election season,” again without pointing out that misusing an address for purposing of voting -not for running for office- is a felony punishable by years in prison.
In New York, Santos’ lies about his resume will not land him in prison, but his suspected filing of false financial disclosures very well may.
Santos went from a nearly broke candidate in 2020 to reporting a net worth of over $11 million last year and loaned his campaign over $700,000 without proving the true source of those funds.
State and federal investigators are now looking into Santos’ filings and tracking down how he actually made his money, if any at all.
Here in San Diego, at least two complaints have been filed against Campa-Najjar, not for his conflicting narratives on where he grew up, but over his alleged perjury and voter fraud.
Each voter registration form is signed under penalty of perjury and each time a ballot is cast is potentially a separate criminal act if someone, either Campa-Najjar and/or his relatives, voted from an address where they don’t truly live.
The investigations into Santos are clearly underway, and two sources in San Diego claim similar actions are being taken locally to look into Campa-Najjar.
It remains to be seen if District Attorney Summer Stephan’s office will take possible candidate voter fraud seriously, or if they send a signal that district-shopping for political gain is fair game for ambitious, well-heeled politicians willing to hop around looking for a soft landing spot.
Larger and national news outlets missed the Santos story even after a local newspaper did the legwork to uncover what has proven to be an important story of election fraud; similarly, La Prensa San Diego reviewed and outlined details of Campa-Najjar’s residency issues, but no other media outlet took up the work of thoroughly examining the candidates claims and actions.
Whether the myopic local media view of the campaign was driven by politics, deference to one of the wealthiest families in the county, or simple apathy, voters seem to have responded to the concerns with their votes, again denying Campa-Najjar his long-sought goal of elected office.
The Union-Tribune’s recent column described Campa-Najjar’s imminent moves as taking a break from campaigning after running virtually non-stop for six years, but others believe Campa-Najjar is simply fixing his sights on his next run.
One clue may be that Campa-Najjar has been running a federal political action committee called Disrupt the Corrupt that he launched in May 2021, about the same time he opened his campaign for Mayor.
The PAC’s stated goals are to advocate for reforms in Congress, and the committee has already raised over $157,000.
To date, Campa-Najjar’s PAC’s only donation was $10,000 sent to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but it spent nearly all of the rest of its funds on consultants, fundraising, and even to pay his mayoral campaign manager.
The PAC gives Campa-Najjar another vehicle through which to raise money, hire consultants, and stay connected with politicians and donors until he launches his next campaign.
Insiders believe Campa-Najjar is gearing up to either challenge longtime Congressman Juan Vargas directly, or to apply political and fundraising pressure to encourage Vargas to retire soon to create an opening for himself.
Jacobs is now in the House leadership, is independently wealthy, and has the billionaire family and financial connections to grease the skids for his next run, whatever and wherever that may be.
Curiously, there is no couple who both serve in Congress. That may be a lofty -but attainable- goal for the Campa-Najjar-Jacobs team.
Only time will tell where he goes next.
Campa-Najjar has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Castañares is the Publisher and Editor-at-Large of La Prensa San Diego. Castañares is a recipient of the prestigious Ruben Salazar Award for Excellence in Print Journalism and a 1st Place Award in Politics/Government from the San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Previously, Castañares was a senior staff member for the California State Legislature and earned an impressive winning record as a political consultant to dozens of campaigns for local, state, and federal offices. The son of immigrant parents from Mexico, Castañares was born in San Diego and grew up as a bilingual, bicultural resident of Chula Vista.