Posted by Guest on June 12, 2018 in Blog

By Lela Ali

The nation’s eyes were on California’s primary election last Tuesday, and for good reason. As Republicans were trying to cling to their seats in a deep-blue state, Democrats saw an opportunity to flip several Congressional seats to secure a narrow House majority in the 2018 elections. In most states, the primary simply sends a candidate from each major party to face-off in the general election, but because of California’s unique jungle primary, all candidates run against each other, with the top two advancing regardless of party affiliation, making it one of the most competitive congressional races in the country.

More than four dozen Democrats ran for seats in the 10 Republican-held congressional districts, including a number of Arab Americans who have included the concerns of their and other communities of color in their priorities on the campaign trails. Among them were Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democratic candidate who ran for California’s 50th Congressional District, and Sam Jammal, a Democratic candidate for the 39th District seat in Orange County. Ammar Campa-Najjar, an “Arabtino” son of working class immigrants was the winner of one of the top two spots in the primary, with 16.5% of the votes in the race to flip California’s 50th Congressional District. He will be taking on Republican incumbent Duncan Hunter in November.

As a local business owner and a former Labor Department official with the Obama administration, Campa-Najjar has devoted many of his years to service and community. In an interview with the Valley Roadrunner, Campa-Najjar stated that “this is a special time in America” and a “where were you” moment. “Regardless of what you think about politics, people years from now are going to ask where you were when people were having these conversations about what it means to be an American, when people were fighting for good wages and health care and literally for their lives,” he added. Najjar says that if he makes it to Capitol Hill, he will fight for women’s rights, immigrant justice, healthcare access, and election reform. “I grew up being not Latino enough, not American enough, so I have a soft spot for people who feel forgotten.”

Campa-Najjar, however, will not be the only Arab American candidate on California’s ballot come November. Ahmad Zahra, a small business owner and local film producer, is running for Fullerton City Council in District 5. As an openly gay, Arab American immigrant, Zahra is focusing on mobilizing and uniting Fullerton’s diverse communities and ensuring that City Council works for all residents. He is advocating for a Fullerton City Council that will work to revitalize the local economy and address poverty and homelessness.

Facing a stiffer challenge in Orange County’s 39th Congressional District, one of California’s most contentious congressional races and what was once a pillar of the Ronald Reagan-era Republican Party, Sam Jammal finished in seventh place with 3,990 votes. After election results were announced, Jammal posted a tweet addressing supporters, saying that while the results weren’t what he hoped for, but that their “friendship, support, and love” was always what helped him “get up each day and fight.” He added: “The reality is that Washington is broken and there remains a disconnect with the challenges facing the families I grew up with.” He concluded by asking his constituents and supporters to work together to build a “better politics” and “lay the foundation for our future.” Embracing his Arab American and Latino heritage, Jammal launched his campaign for Congress in order to bridge the gaps between vulnerable communities and Capitol Hill. Despite falling short, he raised over $500,000 for his campaign from mostly local and individual contributions and was among the eight candidates listed on the ballot for the district, after over a half dropped out mid-race.

Joseph Shammas, a first generation Arab American immigrant, was another Democratic candidate who sought election to the U.S. House to represent California’s Democrat-controlled, 29th Congressional District. Shammas came in third place after leading a powerful campaign prioritizing education reform and healthcare access, among other issues. He was defeated by Republican Benito Bernal and Democratic incumbent Tony Cardenas, who finished in the top spot.

Despite rising xenophobia, Campa-Najjar, Jammal, Shammas, and Zahra chose to seek public office in hopes of creating change and advocating for the vulnerable. Whether they won or lost this round, they all ran strong and respectable races, serving as examples for Arab Americans everywhere. They remind us of the role we must play to make our country better. #YallaVote


Lela Ali is a Summer 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.

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