Ammar Campa-Najjar / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Ammar Campa-Najjar spent four years making a name for himself as an electable Democrat in East County.

He portrayed himself as a gun-loving, cigar-smoking moderate Democrat who, if elected to the 50th District, would push back against the progressive wing of his own party. In interviews, he referred to himself as an “East County son” and proudly said, “I was born and raised in East County.”

During the 2020 campaign, he called out Darrell Issa for moving into the district just before the election.

He believes that politicians should pick their voters; I believe voters should pick their politicians,” he told KUSI. “He keeps moving to different districts hoping that he’ll find someone, a group, that will want him.”

So, when Campa-Najjar filed paperwork to run for mayor of Chula Vista, it caught some people by surprise. After all, none of Chula Vista is in the 50th Congressional District.

“I have never seen him at a Chula Vista City Council meeting or workshop,” said Councilman John McCann, who is also expected to run for mayor in 2022.

It is true that Campa-Najjar hasn’t exactly been public about his South Bay roots – he has mentioned Chula Vista in just two of his 5,375 tweets. But that doesn’t mean those roots are nonexistent.

Although Campa-Najjar was born in El Cajon, he graduated from Eastlake High School in Chula Vista and attended Southwestern College before transferring to San Diego State University. He also worked as an associate pastor at Eastlake Community Church when he was in high school and college.

“I owe my beginnings, early life, education and the person I am today to Chula Vista,” he told me.

He was quick to dismiss criticism about shifting his political sights south after spending so many years associating himself with East County.

“I’ll leave the cynicism to the cynics,” he said. “I don’t think the community thinks about things that way. Maybe political types will try to make a bigger statement about this, but I don’t think voters are going to care for that. As someone who has a diploma from Eastlake High School, graduated from Southwestern College and has a long history in the community politically and personally, I think that cynicism among the political types will be short-lived.”

On Tuesday, Campa-Najjar got called out on Twitter for texting voters a fundraising message that asked for $20 donations but didn’t explicitly say he was running for mayor of Chula Vista. It wasn’t until people clicked on a link and scrolled to the bottom of a website that they could read, “Paid for by Ammar Campa-Najjar for Mayor 2022.”

When asked about the texts, Campa-Najjar’s campaign said the text message was one of several sent out Tuesday. The campaign was “A/B testing” several versions of the text and others did mention the fact that he is running for mayor of Chula Vista. The campaign also sent me photos of two other texts that did say he was running for mayor in Chula Vista. But the campaign did not say why some of the texts did not mention Chula Vista.

Campa-Najjar said he’s currently living in his grandmother’s old house in Eastlake, which was passed down to his mother and now to him.

Before deciding to run for mayor of Chula Vista, Campa-Najjar was linked to the 79th District Assembly race. A poll showed he would have been a favorite in that race, and he had raised over $100,000 from previous races that could go toward other campaigns, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

But Campa-Najjar said he wouldn’t run for the state Assembly because he believed the seat should be held by a woman of color. He said he also wasn’t interested in running for state Senate or any other races.

“As an executive you can get more things done than you can as a legislature,” he said. “The idea of running for mayor I felt like I could be a better agent of change for my community than the state Senate, frankly.”

Campa-Najjar said he’d like to make it easier for people who grew up in Chula Vista to move back to live and work in their hometown.

“I want people to feel like they could come back home, build a family and start a life here,” he said. “I think a lot of people of my generation are yearning for that. They want to be fourth-, fifth-generation Chula Vistans. And I think we are on the precipice of that with the investments we are making.”

A Growing Field of Candidates

Despite the general election being more than a year away, four candidates have already filed paperwork to run for mayor.

They include Councilwoman Jill Galvez, former Councilman Rudy Ramirez and Zaneta Encarnacion, a former chief of staff to the president of Southwestern College.

Galvez’s entry was a surprise – it had been widely assumed she’d run for re-election to the City Council.

“It was a tough decision, I am giving up a safe seat because I am confident that I would have won re-election,” she said. “I’m taking a leap of faith that Chula Vista will support and trust me.”

Galvez said she can get more done as mayor than as a City Council member. She’d like to use that mayoral influence to bring a university to the South Bay and oversee the bayfront project – a long-waited, billion-dollar development that includes a hotel and convention center.

“I would like to do more for the city,” she said. “I would like to have a larger sphere of influence that can make great things happen for Chula Vista.”

Ramirez did not respond to an interview request.

He was a city councilman from 2006 to 2015. He has also launched failed bids for state Assembly in 2012, Chula Vista Elementary School District in 2014 and Chula Vista City Council in 2016.

Encarnacion is the only first-time candidate in the race so far. But she is not a newcomer to Chula Vista politics and has already secured endorsements from Mayor Mary Casillas Salas, Councilman Steve Padilla and County Supervisor Nora Vargas.

Encarnacion was Padilla’s constituent services manager in 2005. She then worked as a child care specialist for the San Diego County Office of Education and director of South County regional outreach for The San Diego Foundation. That background, Encarnacion said, has given her experience in public health, child care, public policy, municipal finance and community engagement.

Over the years, multiple people including Padilla have asked Encarnacion to run for office, she said. It’s a call she has resisted, she said partly because she didn’t see herself as a politician, and because she was already improving the community through her work.

“Politician can be such a dirty word, and we saw this as an opportunity to reframe that word,” she said. “There are a lot of good people doing good work and we lose them with ‘politician.’ I was part of that too, for a long time never seeing myself as a politician.”

Most recently, Salas asked Encarnacion to run.

Ultimately, the pandemic changed her mind about putting herself and her family through a campaign.

“Going through COVID, I think many of us reevaluated what’s important, what should be a priority and how uncomfortable we are willing to be to make this world a better place,” she said.

Meanwhile, McCann, who represents District 1 on the Council, is widely expected to run for mayor but has not yet filed paperwork.

He told me recently to expect an announcement soon.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Rudy Ramirez.

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