By Ken Stone
Confusion over an email exchange led the Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter to announce a much-anticipated joint appearance in September.
But that face-to-face meeting isn’t happening.
Turns out the campaign of 50th District challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar jumped the gun Tuesday when it announced Hunter’s participation in a candidates forum at CSU San Marcos.
On Wednesday, Hunter’s campaign said it had declined to attend. And the North County college confirmed that Hunter never agreed to the Sept. 18 forum.
“While the Campa campaign is disappointed that Duncan Hunter declined to attend this forum, Ammar Campa-Najjar is grateful to the university for the opportunity and is still looking forward to participating in it,” said Nick Singer, Campa’s director of communications.
In sending the press release, Singer said, the campaign was operating under the impression that Hunter “would be joining us, as this is a ‘candidates forum.'”
“The Campa campaign hadn’t yet known upon issuing the release that Duncan had declined, and was coordinating with the university on the working knowledge that the forum would be with both candidates,” Singer said.
He said the news release used an “alternate provided quote” suggested by the Campa campaign, instead of the quote supplied by the school.
Here’s the chronology:
About 1:50 p.m. Tuesday, Campa-Najjar’s team emailed a release headlined “Campa vs Hunter Candidate Forum Confirmed at CSU San Marcos.”
It quoted Christine Antoine of the school’s Office of Government Relations and Community Engagement as saying: “We are looking forward to hosting both candidates for our students and voters to hear from their future congressman.”
Three hours later, a Campa-Najjar news release said the candidate forum would be Sept. 18, not Sept. 19 as first proclaimed.
But Wednesday morning, Hunter spokesman Mike Harrison told Times of San Diego that Hunter couldn’t take part either day due to a schedule conflict.
“We told the university when they reached out to us that he was not available that day,” Harrison said in a phone interview. “And they had indicated to us that they understood.”
CSU San Marcos told him they hoped for another opportunity, Harrison said. “And we said we would coordinate that with the other campaign.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, a CSUSM spokeswoman backed up the Hunter campaign’s account and said the Campa-Najjar campaign wrongly quoted Antoine.
“The statement attributed to Christine Antoine and published in the Times of San Diego was inaccurate,” said the spokeswoman, Christine Vaughan.
Asked whether the Hunter campaign ever said it wasn’t available on the mid-September dates, Vaughan said via email: “Yes, they declined, noting a scheduling conflict.”
Vaughan said Antoine provided the following statement in email for publicity:
“CSUSM will be hosting a candidate forum for the greater campus community to learn more about candidates for elected office and to encourage active participation in the democratic process, especially for our students.”The quote in the Campa-Najjar release said:
“We are looking forward to hosting both candidates for our students and voters to hear from their future congressman. Civic engagement and the democratic process is important for our students to learn and we are excited to be teaching them through this debate.”
CSUSM said it’s in the planning stages of hosting a candidates forum.
“Invitations to participate have been extended to candidates in the 75th Assembly, 38th Senate, and 50th Congressional Districts,” Vaughan said. “Four dates were presented to all candidates. The date that worked for the most candidates was selected, which is Sept. 18, 2018.”
Vaughan said CSUSM reached out to the Hunter and Campa campaigns shortly after the June primary.
“We began exploring four possible dates with the candidates via email in mid-June,” she said. “A formal invitation to participate on Sept. 18 was emailed in late July.”
Vaughan said CSUSM has not issued a press release about the forum.
“We were aware that the Campa-Najjar’s campaign had an interest in publicizing the forum,” she said. “A quote was provided by Christine Antoine, by email. That quote as given was not used. We did not see the release before it was sent.”
But an Aug. 6 email shared by a Campa-Najjar spokesman says Antoine wrote that it was OK to issue a news release on a September forum.
“We have titled this a ‘Candidate Forum’ and kindly ask that you use ‘forum’ as opposed to ‘debate’ in any posting,” said the Antoine email. “Also, being a public university we do not endorse candidates for elected office and have an obligation to remain neutral and ask that postings do not reflect otherwise.”
She said the forum also would include candidates for the 38th state Senate and 75th Assembly districts.
On Wednesday, Harrison insisted that Hunter would like to meet Campa-Najjar.
“We’re waiting to find a convenient time that’s mutually convenient for both sides, and our campaign,” he said. “We definitely would like to make that happen. But unfortunately, this specific time was not available on our schedule. And we indicated that.”
For his part, Campa-Najjar doubts the schedule-conflict explanation.
“This is not the first time that this has happened,” Campa-Najjar said in a phone interview. “San Diego State was trying to do something in December of last year. …. Nothing came to fruition.”
He recited the adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” and said “There’s a history of Hunter kind of ducking public appearances.”
Campa-Najjar added: “I almost want to say the ball is in his court, but I know if he had it his way, he’d never do a debate. The voters deserve to hear him and I in person.”
And the Democrat* who garnered 17.6 percent of the primary vote didn’t count telephonic Town Halls that Hunter has been holding — including one Tuesday night.
“Picking questions from a telephone Town Hall is not real representation,” Campa-Najjar said. “I’m really disappointed that the congressman is not making this a priority. A congressman should move heaven and earth to meet with voters. And it seems like he’s doing the opposite.”
Meanwhile, Mary Anne Dijak of Escondido said her church — First United Methodist of Escondido — had invited Hunter to a forum with Campa on Aug. 28, but Hunter declined.
Dijak, whose Believers in Action ministry organizes a series of candidate forums at the 350-seat sanctuary, called it a “missed opportunity” for Hunter. She said “we don’t often hear from our [congressional] representative,” especially “his vision for Escondido.”
Asked about news of Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York being indicted on insider trading charges, Campa-Najjar pivoted to the federal investigation of Hunter.
His campaign also issued a news release calling on Robert Brewer, the White House nominee for U.S. attorney in San Diego, to recuse himself from the probe of Hunter’s spending issues.
“That individual has relations with Hunter’s attorney,” Campa-Najjar said of Brewer. “There should be, unequivocably, no bias, [an] impartial adjudication of Hunter’s situation.”
He called for swift justice in the Hunter probe.
“Some people are saying that to avoid seeming political, the Justice Department might wait till after the election,” the candidate said. “I think waiting [until] after the election IS a political move.”
Campa-Najjar says he’s “not banking” on Hunter being indicted to beat him.
“I think we’re going to beat him on the issues,” he said.
Harrison, the Hunter spokesman, contacted Times of San Diego about its story Tuesday signaling a September candidate forum in San Marcos.
“It’s a little bit frustrating because we want to do something that’s good for the public to talk about issues that are important both for our community and the nation,” Harrison said. “But wrong information keeps getting out there. It is what it is.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly called Campa-Najjar a Muslim-American Democrat. Times of San Diego regrets the error.
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: