Last week, a woman approached me at lunch. “You inspired me to vote for the first time,” she said, pulling out her phone for a selfie. “So what happened, did you win?” I replied, “Not this time.”
The final count — 48.3 percent versus 51.7 percent. After running for two long years in a district President Donald Trump won by 15 points, my first election ended with a loss to Duncan D. Hunter, who won by 28 percent in 2016 and is facing federal charges for misusing campaign funds.
Here’s how it started. In November 2016, a major seismic political shift shook our nation to its core, triggering ground swells across inland San Diego like never before. While America was reacting to a new president, California’s 50th Congressional District was rebelling against an old power.
That old power is the 40-year, 20-term, two-generation Hunter dynasty. Possibly the most powerful political family in San Diego history, with a legacy that includes running for president of the United States and surviving two serious criminal investigations, the likes of which sent political heavyweights Jesse Jackson Jr. and San Diego’s Duke Cunningham to prison. Few political families have stood the test of time and scandal more than the Hunters.
Nevertheless, we persisted. Over the next two years, 50th district voters organized, mobilized and battle-tested 15 congressional candidates. Voters seized the moment, found their message and chose a messenger. I was honored to have the backing of local activists, unions, environmental groups and others.
After a hard-fought primary, our campaign won, avoiding a runoff between two Republicans. Hunter came in first, we came in second, Republican Bill Wells came in third, followed by the other challengers.
Our victory was powered by hundreds of volunteers, unprecedented enthusiasm, and the courage of our convictions: rejecting corporate donations, expanding health-care coverage, protecting Medicare, investing in apprenticeship job training, renewable energy and making debt-free college attainable.
We remained faithful to our founding ideals through the general election. We were the outsiders taking on the insiders. The district taking on the dynasty, empowered people taking on people in power.
We gave the Hunters hell. But more importantly, we spent two years listening and learning from voters. We gave youth voters, lifelong voters, people of all backgrounds, women and even fed-up Republicans something to believe in. We made history by garnering more votes than any challenger ever (124,000) and by far the highest vote percentage against the Hunter dynasty. We received nearly triple the number of votes Hunter’s last midterm challenger did.
Hunter refused to debate; he probably knew he’d lose if we did. Pinned down to the mat, the Hunters attempted a reversal: take the focus off of the indictment by spreading fear and chaos with the most vicious attack ad of 2018 (some even say in modern politics). We were forced to deploy more resources to keep Hunter pinned down instead of fully investing in our winning message. We tried to do both, but could only afford to do one.
Through it all, we stood our ground, but also tried to find common ground. I believed, and still believe, Hunter and Trump voters aren’t ignorant, they’re ignored. We chose to explore unity rather than exploit division, put country over party, and people’s interests over special interests.
We avoided the personal politics, asking voters more important questions instead: “How are ya? How’s your family? How’s your health care? What keeps you up at night and gets you going in the morning? Let’s set the partisanship aside and focus on what matters.”
And it worked. Everywhere we went, we won: San Marcos, Escondido, Borrego Springs, Alpine, Fallbrook, major parts of El Cajon, Santee, Lakeside, even overperforming in Temecula because of our second-to-none, amazing volunteers. Everyone I met moved our way.
Personally, I don’t believe voters succumbed to the racist attacks. I believe people voted their values, I just wish more of them had the chance to hear mine. Maybe next time.
Hunter’s trial is Sept. 10, 2019. He will inevitably resign and the family’s reign will end. So regardless of the outcome, this movement will go down in history as the best and last campaign against the Hunter dynasty.
I have no regrets, only gratitude. Thank you, 50th district, for this incredible gift, for lifting me up. Thank you for opening your lives and homes to me. I promise to be a steward of what we built together for the rest of my life, come what may.