As Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, made plans this past week to leave Congress after pleading guilty to a felony campaign finance charge, the question of his legacy — and the future of the district — appears to be up in the air.
Critics might remember him for his controversial advocacy for service members charged with war crimes, his racially tinged campaign mailers in 2018 or his infamous vaping at a Congressional committee hearing.
But supporters remember a tireless advocate for veterans and the military who was an early supporter of now-President Donald Trump.
Hunter pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring with his wife to illegally spend hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars on personal expenses such as private school tuition, video games and air travel for the family’s pet rabbit.
Hunter announced Friday he plans to step down after the holidays. He was first elected to his 50th Congressional District seat in 2008.
While his term is widely seen as coming to an ignominious end, supporters of Hunter and even one critic say the congressman’s work on military and veterans issues will be remembered.
Dan Summers, a longtime supporter of Hunter and chairman of the American Liberty Forum of Ramona, told the Union-Tribune he thinks people should know how much the congressman did for veterans and service members.
“You can’t go to Washington and do everything,” Summers said. “You go there and you do what you know — and what (Hunter) knew was the military and (Veterans Affairs). He put all his energy in it and he had an impact. That should be his legacy.”
Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, running to replace Hunter in Congress, agreed.
“The one thing you can’t take away from him is he served our country in uniform,” Campa-Najjar said by phone on Friday. “We’ll remember that. As a congressman, I would continue to be a supporter of the military and veteran communities.”
Campa-Najjar also said, however, that that service didn’t absolve Hunter from taking responsibility for what he’s done.
“It’s a mixed legacy,” Campa-Najjar said. “His actions haven’t always aligned with the reputation a Marine should uphold.”
Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran who co-founded the San Diego chapter of the Truman Project, a progressive national security advocacy group, has been critical of Hunter. However, VanDiver pointed to Hunter’s advocacy for a San Diego Marine killed at the second battle of Fallujah in 2004 — Sgt. Rafael Peralta.
“His biggest accomplishment is raising awareness about Rafael Peralta’s heroism,” VanDiver said. “Duncan Hunter has done a lot for that family.”
Peralta was awarded the Navy Cross for smothering a grenade after he was mortally wounded, saving the lives of fellow Marines. Hunter fought — unsuccessfully — to have Peralta’s award upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
A destroyer named for Peralta is currently based in San Diego.
Hunter himself is a veteran of the fighting in Fallujah. According to Republicans who spoke anonymously to Politico in 2018, many in Washington think the congressman’s combat experience might continue to affect his judgment.
Hunter has a reputation in the nation’s capital for hard partying. Some of the illegal spending cited by prosecutors included large bar tabs. Aides told Politico that other members of Congress have asked Hunter to be evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
VanDiver said the country doesn’t do enough for returning veterans.
“We spend a lot of money equipping (our military members) and sending them to war,” VanDiver said. “We don’t spend enough time, effort or money training them on integrating back into society. Wouldn’t it have been nice if Duncan had come home from war and dedicated himself to doing that?”
During a May interview with the Zero Blog Thirty podcast, Hunter said returning service members should get a “reprieve zone” when they return from combat. He called it a “second chance window” during which warfighters would be exempt from civilian laws once they return to U.S. soil.
“I’m even for a reprieve zone after you’ve come back from a combat deployment where you get some time to not get in trouble,” Hunter said in the interview. “We punish the guys (when) they don’t switch from a combat mentality — there’s got to be a better way to transition them.”
Hunter also discussed his time in Fallujah on the podcast, mentioning his experience on the battlefield in a segment where he defended Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher.
“I was an artillery officer and we fired hundreds of rounds into Fallujah, killed probably hundreds of civilians — probably killed women and children if there were any left in the city,” Hunter told the podcast hosts. “Do I get judged, too?”
Hunter was an early advocate for Gallagher, who would go on to be acquitted of the most serious war-crimes charges against him.
Gallagher thanked Hunter for his support in a statement in November. His brother, Sean Gallagher, described Hunter as “a true fighter for veterans” in an email to the Union-Tribune Friday.
“Back when members of Congress were too afraid to risk political capital on our case, Duncan and his staff never hesitated,” Sean Gallagher said. “His advocacy, based in large part on a shared experience in combat, helped Eddie and our family immensely.”
Hunter visited Gallagher in the Miramar brig, bringing the SEAL food and blankets and petitioning the president to intervene and release the chief from confinement.
In March, Trump did just that. Sean Gallagher said Hunter was sincere in his support of his brother and family.
“(Hunter’s) help was public but it was also personal,” Sean Gallagher said. “That meant the world to me and the family.”
On Nov. 15, Trump restored Gallagher’s rank, overturning the verdict of the SEAL’s court-martial jury. He also pardoned two soldiers charged with murder in separate incidents in Afghanistan.
Hunter supported each action.
While VanDiver was complimentary toward Hunter’s efforts on behalf of Peralta, he is also critical of the congressman’s advocacy for service members charged with war crimes.
“Getting these war criminals off does more damage to us,” VanDiver said.
Summers said Hunter continues to have a lot of good will in the district, and said that crowds cheered the congressman as recently as the Julian Fourth of July parade.
“He’s learned a very hard lesson (and) I’m disappointed in his behavior,” Summers said. “I think he did the right thing (pleading guilty) — the right thing for his kids. He’s a stand-up guy. I hope his accomplishments are not tarnished by his troubles.”
For Campa-Najjar, Hunter’s legacy is more complicated.
“In some ways he never made it back from the battlefield,” Campa-Najjar said. “I think the system in Washington is so corrupt it brought out the worst in him. I wouldn’t say he’s an evil person, but now he’ll be seen, fair or not, as one of the most corrupt congressmen ever.”
Louis Russo, an Marine veteran from Alpine who was a California delegate for Trump, said he doesn’t think Hunter’s crimes are that serious.
“Duncan spends campaign money on stuff he shouldn’t — money that people gave him — and you guys want his head on a pike,” Russo said in an email to the Union-Tribune. “Duncan made some mistakes. Big deal.”
Russo said he hopes Trump intervenes in Hunter’s case as well.
“I am sure the president will see exactly what happened and conclude, as many here have, that losing his seat, his house, his wife and being embarrassed is punishment enough and will pardon him. This event with Duncan is so minor it (won’t) be remembered as early as next week.”
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