How Ilhan Omar won over hearts in Minnesota’s Fifth

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Most coverage of Ilhan Omar, the thirty-five-year-old state legislator who won the Democratic primary in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District last night, has focussed on her identity. She was born in Somalia, and she came to the United States when she was twelve, knowing only two phrases of English: “hello” and “shut up.” Now her primary victory makes her likely to become the first Somali-American and one of the first two Muslim women (along with Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib) in Congress. But stories about these “firsts” tend to miss Omar’s certainty about who she is, and the rightness of her desire to “expand what is politically possible,” including cancelling student debt, banning private prisons, increasing the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., and cutting funding for “perpetual war and military aggression.” She supports passing a national bill of rights for renters, the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act, and automatically registering every eighteen-year-old to vote. These are the stances Omar is referring to when she speaks, as she does often, about “a politics of moral clarity and courage.”

Last night, the city of Minneapolis broke a record for turnout in a midterm primary. Omar beat her closest Democratic rival by more than twenty thousand votes, out of 135,318 votes cast for Democrats in the Fifth District, which includes Minneapolis and its inner-ring suburbs. (Compare that to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory last month, in New York’s Fourteenth District: she won by four thousand votes, out of only twenty-eight thousand cast.) Around 9:30 P.M., shortly after the race was called, Omar ascended a podium at a Somali restaurant called Safari to the power anthem “Wavin’ Flag,” by the Somali-Canadian pop singer K’naan. She paused to acknowledge a chorus of ululations before addressing the room.

“We did it, we won—oh, my God,” she said. Omar, who is small and thin, has a tiny silver stud in her nose. Surrounded by student campaign workers, Somali-American constituents, close friends, and her three kids, who were dressed casually for the occasion, she was smiling jubilantly, but didn’t give the impression that her success was entirely unexpected. There were no power suits, stilted thumbs-up, or stiff waves. Omar speaks English with a slight Somali inflection, which comes out when she gets more animated. She told the crowd, “I’ve always said you get what you organize for.”

Minnesota takes pride in its lineage of liberal politicians. I grew up in the Fifth District, in the eighties and nineties, going to Twins games at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, named for a senator and Vice-President remembered for his advocacy of civil rights. In 2002, both of the state’s senators, Mark Dayton and Paul Wellstone, were among the minority who voted against the Iraq War. Wellstone’s death, in a plane crash, two weeks later, was a loss from which the state has never fully recovered. But Democratic politics in Minnesota is also a story of failed national ambitions, from Eugene McCarthy’s five unsuccessful bids for the Presidency to Humphrey’s nadir, at the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention, and Walter Mondale’s catastrophic loss to Ronald Reagan, in 1984. The revelations of sexual harassment that resulted in Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate, and the allegations of domestic abuse that now threaten the career of the congressman Keith Ellison, are only the latest disappointments. (Ellison has denied the claims, and local Democrats seem inclined to withhold judgment.) If he leaves a void at the vanguard of Minnesota progressivism, it may well be filled by Omar.

Ellison, formerly a state legislator, won the Fifth District seat in 2006, becoming the first Muslim elected to Congress. Playing up his support for single-payer health care and his opposition to the Iraq War, and hiring local community organizers to run his campaign, he pioneered the strategy of pursuing groups of voters with historically low turnout rates. The Fifth District reëlected Ellison five times, and he grew to national prominence as both one of the most progressive members of Congress and an early supporter of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential run. Last year, Ellison ran to chair the Democratic National Committee, on the strength of Minnesota’s voter-turnout rate, which was the highest of any state in the 2016 election. His loss, in February, was seen as a snub of his turnout strategy, and of the Party’s progressive wing, in favor of the traditional focus on targeting centrist swing voters and the Obama-Clinton establishment.

It may also have caused Ellison to see Washington as a dead end. In June, after the incumbent attorney general in Minnesota decided to run for governor, Ellison made a last-minute decision to pursue the attorney-general office (he won his primary last night). His decision set off an intense ten-week campaign to replace him, and Omar was one of three leading candidates, all of whom would make a typical Women’s Marcher proud. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is fifty years old, grew up on a family farm in rural Minnesota and was the state’s second female Speaker of the House. Patricia Torres Ray, who is fifty-four, was born in Colombia, and was the first Latina elected to the Minnesota senate. All three campaigned on single-payer health care, gun control, abolishing ICE, and ending the student-debt crisis. But, in the several days I spent in Minneapolis, Omar had the most campaign events, and the most energized base of paid and volunteer canvassers. She was also the only candidate I saw who had constituents attending her events just to tell her that they loved her.

I first saw Omar speak last Saturday morning, in Linden Hills, an upper-middle-class, overwhelmingly white neighborhood in south Minneapolis, which has one of the highest voter-turnout rates in the district. In a normal primary, where turnout is as low as twenty per cent, getting the vote of Linden Hills would be vital. Though part of Omar’s strategy was to insure that this would not be a normal primary, the neighborhood still mattered.

At ten-thirty in the morning, Omar met Linden Hills voters at Penny’s Coffee, a standard-issue Minneapolis café with high ceilings, blond-wood furniture, concrete floors, and natural light. Arriving from a previous event, Omar found a place that a staffer had set for her. There was a large coffee waiting for her, plus a handful of sugar packets; Omar emptied four or five of them into her cup. She wore an outfit of sky blue and white: a denim jacket over a floral blouse, paired with a dust-blue hijab embellished with pearl beads. Even casually dressed, she cut a distinctly cosmopolitan figure in the room, where most people were dressed in T-shirts and shorts, as if they were fitting in their civic duty between walking the dog to Lake Harriet and buying local produce at the Linden Hills Co-op.

The twenty or so people in attendance were a mix of couples, young parents, and retirees. Most of them were white; many of them reminded me of the mellow, gray-haired people I met when my dad went through a phase of attending Quaker meetings. When Omar hosts such gatherings, she begins by asking everyone to introduce themselves and share where they live, their profession, and any issues that particularly concern them. There were many teachers, a couple of college students, a child psychologist, and retirees. The group applauded for two new citizens, a French earth-sciences professor at the University of Minnesota and a pregnant Nepali engineer. Their concerns, which they expressed with urgency, ranged from education to social justice to climate change. “There’s a lot of things going on, and thank you for all that you’re doing,” a blond woman said. She was in attendance with her partner and their young son, and she added that her primary concern was health care. Tears sprang to her eyes. “We’re here to support you,” she said.

I saw Omar give several speeches during the next few days, and they usually began as the one at Penny’s did, contrasting “the politics of fear and scarcity” and “destructive and divisive policies” with the “moral clarity and courage” of people who are “reminding us of the fundamental ideals of this nation, and getting us closer to the American promise.” As Omar told the group, she “learned about that promise twenty-three years ago, in a refugee camp.” She was eight when Somalia’s civil war began. Her family fled to Kenya, where they lived in a refugee camp for the next four years. After being sponsored for asylum in the United States, they settled first in Virginia, then moved to Minneapolis, which has the largest Somali-American community in the country. She graduated from North Dakota State University and began her political career doing public-health outreach for the University of Minnesota’s extension program. In 2016, at the age of thirty-three, Omar became the first Somali-American woman to win a seat in the Minnesota House, unseating a forty-four-year incumbent in the Democratic primary.

As Omar explained to the good liberals at Penny’s, her platform is informed by realities she knows. She has three children. (Her eldest, Isra Hirsi, who is fifteen, played an organizing role in her campaign, and is the chair of the Minnesota High School Democrats.) In this particular primary race, Omar pointed out, “I’m the only one with little kids. I’m the only one with college debt.” (This isn’t exactly true—Anderson Kelliher has graduate debt from completing a master’s degree at Harvard, in 2006.) Responding to a question about affordable housing, Omar pointed out that she’s still a renter. Responding to a question about bridging political divides, she described how she, as a mother who had two children before graduating from N.D.S.U., appealed to pro-lifers in the state House to secure more funding for student parents. Dismantling ICE, too, is “a personal thing.”

“I’ve always seen how it was created out of fear, and how it became a tool to dehumanize and treat Muslims as second-class citizens within this country,” she said. “For me, those issues are not complicated.”

Omar’s next meet-and-greet was at a “market-inspired café” called the Lynhall, another industrial-chic space in a neighborhood of duplexes, five- and six-story brick apartment buildings, bars and restaurants, and young professionals. Almost nobody at this meeting looked over the age of thirty-five. Omar formed a connection at each introduction. To a television-caption writer, she said that she had learned English from watching captioned TV; to a massage therapist, she said, jokingly, “I’ll call you on Wednesday.”

After a discussion about the bad-faith justifications for the recent federal tax cuts, one attendee, a twenty-three-year-old who works in agricultural trading (“selling pork and soybeans to China”) interjected with a stream-of-consciousness lament. Her name is MacKenzie Nelson. She was born in 1994, she began, and has no memory of America not being at war. “I think it’s really disturbing how normalized that is,” she said, “and knowing my tax dollars pay for bombs killing children in Yemen makes my heart break.” At the same time, she continued, she was “really sick of everyone in Washington saying we don’t have enough money in the budget for universal health care, we don’t have enough money in the budget to guarantee college education for everyone.” She described her anxiety about the future: about how she will afford health care, and pay off her student loans, and buy a house or have a family; about how, even if she could save up enough for a down payment on a mortgage, housing prices have tripled; about how there’s no maternity leave in the United States; about generational inequity and the bleak environmental future. “Right now the perspective of a young person is hopelessness,” she concluded miserably, before apologizing for “rambling.”

“Everybody’s paying attention,” Omar said quietly. It was a nice thing to say, because the reigning feeling among people like MacKenzie Nelson of Minneapolis is that the contrary is true: that the political establishment is more concerned about aging male swing voters in Ohio than the dissatisfactions of younger generations in liberal strongholds. Omar did not point out, in this moment, that her own life has not exactly been a cakewalk.

Instead, Omar tells voters like Nelson that they deserve candidates who connect with them. She is not afraid to criticize the Democratic Party. “Fighting gerrymandering is one thing,” she said. “The other thing is insuring we have the right candidates for the people, and not the right candidates for the Party.” Omar went on, “We have people who have been out in the campaign trail in the community having conversations that are not honest, because we don’t really do any of the things we campaign on. We have people who will take votes that they can’t defend. They’ll say they stand for a policy but, when it comes to vote for it, they won’t take the vote. We’ve become the party that wants to appease everyone and no one. And I think the only way that the Democrats become viable again is if we have people who have moral clarity and courage to say what they need to say and fight for what they need to fight for.”

On election night, I called Nelson and asked who she voted for. She voted for Omar.

Omar’s next stop was an Urban League block party on Minneapolis’s predominantly African-American north side. Nearly every Democratic candidate running for statewide and local office was there shaking hands, as residents ate barbecue and watched a drum-line performance on an outdoor stage.

On indices of racial equality, Minnesota ranks as one of the worst states in the country, with dramatic differences in outcomes for black and Native American Minnesotans on income, home-ownership rates, graduation rates, school-suspension rates, infant mortality, criminal sentencing, and unemployment. Omar is one of many activist candidates who have run on confronting these disparities more directly. In 2017, a year after Omar’s win in the state House, Minneapolis voters elected two openly transgender candidates to their city council, Phillipe Cunningham and Andrea Jenkins, both of whom are also people of color. In his race, Cunningham unseated the city-council president, a twenty-year incumbent named Barb Johnson, by focussing on turning out poor and working-class voters. The pattern of activist candidates running against longtime incumbents has continued in this year’s local primaries, too, in races for county commissioner and county attorney.

“It’s not about just trying to go places and get votes—it’s really about connecting and building relationships,” Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, told me. Garza met Omar at a conference for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Omar was the first candidate endorsed by Black to the Future, the social-welfare arm of the Black Futures Lab, the activist organization that Garza started earlier this year. On Sunday, two days before the election, Garza came to Minneapolis from Oakland to stump with Omar at the University of Minnesota. That evening, I met her at a fund-raiser for Omar, at a local art gallery. “I think one of the lessons that the national Democratic Party can learn is to really put yourselves in communities that are being directly impacted by being left out of governing and governance,” Garza told me. In her meet-and-greets, Omar spoke of following a “co-governance model,” and emphasizing listening and learning over top-down prescriptions.

Another key part of Omar’s strategy is working with young people. As it happens, they adore her. Omar’s campaign manager, communications director, and field director were all in their early twenties. The art-gallery fund-raiser was staffed almost entirely by high-school- and college-age interns. I spoke with two of them, a seventeen-year-old student named Rayaan Ahmed and an eighteen-year-old named Kia Muleta, who were greeting people at a sign-in table. For several minutes, they gushed about Omar to me: about how many languages her staff could speak, about how watching her raise money emboldened them, about how good she is with children, about her unapologetic support of liberal policies, about how she gives young people real responsibilities instead of menial tasks.

“For the first time in my life, I saw someone who looked like my mom, I saw someone who looks like me making decisions for me that are right,” Ahmed, whose parents are also Somalian refugees, said. She described her experience on the campaign as “powerful and empowering,” but, she added, “it’s not about the identity—it’s about the politics behind it. The fact that she’s a progressive means more to me than anything she is.” “I think it’s a reflection of what our country could be like,” Muleta said.

They quieted as Omar got up to speak. This time, she concluded her speech with a call for “a politics of joy.” For those who were listening, this was an old Hubert H. Humphrey catchphrase. “Hope”—Barack Obama’s signature word—was thrown in there, too. Her campaign, she said, has “been filled with excitement, it’s been filled with hope, because every single person in our district, in our state, in our country, understands how powerful this seat is, how powerful our message of hope can be in this time, how important it is going to be for us to worry about one particular election but to continue to mobilize for a movement that will get many Ilhans, many Ilhans.”

The New Yorker

Thursday August 16, 2018
By Emily Witt

 

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