As Ellison departs Congress, Omar chases another first
COLUMBIA HEIGHTS, Minn. — In a coffee shop at the edge of a working-class Minneapolis suburb, not far from the high school Ilhan Omar attended in the years after she immigrated to the U.S., some two dozen people crowded around a table to hear her make the case for sending her to Congress.
“There is a clear and dangerous crossroads to where our country finds itself,” Omar told the group. “You can see the politics of fear and scarcity that’s led us to the current administration we have.”
Rep. Keith Ellison’s decision to leave Congress to run for attorney general back home in Minnesota set off a scramble for his Minneapolis-area congressional seat, which has been a Democratic lock for more than half a century. It’s a race with echoes of the recent primary upset in New York, in which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old self-described democratic socialist, defeated one of the most powerful House Democrats.
Though the Minnesota race has no incumbent, Omar is hoping to harness the energy that Ocasio-Cortez tapped to defeat five other candidates in the Aug. 14 primary, including the state’s first Latina lawmaker, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a former state House speaker who spent a decade as a powerbroker in Minnesota politics.
Omar broke into elected office by unseating a 22-term Democratic incumbent in 2016 while en route to becoming the nation’s first Somali-American state lawmaker. With one term under her belt in the Minnesota House, she’s touting her background — “I myself would have been part of the travel ban,” she says — to persuade voters that for her, the fight against President Donald Trump would be personal.
Her message will be tested against Kelliher, who has played up her political battles with then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as proof that she, too, would make an effective Trump foil.
Torres Ray, who emigrated from Colombia more than 30 years ago, says she’s also well-suited to stand up to the president’s policies, pointing to her tenure in state Senate and experience on immigration issues. She has called Trump’s immigration policies “inhumane” and was arrested in June along with several other protesters who locked themselves in cages to protest the administration’s family separation immigration policy, which Trump lifted in the face of widespread criticism.
The Minneapolis area has been trending more liberal since long before Trump, said Brian Melendez, a former chairman of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. He noted Ellison’s 2006 victory to become the first Muslim elected to Congress, as well as a raft of very liberal candidates who have won city offices and Omar’s 2016 primary victory.
Like many other Democratic primaries around the country, the race for Ellison’s House seat is testing what kind of political experience matters most for Democratic voters who hope to rein in the Trump administration, which has emerged as the central focus in the race.
Devan Steward, 25, said he supports Omar but worries about her limited experience.
“I’m not the kind of person who thinks experience makes or breaks a candidate, but I’d prefer her to have another term or two under her belt,” he said.
Freshman state lawmakers in the minority, as Democrats are in Minnesota, have little chance to rack up accomplishments. Omar cited funding she’s netted for projects in her district, including money for a Somali museum and $5 million to help respond to a 2017 measles outbreak that largely affected the Somali community.
But both Omar and Torres Ray face a formidable rival in Kelliher.
Just the second woman to serve as Minnesota’s House speaker, Kelliher has been largely out of the public eye for eight years. She’s currently head of a nonprofit that promotes technology education, training and jobs.
Since entering the race, Kelliher has worked to remind voters of her skirmishes with Pawlenty. During a visit to a Minneapolis senior living home, she drew nods of recollection from a group of about 50 people when she talked about overcoming a Pawlenty veto to pass a gas tax hike to fund infrastructure improvements after the deadly 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.
She discounted any parallel between her congressional race and Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York over longtime Rep. Joe Crowley in an interview afterward.
“Joe Crowley was an out-of-touch incumbent. This is an open seat,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy in this race, and there’s going to be over 100,000 people who vote and only 25,000 people voted there.”
The heart of the race, she said, “is going to be who is most effective standing up to the Trump administration right now, and who can deliver on behalf of the issues.”
Omar, who escaped Somalia as a child and grew up in a Kenya refugee camp before settling in the U.S., said she’s ready to do that.
“For so long, so many of us felt you needed permission to get involved politically and that you needed an invitation,” Omar said. “I think we are at a moment that we’ve been building up that’s part of a movement that says if you want things done, you have to do them yourself.”