Nation’s 1st Somali-American lawmaker eyes seat in Congress

Published 8:30 pm Sunday, June 10, 2018

ST. PAUL — Ilhan Omar escaped her war-torn homeland of Somalia as a child and grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp before immigrating to the United States as a preteen. She learned English by watching American television.

Years later, she became the nation’s first and only Somali-American lawmaker when she won a seat in the Minnesota House. Now she’s aiming for another spot in history: the first Somali-American member of Congress.

When Rep. Keith Ellison launched a late bid Tuesday to become the state’s attorney general, Omar rushed into a crowded field of eight Democrats seeking to replace him. Her competitors include a former state House speaker and two state senators as well as Ellison’s ex-wife, Kim Ellison.

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A win for Omar would further elevate a rising star in Minnesota politics who has positioned herself as a “counter-narrative” to President Donald Trump and his efforts to clamp down on immigration.

“I know what it feels like to be a young family looking for opportunity in the United States,” the 35-year-old said moments after registering to run. “I am excited to go and be a voice for the voiceless at the Capitol.”

Omar’s family fled Somalia when she was just 8, as civil war tore apart the country. They spent four years in a Mombasa, Kenya, camp with tens of thousands of other refugees. At age 12, the family was sponsored to move to the United States, eventually settling in Minnesota.

That story is familiar in Minnesota, which is home to the largest population of Somalis outside Somalia, as well as a neighborhood dubbed “Little Mogadishu.” In her campaign for the state Legislature, Omar harnessed her community’s growing political power as well as the city’s younger and more liberal voting base to make history.

She was not available for an interview Wednesday, and she said Tuesday that she could not answer reporters’ questions because she needed to start campaigning.

Her brief tenure in the state Legislature has been dotted with national exposure: She had a run-in with a Washington, D.C., taxi driver who she said called her “ISIS.” She also appeared on cable TV talk shows and recently made a cameo appearance alongside celebrities in a Maroon 5 video for a song called “Girls Like You.”

Stuck in the minority in a chamber controlled by Republicans, Omar’s legislative portfolio is relatively thin. She repeatedly sought money to help combat a 2017 measles outbreak that wracked the Somali community. She also worked to renovate a popular community center in her district.

Supporters said she’s found other ways to connect — not just with fellow Somalis, but also the college students and other long-term Minneapolis residents she represents.

Mohamud Noor, a fellow Somali-American who lost a primary to Omar in 2016 and is now running for her legislative seat, credited her outreach on immigration issues and regular “coffee and kulan” sessions. (Kulan is the Somali word for meeting).

“People are proud of her. Because of her accomplishment, because of her commitment to the public service. She is seen as somebody, especially, people see a role model for young children, their daughters,” Noor said. “I think she will be a good fighter against the Trump administration’s immigration issues in general.”

Entering the primary is also a gamble. If she loses, she cannot run for her legislative seat again until 2020.

Somali-American Kavy Botan, who lives in Minneapolis, supported Omar’s candidacy, saying she could fight against the administration’s travel ban and be an example of Somalis for the American people. He wondered if she would be allowed on the House floor in her hijab or if Trump would give her a derisive nickname such as the one he uses to refer to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “Pocahontas.”

Omar’s bid is far from a sure thing.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a two-term Democratic House speaker and 2010 candidate for governor, could generate enormous support in a district that’s much larger, with more politically moderate suburbs, than Omar’s. State Sens. Bobby Joe Champion and Patricia Torres Ray have both been in the Legislature for far longer and represent much larger swaths of Minneapolis.

In 2006, Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress. His seat is safe territory for Democrats, which makes an Aug. 14 primary the de facto election to replace him. The six-term congressman regularly cruised to re-election by 45 percentage points or more.