WASHINGTON – Six days after he and his family moved into their home in Minneapolis’ Jordan neighborhood, a bullet flew through Don Samuels’ house.
Samuels said the incident in 1997 made it clear to him that he had to do something about violence his north Minneapolis community. Twenty-five years later, he’s trying to take his support for law enforcement to Congress, challenging a progressive superstar, Rep. Ilhan Omar, to run as the Democratic candidate representing the ultra-blue 5th District.
“I came into politics in that reality,” Samuels said of the violence that plagues his neighborhood. “I want to solve a problem that seems to be unsolvable.”
The Democratic primary, held on Aug. 9, is a contest between ideologies. Samuels is a moderate Democrat and Omar, 39, a trailblazing activist of the multicultural left.
But there’s also a generational divide, with older, established Democrats — including a slew of former DFL party officials — backing 73-year-old Samuels and younger, progressive party members in the district steadfastly loyal to Omar.
Omar, who is proud to be “the first woman of color to represent the state” was first elected to Congress in an election to fill the seat of former Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who ran successfully for state attorney general.
She defeated five other Democrats in that 2018 Democratic primary race, including some with much more political experience than she had at the time, having served only one term in the Minnesota House. Since then, she’s easily vanquished other Democratic rivals. She expects to do so again, then handily turn back Republican Cicely Davis in November’s general election.
“The people I represent know the work I do, and I predict they will reelect me by a huge margin,” Omar said.
Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections said Samuels is a definite underdog.
“(Omar) faced a better-funded challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, last cycle, and dispatched him by 20 points,” he said. “It’s always difficult to unseat an incumbent, especially an incumbent that knows they’re facing a serious challenge, and Omar seems to be taking the race seriously, as she’s already spent $2 million ahead of the primary.”
A native of Somalia, Omar as a child lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years before emigrating to the United States. She said she “experienced real hunger” at the camp. With an academic background and career in nutrition and public health issues — the lawmaker has pressed to broaden the federal school lunch program and has fought in the U.S. House for affordable housing and to address health care inequities.
“We have to feed the bellies of our children before we feed their brains,” Omar said.
Yet to many she’s probably better known as a founding member of the “Squad” and for her support of an overhaul of the Minneapolis Police Department after the brutal murder of George Floyd.
That issue — policing — is at the heart of Samuels’ race against Omar.
During Minneapolis city elections last year, Samuels was a leader in the effort to defeat Question 2, a proposed charter amendment that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 56 to 44 percent.
“I was the tip of the spear in the fight against defunding the police,” Samuels said.
To Samuels, cities like Minneapolis don’t need fewer police, but better police.
“We know the police have some head knockers,” he said, but good law enforcement officers are needed to protect the public and he said he is an advocate for reform and supports a bill that is languishing in the U.S. Senate — the George Floyd Policing Act — that aims to promote better local policing.
“It’s not either-or. It’s both-and,” Samuels said. That stance is shared by a majority of House Democrats who have shunned the notion of “defunding the police” and are now defending themselves against GOP attacks that they are “soft on crime.”
Lee Munnich, a former Minneapolis City Council member and former DFL 5th Congressional District chair, is on a list of nearly 20 former DLF officials who have endorsed Samuels. He said he met the candidate during the campaign to defeat Question 2 and was impressed. Munnich said Samuels has the support of the DFL Senior Caucus and could defeat Omar.
“I think he’s a very strong candidate and think he could do it,” he said.
Omar, however, is the endorsed candidate of the DFL and has support among its sitting members.
Samuels was also involved in promoting another ballot initiative last year, a successful attempt to give the Minneapolis mayor more authority and the City Council less. Yet Samuels is a former City Council member. He’s also served as an at-large member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, but has a frosty relationship with the teachers’ unions, because of his support of school choice and vouchers.
To Samuels, allowing a mother to seek a better school for their child is non-negotiable, since Minnesota can’t overcome its learning gap between students in schools in wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods and the kids who attend schools in low-income neighborhoods.
“We have the greatest gap between white kids and Black kids in the country,” Samuels said.
In 2019, the state ranked 50th for racial disparities in high school graduation rates.
The power of incumbency
Born in Jamaica, Samuels went to college in the United States and became an industrial designer. But after a 30-year career, Samuels said he felt a calling for public service. So did his wife Sondra Samuels, who is the CEO of the early childhood education nonprofit, the Northside Achievement Zone.
He considers himself a moderate Democrat “with a very progressive lifestyle” who sides with Omar on many issues, including the need to protect abortion rights and fight against attempts at voter suppression.
But he views Omar as “divisive.”
“So much is at stake, we need people who can unite,” Samuels said.
Meanwhile, Omar and her supporters portray Samuels as a corporate-backed conservative who is out of touch with the progressive residents of the 5th District.
Omar said she is not surprised she drew a Democratic challenger.
“When you are standing up to corporate interests, they always find a way to recruit and come after you,” she said.
Omar’s progressiveness has made her a national figure with national fundraising support. But Samuels has of late outpaced the lawmaker in raising political cash, with most of his individual donations coming from within the state. He ended second quarter with about $530,000 in cash on hand, compared to the Omar campaign’s $460,000.
Samuels said his contacts in the private sector — developed when he was an industrial designer — and those he met in the nonprofit world as a community activist have helped him fundraise. He also said the business community contributes to his campaign because they appreciate his effort to defeat Question 2.
“I just have to make calls,” he said.
Samuels, however, is up against the power of incumbency.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said “Omar did get outraised last quarter by Don Samuels, although he’s not raising the kind of money that Omar’s challenger did in 2020.”
“It’s really hard to know if a congressional incumbent is actually vulnerable in a primary,” Kondik added. “My default position is that an incumbent should be fine in a primary, given that incumbents almost always win re-nomination if they want it.”
Omar supporter and former Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden does not think Samuels merits a larger political stage.
“The question is ‘who would do a better job in Congress?’” Glidden asks. “(Omar) does not deserve to be challenged. She brings home results.”
Glidden, who works for a housing nonprofit, said she is grateful that Omar took a lead in the fight on Capitol Hill for affordable housing, insisting efforts to help low-income tenants be included in several pandemic response bills.
Omar said the pandemic restricted her campaigning two years ago. But now she said she’s door knocking, both in suburban neighborhood and lower-income urban ones.
“They are shocked that I’m at the door,” she said.