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What Antone Melton-Meaux’s primary challenge to Ilhan Omar is all about

Antone Melton-Meaux says he supported Omar when she first ran for the seat in 2018. Now, he says, voters are ready for someone else.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar shown last December introducing then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Nashua, New Hampshire.
REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

Antone Melton-Meaux says he voted for Ilhan Omar in the 2018 general election.

But now, in 2020, Melton-Meaux, a relatively unknown name in DFL politics, is challenging Omar in the DFL primary on August 11 for her Fifth Congressional District seat.

“I was hopeful that she would use her platform to do great work for the district,” Melton-Meaux said of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s first term in Congress. “But what I’ve seen since then is someone that doesn’t show up for votes and someone that doesn’t show up for voters. She has one of the worst voter attendance in the United States House of Representatives missing, in 2019 alone, 40 votes.” (Omar missed 5.7% of votes in 2019, putting her in a tie with five other members for 55th most-absent member of Congress. Omar’s campaign says she missed votes due to personal reasons, including the death of a family member, and that the votes were all procedural, rather than substantive. In 2020 so far, she has missed two votes, according to ProPublica.)

While the two candidates agree on many issues, they have important policy differences, including health care and the environment. But their biggest policy difference is related to an issue outside of the district: Israel.

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A national profile

Omar is a formidable candidate. She is a progressive icon nationally and one of the most well known Muslim politicians in the United States.

In 2018, state Rep. Omar was one of three Democrats considered serious contenders to replace now-Attorney General Keith Ellison after he retired from Congress to run for his current job.

Antone Melton-Meaux
Antone Melton-Meaux
In the August primary, Omar ran against former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray. While Anderson Kelliher ran neck and neck or even bested Omar in some suburbs, she was trounced in Minneapolis, where Omar got more than double Anderson Kelliher’s votes.

Ultimately, Omar earned 48 percent of the votes, compared to 30 percent for Anderson Kelliher and 13 percent for Torres Ray.

In Congress, Omar serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and as whip of the Progressive Caucus, where she is seen as a potential future chair of the caucus. As Rep. Barbara Lee, the former chair of the Progressive Caucus, said last year: “All the big issues that our Democratic Caucus has embraced, that really speak to our work for the people, she’s helped pull together the votes for that.”

Omar is often portrayed by her opponents, including Melton-Meaux, as divisive, but her tenure is more complicated than that: She has frequently been photographed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s side and has co-sponsored a number of bills with other members of the House and Senate, including the Student Debt Cancellation Act of 2019 with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which would cancel student debt; the CIVIL Act with Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, which would amend the Insurrection Act to curtail violations against the civil liberties; and the MEALS Act, a bill to provide school lunches during the coronavirus pandemic that was included in House Democrats’ Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Melton-Meaux, the runner

Before he was a candidate, and before Melton-Meaux moved to Minnesota, he was a college student at Washington University in St. Louis, where he ran track and met his wife, Genevieve.

Melton-Meaux attended the University of Virginia School of Law, where he went on to receive the Congressional Black Caucus Fellowship, working under Donna Brazile, former chair of the DNC, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. There, much of his work there focused on affordable housing and D.C. statehood.

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Melton-Meaux went on to work as an attorney for Skadden, Arps, one of the largest law firms in the world, during a time when he says he also volunteered to provide free legal services to federal inmates denied the right to continue their gender transition.

In 2008, when his wife got a job at the University of Minnesota as a professor and practicing surgeon, Melton-Meaux moved to Minnesota. He went on to lead global employment practice at St. Jude Medical, which is where he met a now-member of Congress, Rep. Angie Craig, who was then the senior vice president of global human resources for the company.

“Angie and I are friends,” Melton-Meaux said. “We’ve worked together for several years and I have a lot of respect for the work that she’s doing in the Second Congressional District.” While Craig has not endorsed in the race, some ties between the two campaigns exist: Aidan Johnson, the former deputy finance director for Craig’s re-election campaign, now works for Melton-Meaux.

Nekima Levy Armstrong
Courtesy of Nekima Levy Armstrong
Nekima Levy Armstrong
Melton-Meaux has drawn endorsements from around the community, including several with prominent names: Josie Johnson, the famed civil rights leader; Nekima Levy Armstrong, the former Minneapolis NAACP president; and Shep Harris, the mayor of Golden Valley. Melton-Meaux also received the endorsement of Leila Shukri Adan, a previous candidate for the race and the co-founder of Axis Medical Care, a health care center in Minneapolis.

In an opinion piece for the Star Tribune, Armstrong said Melton-Meaux was too humble about his qualifications. “It’s evident that Melton-Meaux has always been deeply invested in the success of the Fifth District and will continue to invest the time, energy and effort that it takes to get things done,” she wrote. “Melton-Meaux’s humility should not get in the way of his stellar qualifications to serve as our representative.”

Andy Luger, the former U.S. attorney for Minnesota and another of Melton-Meaux’s endorsers, said he’s known Melton-Meaux since he first moved to Minnesota.

“I’ve known him and his wife since then and worked closely with him when we practiced law together, and I’ve been a strong admirer of his,” said Luger. “And I believe in his integrity and his ability to unite people, which is very important to me in a candidate.”

Luger said Melton-Meaux’s candidacy is not about any particular label. “Moderate, progressive, conservative: I don’t think that’s it. I think with Antone, it’s thoughtful, it’s listening, it’s looking for ways to bring people together. And you can do that as a progressive, you can do that as a moderate.”

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Major supporters

When it comes to endorsements, Omar has the more prominent support, both locally and nationally. She has the endorsement of the Fifth District DFL, the endorsement of her predecessor, Ellison; both the in-state and national teachers unions; major environmental groups like MN350; major immigration advocacy organizations like United We Dream; progressive groups like Justice Democrats; as well as Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

“Ilhan is one of the best organizers we have,” DFL Chair Ken Martin said in an email to supporters early this month. “Last cycle, her team knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors and earned more votes than any new Member of Congress, and all but seven incumbents. This not only put her in office, but also helped get us a Minnesota House Majority.”

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
One of Melton-Meaux’s bigger criticisms is on Omar’s vote against the The United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement. “It was a bill that was supported by the AFL-CIO progresses at the table, and she was the only member of Congress and the Minnesota delegation, Republican or Democrat, not to support that vote.” Despite Melton-Meaux’s critique, the Minnesota AFL-CIO backs Omar.

Melton-Meaux and Omar have also drawn support from very different donor pools of campaign donors.

With the advantages of being an incumbent with national name recognition, Omar had raised a sizable chunk of change by the end of March, about $3.4 million. She ranks 29th among candidates running for House in the U.S., according to Open Secrets.

Melton-Meaux raised $395,000 through the first quarter of 2020.

His donor list includes 2019 Minneapolis mayoral candidate Tom Hoch, former University of Minnesota presidents Bob Bruininks and Eric Kaler, former U.S. attorney in Minnesota Andrew Luger, Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle, as well as former ambassador to Morocco Sam Kaplan and his wife, Sylvia, who often donate to DFL candidates in Minnesota.

Melton-Meaux’s supporters also include prominent Minnesota business people, among them James Hereford, the CEO of Fairview Health Services, and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the co-CEO of Carlson Holdings.

Melton-Meaux also has the backing of prominent wealthy donors from around the country, including John Gray, a billionaire and the president and COO of the private equity firm Blackstone, and Seth Klarman, a billionaire hedge fund owner who has given millions to the Republican Party.

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Ninety-two percent of the roughly $390,000 Melton-Meaux raised from individuals through the first quarter came from donors giving $200 or more, compared to 8 percent from smaller-dollar donors.

Omar’s campaign raised about a third of $3.3 million in donations from individuals who gave $200 or more, while the reminder came from smaller-dollar donors. Her donor list is more national in profile, with money coming in from every state and large hauls from California, New York and other states.

Omar’s list notably includes actors Susan Sarandon, Ben Affleck and Bradley Whitford, and musician Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead.

Israel policy

Melton-Meaux has also received financial support from a group not commonly connected with DFL candidates in the reliably liberal Fifth District: At least twice over the last few months, a bipartisan group that includes a number of Trump supporters has come together over Zoom to talk about why Melton-Meaux is their preferred candidate.

The fundraisers have been put on by NORPAC, a nonpartisan group that supports hard-line conservative policies in Israel. The group supported President Trump’s move to remove the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal and his action to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Melton-Meaux’s supporters include Iris and Shalom Maidenbaum, two prominent Trump supporters from Long Island; and Howard Jonas, a telecommunications executive who has maxed out a contribution to Trump. A number of other Melton-Meaux supporters have been avid financial supporters of Republican Senate candidates like Ted Cruz and major Republican committees like the National Republican Congressional Committee. As of the second fundraising quarter of 2020, NORPAC has bundled $150,000 for Melton-Meaux’s campaign, according to a report from HuffPost.

One of NORPAC’s invitations for a virtual fundraiser reads: “Together, we have the privilege of accomplishing a dual objective. Supporting a deserving candidate, Antone Melton-Meaux, who has communicated a genuine desire to strengthen the US-Israel relationship and bring honor to his country and party while at the same time replacing Rep Ilhan Omar, a highly divisive member of Congress who has proven to be unfairly and repeatedly critical of Israel.”

Omar has said repeatedly that Israel’s current government oppresses Palestinians, posting on Twitter last year that the government violates their  “dignity & rights.” In a letter to Sec. of State Mike Pompeo, 12 members of Congress, including Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum and Omar, said that Israel’s continued annexation of the West Bank “would lay the groundwork for Israel becoming an apartheid state.”

Melton-Meaux would not go that far. Instead, he said that unilateral annexation is inappropriate. “The Palestinians have been searching for a Homeland permanently for a long time. And I have been very clear when I’ve been asked this question that we have to do things the United States and Israel included to not exacerbate difficult circumstances. Like moving ahead with annexation unilaterally, which harms peaceful prospects,” Melton-Meaux said. “It puts stress on the Palestinians. I don’t think that’s a good thing to do, and it minimizes the potential for Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table for a really positive, constructive long term solution.”

In 2012, Omar said, “Israel has hypnotized the world,” which draws on tropes about Jews as hypnotic conspirators. And in 2018, Omar said Israel’s influence is “all about the Benjamins,” a reference to a Puff Daddy song, to communicate Israel’s lobbying power. A large number of Jewish groups condemned Omar’s words for relying on antisemitic tropes. Omar subsequently apologized for both remarks.

Melton-Meaux has criticized Omar several times for not establishing a relationship with the Jewish community in Minnesota. “There needs to be a constructive ongoing dialogue with their member of Congress,” Melton-Meaux said of the Jewish community. “And that simply does not exist right now.”

State Sen. Sandy Pappas
State Sen. Sandy Pappas
DFL state Sen. Sandy Pappas, a state legislator from nearby St. Paul who is Jewish, disputed the idea that Omar is universally disconnected from her Jewish constituents: “Israelis are not monolithic. American Jews are not monolithic either in how we view the Middle East,” she said last year. “I feel kind of frustrated that anytime anyone is critical of Israel that they’re put in that antisemitic box.”

Pappas, who has family in Israel, added: “I think she could be a little more cautious in her statements, but that’s not her. She speaks truth to power.”

Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s communications director, criticized Melton-Meaux for accepting the donations from people who also support Trump: “It is shameful that any Democratic candidate for the 5th District would accept funding from Trump [donors] or Republican donors. But it is even more shameful that they would take their policy cues from these donors.”

When asked about the donations, Melton-Meaux responded, “NORPAC is a bipartisan organization, they support Democrats and Republicans. And the reality is on issues of Middle East peace it will take bipartisan efforts. I really believe that the Israelis and the Palestinians want the same thing.”

Policy differences

Besides differing on Israel, Omar and Melton-Meaux take different approaches to a few important Democratic policy priorities.

Omar is a supporter of the Green New Deal, a major proposed package of climate change response legislation, while Melton-Meaux prefers to say the Green New Deal is aspirational. Omar is a proponent of Medicare for All, a proposed single-payer health care system; Melton-Meaux prefers his plan, Primary-Care-for-All, a plan that would increase access to primary care services, to Medicare-for-All, which would institute a more comprehensive change to the U.S. health care system.

Omar is a supporter of the Minneapolis City Council’s efforts to dismantle the police in favor of a new public safety department; Melton-Meaux is close to that position, but instead takes a more reform-based approach: “We’re not going to eliminate the police. They have to exist; certain things that they can do, citizens can’t and shouldn’t do. But we also have to think about how to reimagine this in a way that’s consistent with our values and reflects our constitutional rights.”

In a similar vein, the Intercept reported that in 2015, Melton-Meaux wrote an op-ed for the Star Tribune arguing Black Lives Matter had gone too far when some protesters chanted “Pigs in a blanket/fry ‘em like bacon.” And in 2018, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, Melton-Meaux penned a letter to the Minnesota Bar Association, suggesting corporate confidentiality agreements were important to prevent brand damage that companies would receive from being accused of fostering sexual harassment in the workplace.

Melton-Meaux wrote that the conversation about systemic mistreatment of women in the workplace was “overdue,” but that if employers decide to settle a sexual harassment claim, it may “expose their organization to the likelihood that it will be branded by the public and media as a harasser, the stain of which will be hard to remove.”

Melton-Meaux stands by his criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, telling City Pages Wednesday “I’m an African American man, and I’ve had encounters with the police myself over the years,” but that the movement needs to “build coalitions to be successful” and that “you don’t do that by making violent chants toward police officers.”

As for the workplace sexual harassment piece, Melton-Meaux says the position he took in it was due to the needs of his business as a mediator, and that now he does support the banning of nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment settlements, unless they are requested by the complainant.

Melton-Meaux’s campaign has its own critiques of how Omar has operated in Congress. Several times, he has criticized Omar’s “present” vote on an a resolution condemning the Armenian Genocide, saying that such a vote is an insult to the Armenian community in Minnesota. (Omar explained her vote by saying she does not object to condemning the Armenian Genocide but instead took issue with the use of the resolution as a punishment for the Turkish government, which had recently launched a military incursion into northern Syria.)

Melton-Meaux has also criticized Omar for lying about her relationship with Tim Mynett, one of her campaign consultants whom she married during the president’s State of the Union speech, writing in a Star Tribune op-ed: “That doesn’t work for us.” Omar’s campaign denied any legal impropriety in her relationship with Mynett. A conservative legal organization, the National Legal and Policy Center, filed a complaint to the FEC over the matter but the FEC has not taken any action.

Choice in August

Ellison, Omar’s predecessor in Congress, said no one else living knows the job of representing the Fifth District better than he does. And it’s that experience he uses to argue that Omar needs to be sent back to Congress.

Attorney General Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Attorney General Keith Ellison
“I did the job that she is doing and that others aspire to do for 12 years. I think my opinion on this matter is better informed than any person living, because sadly we lost the great Martin Sabo,” Ellison said.

“There’s no perfect people in Congress,” Ellison said. “By definition of you being human, there are legitimate reasons to say: ‘You ought to do this. You ought to do that. You shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that.’ But I see no reason why she should not be returned right back to Congress where she is now.”

Melton-Meaux, who has spent most of his campaign trying to contrast himself with Omar, said people are ready for someone else. And he said the dysfunction in Congress doesn’t get fixed overnight. “It happens over time through partnerships, coalitions, and pulling in the same direction for the greater good of the people of this district. And that’s what the people are hungry for: They’re tired of the politics of division and distraction, they’re tired of ideological purity tests. They want someone willing to go there, work within the party, create space for collaborations and partnerships, even across the aisle.”

By mid-August, it’ll be clear which one of the two candidates made the better case.

MinnPost data reporter Greta Kaul contributed to this report.