The race for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District seat, currently held by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, is shaping up to be one of the state’s most interesting in the 2022 midterms. Omar is already facing several Republican candidates — Royce White, Cicely Davis and Shukri Abdirahman — but as of this week, Omar has a new challenger from her own party.
Don Samuels, 72, a community organizer who previously served as a member on the Minneapolis City Council and the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education, announced this week that he would be running to unseat Omar in the DFL primary.
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Samuels said he made a lifelong commitment to living in low-income communities to help build them up. That’s what he’s been doing since he and his wife decided to move to the North Minneapolis neighborhood they’ve called home for over two decades.
“I have three children with my beautiful wife, Sondra, and we’ve lived in the most challenged community in the city for 25 years. And we did it deliberately, as I felt called…to continue the work of the civil rights movement. And that means, for us, reversing the brain drain from our inner cities … and to be present here for our children, meaning our community’s children.”
Samuels was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2003, representing Ward 5, and served there until 2014. In 2013, he ran for mayor following R.T. Rybak’s decision not to seek a fourth term, part of a crowded race eventually won by Samuels’ fellow Council Member Betsy Hodges. He then served a single at-large term on the Minneapolis school board.
During Minneapolis 2021 city elections, he was one of the most prominent figures — if not the most prominent — in the efforts to defeat Question 2, the proposed charter amendment that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. (The referendum failed, with about 56 percent of city voters voting against it.)
Samuels said that now is the time for him to run for Congress because he’s concerned about the direction the country is going in, and because he believes Omar’s “style” is “not compatible with the needs of the moment.”
A divide on policing
Though Samuels sides with Omar and other progressives on many things, he differs with her on one high-profile issue: policing.
Omar was an outspoken supporter of Question 2, explaining in a Star Tribune op-ed: “We have an opportunity, once and for all, to listen to those most impacted by police brutality and the communities who have been demanding change for decades.”
Samuels said that just a week after he moved to his North Minneapolis neighborhood years ago, a bullet came through the window of their new house. He said that there was a certain boldness to the people around him, where people would drive through stop lights routinely, for example.
“From our block, we saw children getting traumatized,” Samuels said. “We saw people dying, literally bodies in the street. And we saw our buildings burned…and then you talk about the carjackings — people are living in fear.”
Though Samuels didn’t support the effort to dismantle the MPD in favor of a Department of Public Safety, he also doesn’t believe that the current standard of policing is good enough.
“We can hold both truths at the same time,” Samuels said. “We want MPD to transform their behavior and treat our young men and our children fairly. We wanted justice. But we also wanted protection. Congresswoman Omar could only hold one of those ideas in her mind, and she picked one, to get rid of the police… It’s not either-or. It’s both-and. It’s nuanced, and I find that our congresswoman is not really capable of dealing with nuanced realities.”
Samuels disagrees with the notion, advocated by some progressives, that police departments are beyond reform. He compared reforming the police to the civil rights movement, saying that reform “has to be possible.”
“Can you imagine when people in the South couldn’t walk on the same sidewalk as a Black person and a white person couldn’t drink from the same water fountain? Can’t go to the same schools. Can’t answer a white person as an equal,” Samuels said. “People were thinking that wasn’t possible to change when they had no authority, no right to vote. If we can’t have that optimism in our day…come on, we can do this. And all we have to do is be together, not divided.”
Though Samuels’ stance on policing may set him apart from Omar in this year’s Democratic primary, it won’t make him much different from most Democrats in Washington. Most of the party has stayed away from the “defund the police” rhetoric altogether, and President Joe Biden even said in his State of the Union address last month that he supported giving more money to police departments across the country.
No time for symbolic gestures
Last year, Omar voted against passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill that had widespread support among Democrats. She was joined in her vote by the five other progressive Democrats known as “The Squad,” all of whom said they refused to vote for the bill because there wasn’t a corresponding vote for the spending plan called the Build Back Better Act.
“Passing the infrastructure bill without passing the Build Back Better Act first risks leaving behind child care, paid leave, health care, climate action, housing, education, and a road map to citizenship,” Omar said in a statement after her vote.
Samuels called Omar’s vote on the infrastructure bill — and Omar’s political strategy in general — to be combative rather than collaborative.
“She has the posture of an activist, and speaking truth to power even though she is power, and not really collaborating with her peers, and therefore she’s unable to deliver resources [to the Fifth District],” Samuels said. “Some people go to Washington to make a point. I’m going to go to Washington to make a difference.”
Samuels said he would be more willing to collaborate with Democrats on measures like the infrastructure bill, though he said if there’s an issue that he truly believes in he would break from the party. At the same time, he said it’s more important that the Democratic party vote in unison for the things that its constituents truly want and value.
“One person can do great damage just by insisting on being perfect. The perfect is the enemy of the good,” Samuels said. “And our congresswoman should not be the only person who gets to make a statement at the potential risk of losing resources.”
Though Omar herself did not respond to Samuels’ critique, a senior adviser for her campaign, Connor McNutt, called Samuels’ attacks part of a “misogynistic playbook” that her opponents have used in the past.
“Like many women in politics, Congresswoman Omar is used to having men belittle and diminish her accomplishments as a public servant,” McNutt said in an email. “It’s ironic that Mr. Samuels has chosen to less than 24 hours after the Congresswoman secured $17 million in transformational funding for the 5th District, two weeks after she introduced legislation to reform police departments nationwide by restricting no-knock warrants with Amir Locke’s parents, and a few weeks after she hosted First Lady Jill Biden in Minnesota to celebrate the $550 million she helped secure for childcare as a part of the American Rescue Plan.”