It’s not often that Minnesota politics goes beyond rhetorical disagreements and erupts into physical violence. But that is exactly what happened on Feb. 4, 2014, when a DFL Party caucus left its site coordinator and district vice chair with a concussion and sprained neck.
The events of last year thrust one of those injured, Ilhan Omar, 32, into the spotlight in a way she would not have chosen; but rather than causing her to rethink her political engagement, they have galvanized her resolve.
Earlier this month, Omar announced her candidacy for Minneapolis House District 60B, the same district where she was attacked — and where she will be going up against the same candidates who faced off in 2014: incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn and Mohamud Noor.
She is reluctant to speak about the incident, unhappy with the way it has been depicted as a fight between factions of the Somali community. Her only comment about it is to emphasize that she was there not as an instigator but as a neutral representative of the DFL. “People forget that I didn’t support Noor until after the convention,” she said. “I come from people who dreamed of a free democratic system. I believe so strongly in the process and equal access.”
Family fled Somalia
Born in Somalia in 1982, she and her family fled that country’s civil war when she was 8. They spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States, first moving to Arlington, Virginia, before eventually settling in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1997.
Her early years piqued her interest in politics; by the time she was 14, she was translating for her grandfather so he could participate in local caucuses and continued her advocacy as a student organizer at Edison High School.
After college, she worked as a child and family nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota’s Extension program. It was there, she says, that she first realized the importance of getting involved in broader, systemic solutions.
“We were teaching people how to eat healthily but couldn’t do anything about their housing, their unemployment,” she said. “These people had a desperate desire to fulfill the American Dream, but there were mountains that needed to be moved out of the way.”
A policy aide to Andrew Johnson
She began to immerse herself in local DFL politics, eventually becoming a senior policy aide to Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson in 2013.
“It was awakening,” she says of her time at City Hall. “I saw the way that policy discussions are had and take shape. How valuable it is to have the right voices at the table, not just advocating, but taking the votes.”
She credits the successes she saw while there — like the repeal of lurking laws as well as passage of the environmentally friendly Green to Go ordinance — to the city’s newest council members. “These changes, this progress was made because we brought in new people and new perspectives, with that, we’re able to have transformative change and we can take on the bigger challenges,” she said.
The point could be taken as a statement on Kahn, the longest serving member of the Minnesota Legislature. “At some point we just have to be done with wishing for people to implement the kind of change we need to see,” said Omar.
The changes she seeks revolve around equality, and the oft-quoted and persistent disparities between Minnesota’s white communities and communities of color. For example, she notes that people of color are criminalized at a higher rate than their peers. “When elected, I will work on re-evaluating our sentencing guidelines, invest in restorative justice programs, support restoring the vote, and reallocations of funds from justice to mental health and drug rehabilitation programs.”
Of course getting beyond the rhetoric would be the real challenge. Omar says it’s a matter of agency: “The people who are being impacted need to be in the room to ensure that we’re implementing data-driven change.”
If elected it’s believed she would be the first Muslim, East-African woman elected at the state level in the nation — a milestone the mother of three and current director of policy and initiatives for the Women Organizing Women Network would not take lightly.
“I’m not easily scared; from the age of 8 I learned what it means to have everything you know taken away and what it means to persevere,” she said. “I approach politics the same way.”
And if she doesn’t secure the DFL’s endorsement?
“I’m flexible. I’ll continue in politics. What attracts me to it is its ability to change lives. We are accountable to each other; having an equitable Minnesota benefits everyone, not just the disenfranchised. I think being an immigrant makes me overly optimistic. I was raised by people who’ve always dreamed of being part of a free political process. For me this is exhilarating. This is the American Dream.”