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Beyond elections: Can Minnesota’s political parties forge stronger ties with immigrants and refugees?

The top officials in the DFL and Republican parties both said they hoped – in an era of increasing ethnic diversity in Minnesota – to find ways to create stronger bonds with immigrants and refugees.

DFL Chair Ken Martin and Republican Chair Jennifer Carnahan
DFL Chair Ken Martin and Republican Chair Jennifer Carnahan speaking to reporters on Feb. 25.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Last summer, when the state DFL Party held a meeting with immigrants from the African community in Brooklyn Park, about 15 people turned out – a modest but welcome showing during a year with no major election.

Hosting the Diaspora African Immigrant Leadership Roundtable was one way the party is trying to build support among the state’s newer immigrant groups, said party Chairman Ken Martin. (The meeting was arranged by the party’s first civic engagement director, who was appointed to head up such outreach efforts).

Meanwhile, state GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan recently arranged to take several Asian-American business owners from Minnesota to the White House as part of President Trump’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. (The event was ultimately canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic).

While neither event involved a significant number of people, or drew much attention, each illustrates how the state’s two main political parties are looking for ways to deepen their support among Minnesota’s newest residents and to build a permanent brand that goes beyond election-year voter mobilization efforts.

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Paul Goren, the chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, said campaigns remain the most efficient ways for parties to spread their messages, though he doesn’t discount the impact of small-scale, targeted outreach. “Those are important efforts,” he said. “If you have 15 people show up (to a meeting) and afterward half become involved, that is an important thing.”

Stronger bonds

In recent interviews with MinnPost, the top officials in the DFL and Republican parties both said they hoped – in an era of increasing ethnic diversity in Minnesota – to find ways to create stronger bonds with immigrants and refugees.

Martin said parties are used to engaging with potential voters when campaigns heat up, often bringing on organizers to reach out to specific communities – a method that often leads to grumblings about vote grabs.

Paul Goren
Paul Goren
“This cycle has to move into a more relational mode – recognizing that conversations have to start much earlier around shared values and issues and be less about campaigns and candidates,” he said. “Changing that is important.”

The hiring of Ian Oundo, an African immigrant, as the party’s civic engagement director is a sign of that shift, he said.

For its part, the state GOP has developed affiliated parties made up of newer immigrant groups, including Hmong, Latino and Somali Republican organizations that are promoted on the party’s website.

Goren said those initiatives are important, pointing to a report commissioned by the national GOP after President Barack Obama won his second term in 2012. The study criticized the party for not being as inclusive as it could be – singling out, in particular, the need for the party to draw more Latino immigrants into the fold.

Carnahan tends to agree with that conclusion, saying the DFL Party has probably done a better job of positioning itself with those voters.

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Her work on Trump’s panel has given her a measure of visibility with Asian-Americans, in particular; besides the shuttered White House event, she recently participated in a get-together in White Bear Lake with members of the Hmong community.

“Republicans haven’t invested enough time and resources and haven’t been showing up enough in diverse communities,” she said. “You can’t just pop in and pop out during an election cycle. You have to build partnerships.”

Smaller party challenges

For smaller parties with fewer resources, meanwhile, outreach to specific groups is a luxury. Most rely on campaigns – and the media coverage they might generate – for their messaging.

Philip Fuehrer
Philip Fuehrer
The Independence-Alliance Party (once the Independence Party), for instance, hopes to build some inroads with African immigrants through the candidacy of Paul Beshah, an Ethiopian native running under the party’s banner in this year’s U.S. Senate race.

The party is run by volunteers, making outreach to specific groups challenging, said state party Chair Philip Fuehrer. “At end of the day, it comes down to bandwidth,” he said. “Every party would love to have more volunteers, more bodies, more people getting out there and getting their message out.”

Fuehrer said targeting specific groups smacks of the kind of identity politics the Independence-Alliance Party would like to avoid, though he thinks its message would resonate with many of Minnesota’s newer residents – if they can hear it. (Like other so-called “minor parties,” the party is in the midst of a ballot-access struggle, trying to get enough signatures from registered voters so its candidates’ names will appear on the fall ballot).

“There is often an independent streak with immigrants and refugees,” Fuehrer said. “If you’ve taken the big step to leave your country and come to America, you have something in you that is that independent, think-for-yourself aspect.”