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With rising political power, Somali community may get first City Council representative

With redistricting, Abdi Warsame seems poised to unseat 11-year incumbent Robert Lilligren in Minneapolis’ 6th Ward council race.

Running in a newly formed district that he himself helped to remap, 6th Ward City Council candidate Abdi Warsame appears to be headed for victory.

First of two articles

Abdi Warsame, 35, seems poised to become the Minneapolis City Council member representing the 6th Ward.

With the recent death of Minneapolis School Board member Hussein Samatar, a victory would make him the highest-ranking (and only) elected official of Somali descent in Minnesota, if not the entire nation.

His principal rival, Robert Lilligren, 53, has held the post for 11 years, but Warsame, in an organizational coup, flooded the DFL convention with hundreds of East African supporters this summer and grabbed the party’s endorsement.

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Running in a newly formed district that he himself helped to remap, he appears to be headed for victory. “Somalis are hungry for political representation,” he says. “This is a transformative moment for our community.”

Others saw the Somalis as pushy interlopers. “A lot of people came who had never been there before,” says David Weinlick, DFL party affairs director. To party regulars, it felt weird.

“This is a very old American story, and it’s a good one,” says Larry Jacobs, professor of political studies at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Over the centuries, he points out, one immigrant group after another — the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Swedes, the Jews — have arrived and elbowed their way into the electoral system. By emphasizing their ethnic identity, they not only won votes but earned respect from the rest of the community. And with access to elected offices, they could hand some of the goodies back to their home communities. The Somalis are only the most recent group to make a bid for political power, at least in Minneapolis.

However, the fallout from the recent al-Shabab  attack in Nairobi could deflate those hopes a bit. No one knows for certain whether some of the Muslim extremists involved in the deadly shopping center raid are linked to the Twin Cities’ Somali community. Both religious and secular leaders here have been quick to condemn the bloodshed and dissociate themselves from the actions of the militant group.

rally photo
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Members of the Minneapolis Somali community gathered at a rally denouncing the al-Shabab attack in Nairobi last month.

But, says Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, author of “Somalis in Minnesota” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012), “events in Nairobi may dampen Somalis’ spirits.” They would be concerned, he adds, that others would see them as somehow to blame for the tragedy, and “they would want to hide as fast as they can” — possibly suppressing their own vote. Then too, he says, white voters might be put off when it comes to pulling the lever for a Somali candidate.

This possible setback comes behind two others. First was the untimely death in August of Hussein Samatar, 45, the Somali community’s prime political mover. A widely respected and popular figure, he had been elected to the city’s school board, and before he was diagnosed with leukemia this spring, he talked about running for mayor. In attendance at his funeral was an A-list of Minnesota politicos: Sen. Al Franken, Congressman Keith Ellison, Mayor R.T. Rybak, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Minneapolis School Board Chair Alberto Monserrate, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Lilligren and dozens of others.

Almost simultaneously, the shootings of three young Somali men created worries about a resurgence in gang violence and a ding in the community’s reputation. Warsame shook his head when speaking about the new spate of crime. “We have to take responsibility for our own mistakes,” he says.

The Somali Diaspora

If any group could overcome setbacks, however, it would be Minneapolis’ Somalis. In the last 20 years, they survived a violent civil war — Warsame calls it “a slow genocide” — in their homeland, bleak refugee camps in Kenya and resettlement in not-so-friendly communities across the globe. The U.S. began to bring Somalis to this country in the early 1990s.

In 1992, a trickle of Somalis found their way from San Diego to Marshall, Minn., where they heard a turkey-packing plant was hiring. They immediately landed jobs, and finding a hospitable environment with a low unemployment rate, a low cost of living and social agencies experienced in dealing with immigrants (the Hmong who had come before), Somalis urged their friends and relatives to join them in Minnesota.

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They’ve continued to come. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey puts the number of Somalis in Minnesota at 32,000, but some dispute that figure.

Hashi Shafi, head of the Somali Action Alliance, a voter registration group, believes that there are now 80,000 to 100,000 Somalis in Minnesota, about half of them of eligible voting age. Mohamud Noor, acting director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, says that some 7,000 “secondary immigrants” — Somalis from other parts of the U.S. — are arriving in the state every year. Minneapolis has become the most important site in the Somali diaspora.

Their lives here have not been easy. Somalis have launched hundreds of small businesses — restaurants, retail shops, warehouses, grocery stores and other enterprises — but most remain grindingly poor. Again, the American Community Survey pegs 82 percent at or below the poverty line.

In the wake of the 2001 World Trade Center attack, Somalis suffered an onslaught of distrust encountered by all Muslims in the United States. Somali women’s conservative garb set them apart, and the  meticulousness of some Somalis in following Muslim law (taxi drivers refusing to transport passengers carrying liquor, for example) made their assimilation into American life that much more difficult.

On top of all that, some Somalis, either wary of others or uncomfortable with English, seemed to hold themselves aloof. Says David Fields, community development coordinator of Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc., which draws plans for an area where many Somalis live: “We’ve tried to reach out to them, but they’ve remained an entirely separate community.”

That has begun to shift, says Cawo Abdi, a Somali-born assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. “It’s been 20 years since the [Somali] state collapsed,” she says. “They are more and more cognizant that they are here to stay. Minnesota is their home. And they want to have a role here.”

Warsame, who came here in 2006 to be near his cousins, says that he views Minnesota as a place he where he wants to be, not just somewhere he landed by accident. “I love Minnesota. It’s a nice, open state.” He adds with a laugh, “I don’t even mind the winters anymore.”

What’s more, many Somalis say that they are tired of being typecast as poor, pitiful people. They are ready to make their political mark.

Fartun Weli

“The time to feel sorry for us is over,” says Fartun Weli. She heads a group called Isuroon, which, translated, means “strong women taking care of themselves.” “Women feel they need to be doing better. They are very worried. They want an exit from poverty. They feel that the only way that will happen is by getting involved.”

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And she means politically involved.

Through the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, she recruited Steve Sviggum, former Minnesota House speaker (1999-2007) and former communications director for the Republican caucus, to teach classes in civics, parliamentary procedure and legislative process to Somali women — although men are showing up at the classes as well.

“They are really interested in becoming empowered,” says Sviggum. Their first assignment: reading both the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions. All that seems like a far cry from electioneering or lobbying, but Somalis seem willing to play the long game — to understand the system from the bottom up and then exploit it to the fullest.

The long game

That long game characterizes Abdi Warsame’s foray into politics.

Growing up in London, he never had had political office on his agenda. Before moving to the Twin Cities, he earned a master’s degree in international business from the University of Greenwich. He took a job with Wells Fargo’s retirement trust division in Roseville but then, deciding that he wanted to work with young people, he applied for and landed the position of executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association. A group that conducts citizenship courses, offers computer labs and handles tenant complaints, it would seem to provide a perfect platform for a budding politician.

In 2011, he helped Mohamud Noor, another rising politico, run first for the school board and, later, in a special election for state Senate. Noor lost both elections, but not by much. Says Warsame: “That’s when I got an insight into local politics, campaigns, the demographics and the numbers. It opened up my eyes and the eyes of most of the people now in my campaign to the lack of representation, not just for the East African community but for all the other ethnic communities in the city.”

What Warsame saw was that the Somali population was split among four or five different political jurisdictions.

“Noor lost by only a few hundred votes,” he says. “If a few buildings in Ventura Village had been part of the district, Noor would have won.” So in post-mortems on the campaign, he and others started thinking about changing the map.

“If we put them all in one ward, that would give them more political power,” Warsame says. “We spoke to religious and business leaders, to elders, to youth, and explained why it was important to have a ward. “Even if an East African candidate did not emerge or win, anybody who was going to be a councilman in that ward would have to listen.”

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ward 6
City of Minneapolis
Ward 6 was reshaped into a four-pronged puzzle piece that pokes into Seward, Phillips West, Elliot Park and a portion of downtown east of Loring Park to accommodate Somali aspirations.

They signed onto the idea, and in 2012, he formed the Citizens Committee for Fair Redistricting, a group of individuals, business owners and community leaders. The committee recruited Hazel Reinhardt, former Minnesota State demographer, to help argue their case. She was impressed. “They are really sophisticated people. They are planning to stay here, and they want to be active in the government. I think it’s a good thing,” she says.    

The evidence she gathered was pretty compelling. The population of Minneapolis is 40 percent minority; yet of its 13 wards only one — the 5th Ward in North Minneapolis — had a representative who was a minority group member, Don Samuels, an African-American now running for mayor.

“If there was proportional representation on the Minneapolis City Council, five of the 13 wards would be represented by people from the minority population,” Warsame wrote in a letter to the Charter Commission. “We think this lack of representation in elected offices in Minneapolis City Hall is grossly unfair.” The ward boundary, as it was, he argued, in testimony before the commission, “divides the community, dilutes its voice and prevents it from having proper representation.”

A Somali district

Robert Lilligren

Warsame wasn’t totally accurate. Robert Lilligren, council member for the 6th Ward, is an American Indian, and it was his district that was reshaped — some say gerrymandered — into a four-pronged puzzle piece that pokes into Seward, Phillips West, Elliot Park and a portion of downtown east of Loring Park to accommodate Somali aspirations. (Ward 9 also was redrawn to concentrate Hispanic population.)

Once that was done, Warsame, like most politicians, says he didn’t think of running on his own; other people urged him on. “People in the community told me, ‘If you think it’s as important as you say, run for it.’ ” So he did.

To hear his opponents (one of them Somali) tell it, Warsame’s win of the DFL endorsement involved heavy-handed manipulation. They claimed that the caucus was chaotic — that his followers tried to intimidate them, spoke only in Somali and made efforts to exclude volunteers from other campaigns.

Several people challenged the endorsement, but says David Weinlick, DFL party affairs director, “there really was nothing to substantiate the allegations.” A subsequent hearing — a kind of appeal — before the entire convention similarly failed to sustain the complaints. The DFL’s Weinlick himself was present at the convention, and he says, “A lot of people came who had never attended a caucus before. So not all the records were clear—like some names were not written down properly, but those were corrected.”

For his part, Warsame says he simply organized well. He studied the rules. “I looked at it [winning the endorsement] as a businessman [would].” He and his followers started raising money at the beginning of the year. They commandeered buses and taxis to bring in caucus-goers, and they kept their efforts quiet.

“We wanted to keep our opponent comfortable,” he says. When hundreds of Somalis poured into the meeting, he notes, “our opponents thought it must be some voodoo.” Weinlick says that’s pretty much the way things happened: “A lot of people felt Warsame’s group had taken over the caucus.” And, in fact, they had.

Ugly charges have piled up. Lilligren’s campaign says Warsame’s followers emphasize Lilligren’s homosexuality. (The Quran, like the Bible, in several passages forbids same-sex relations.) Warsame says he supports gay rights.

For his part, Warsame complains that soon after his DFL endorsement, four Somali candidates added themselves to the ballot, some with names oddly similar to his. There were Abdi Addow, Sheikh Abdul, Abukar Abdi and Abdulahi Mahamud Warsame (who eventually withdrew). None have websites, committees or fundraising accounts. Warsame thinks they may be puppets set up by Lilligren or some of his Somali followers to confuse matters. (Lilligren says he’s had nothing to do with them.)

“It makes you suspicious, when you see that there’s no actual campaign,” Warsame says.

All of this has made for a pretty ugly entry into local politcs, but says Jacobs,  “Politics are never nice.” Delegates for [Minneapolis mayoral candidate] Betsy Hodges left the DFL city convention to eat pizza to make sure that no party endorsement was awarded to her rival Mark Andrew. Jacobs asks, “Wasn’t she playing hardball?”

Tuesday: The Somali community’s agenda, aspirations