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Somalis turning to politics to get ‘seat at the table’

For years, they’ve been on the receiving end of what the public has given them. Now they would like a say in what they get, if anything, and how it is given.

Second of two articles

Somalis in the Twin Cities say that they are moving into politics to “have a seat at the table.”

For years, they’ve been on the receiving end of what the public has given them, whether it’s been financial aid, housing, schooling or medical care. Now they would like a say in what they get, if anything, and how it is given.

Mohamud Noor, 36, for example, has taken an unpaid leave from his job in information technology operations for Hennepin County, to work as acting director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, an immigrant  resettlement group in Minneapolis that assists immigrants in finding education, housing, jobs, training and health care, among other things.

In the anteroom to his office at Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar-Riverside, a half-dozen people wait to see him in hopes that he can help them find housing, jobs, training or other services. He’s short of resources. Right now, his agency has no money. More annoyingly, it didn’t receive anticipated funds from MNsure to sign up Somalis for the Affordable Care Act. “I believe that [funding] hasn’t reached the maximum level I would have liked to see,” he says.

Somalis’ need for services has put them and Noor squarely in the Democratic camp.

Abdi Warsame

For Minneapolis City Council candidate Abdi Warsame, however, the political alliance may be less a matter of ideology than get-ology, that is, getting what he can for potential constituents. He would like to see the city provide training in welding, plumbing and other trades that would lead directly to high-paying jobs. “Lots of youths are not going to Augsburg College or the U of M,” he says. “There are organs of the city that give out contracts.”

Some of them could go to small businesses — some Somali businesses, he would hope. Somalis seem to take to small business, but they need more training in managing and maintaining their businesses, keeping up with regulations, paying taxes. The city, he believes, could provide that help. He would like the city’s planning efforts to focus more on renters and also somehow provide more opportunities for renters to become homeowners.

Noor, however, falls in line philosophically with other Minnesota liberals. In a questionnaire from TakeAction MN, a progressive group, for the state Senate election in 2011, he objected to the constitutional amendment that would have barred same-sex marriage, “even though this is a difficult issue in the Somali community,” he wrote. He also advocated a change in funding for schools from complete reliance on property taxes, and he supported benefits, such as sick days for low-wage workers, burial at Fort Snelling National Cemetery for Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War and support for the Affordable Care Act. He won the endorsement.

Lately, he’s been talking up education. “Our biggest challenge is lack of opportunity in education,” he says. His emphasis is understandable. Although he hasn’t yet officially declared his candidacy — he merely smiles and shakes his head to say he hasn’t decided — it looks as though he may run next year for the late Hussein Samatar’s board of education seat in District 3. “I knew Hussein Samatar,” he says. (In fact, he’s related.) “Filling his shoes would be difficult.” Already, however, he has moved into the Seward neighborhood in District 3, and his wife (a teacher’s aide) and four children are slated to follow.

‘Don’t take us for granted’

Fartun Weli

Fartun Weli, 42, a slender woman in a long skirt, a blazer and a head scarf, made her way through the messy underground warren of offices at the state Capitol where reporters covering the Legislature hang out. Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum served as her escort, introducing her to journalists from the Star Tribune, tpt’s “Almanac,” the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Pioneer Press and other news outlets, pointing out that she would be a good source for them if they needed to talk to someone from the Somali community. She hoped to be able to call them when she wanted to let them know about something she was pushing in the House or Senate. She and reporters exchanged cards, smiles, jokes and small talk. “I am not running for anything,” she said over and over. “I am not a politician.”

Maybe not, but she is doing political work. In the previous legislative session, Weli testified in favor of  a bill that would have granted her group $170,000 to address reproductive health disparities among Somali women. The proposal was included in an omnibus health bill but dropped through a loophole. She says she felt totally lost at the Capitol and realized that she and other Somalis needed to learn the legislative process — thus the participation in civics classes taught by Sviggum.

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Weli does not see the Somalis’ alliance with Democrats as automatic. For one, Somalis’ conservative “family values” line up more with those of Republicans. “Our religion is against abortion and against same-sex marriage,” she says. The community mistakenly voted down the constitutional amendment barring gay marriage last fall, she adds; they thought it was tied to the amendment that would have required voter I.D., which they construed as a restriction on their right to vote. “If the same-sex marriage amendment had been on the ballot alone, people would have come out to a man, in wheelchairs, whatever, to vote for it,” Weli says. “But there was a misunderstanding, and some people were crying afterward. They thought they were going to hell for voting no.”

More important, however, to Weli’s mind, is Islamic belief in self-reliance. “Your first obligation is to take care of yourself,” she says. Depending on government aid, as many Somalis do, is not getting them anywhere; it merely keeps them “in the ditch” of poverty. “We want to get out of the ditch,” she says. And the way out is a good job. But she disapproves of the Democrats who voted for spending hundreds of millions on the Vikings stadium, which “won’t produce one job for a poor Somali woman or a poor white woman or any poor person who needs a job.”

She’s tired moreover of what she calls political “speed-dating,” where DFL pols come around during elections making big promises and then disappear. “Next time they might be surprised — they shouldn’t take us for granted,” she warns.

Sviggum says that he recognizes, in Fartun Weli and other Somalis he meets, natural-born Republicans; but right now he’s teaching civics, not recruiting for the party. Daniel Severson, a former Republican state legislator who tried to win the party’s endorsement for U.S. senator last year, had built a base among the Hmong, Vietnamese, Somalis and other minority communities. He argued at the GOP convention that Republicans should broaden their reach with growing immigrant populations who share conservative values. But the party was not receptive; it nominated Kurt Bills, whom Amy Klobuchar flattened in the general election.

Still, Somalis, like other immigrant groups, can boast of successful members who pursue the American Dream and better schools in Twin Cities suburbs. They are increasingly likely to vote Republican. “We are not monolithic, after all,” says Mohamud Noor. “I think it’s good. There should be competition.”

It’s unlikely that the Democrats will lose the Somalis overnight, however. “Right now, their values line up with the Democrats,’” says Hashi Shafi, head of the Somali Action Alliance.

In the Minneapolis mayor’s race, it’s a matter of which DFL candidate will get their votes. If Somalis are playing identity politics, then one would think that their obvious choice would be Don Samuels, the African-American candidate from North Minneapolis.

Cawo Abdi

Oddly enough, at least to white people, Somalis do not necessarily identify with American-born blacks, says Cawo Abdi, an assistant professor of sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. In Somalia, where everyone was black, they didn’t feel black. “They became black in America,” she says. “Color is not a big factor to them. African-Americans seem as alien as whites. And there’s a tension. African-Americans don’t like that Somalians don’t identify as blacks.”

So at this point, it looks as though Mark Andrew has the edge. Mohamud Noor and Khan Omar, a Somali voting activist, are among those who have endorsed him. Warsame says he doesn’t know whom the Somali community will vote for, but added, “I am for Andrew, so I suppose a lot of people will follow.”

Somali aspirations

Larry Jacobs, the University of Minnesota political science professor, notes that in England and France, Muslims have not been allowed much of a toehold in politics. The result has been resentment, riots, gangs, crime — in short, nothing good. “We need to open the avenues to power,” he says.

And, the new vanguard of Somali pols doesn’t have a particularly radical list of demands. They want the same access that other immigrant groups have managed to gain through the ballot box.

To Mohamud Noor, that means over the next few years perhaps a Somali member of the City Council, the Board of Education, the state House of Representatives and the state Senate. Maybe someday there could be a Somali mayor.

Fartun Weli is looking for state legislation that would produce the training and jobs that would allow Somalis to climb out of poverty. She’s had it with handouts and welfare.

Warsame has a broader view. He has no aspiration to become mayor, and he emphasizes that he is an American politician who happens to be Somali, not the other way around. He says he wants to work for everybody in the 6th Ward. But his countrymen are foremost in his mind. “My hopes are that my community comes to terms with its past, gets comfortable with its present and hopeful about its future.”