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Allegations of threats, bullying follow Cedar-Riverside caucus brawl

City Council member Abdi Warsame’s role in a state House race also swept up City Hall and has fractured the city’s East African political community.

After a disagreement over who would run the Cedar-Riverside caucus, Kahn supporter Mohamed Jama stood on a table and began chanting his initials. That’s when chaos broke out.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

The DFL caucus that ended in a brawl and sent a woman to the hospital earlier this month is at the center of allegations that threats and bullying were used to disrupt the political process and that some people were paid to attend the caucus.

Further, Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame’s involvement in a contentious state House race that prompted the caucus fight has swept up City Hall and fractured the East African political community.

MinnPost has learned that the day before the Cedar-Riverside caucus, Warsame told another council member, Andrew Johnson, that he should warn his aide to stay away from the caucus or there could be trouble for her.

Warsame is supporting longtime incumbent DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn; Johnson’s aide, Somali activist Ilhan Omar, is widely believed to be supporting the challenger, fellow Somali Mohamud Noor, though she says she’s neutral in the race.

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Omar did attend the caucus, and ended up in the hospital with a concussion.

This description of the Feb. 4 caucus and events leading up to the gathering is based on interviews with Somali political activists who attended the caucus, City Hall officials, DFL political operatives, a non-political caucus attendee and the observations of a MinnPost reporter who attended the caucus.

These sources detailed threats and behind-the-scenes political attacks in the state House contest between Kahn and Noor. Kahn is facing one of the toughest endorsement battles in her 42 years in the Legislature.

The simmering divisions were on open display at two DFL precinct caucus meetings in Somali neighborhoods of Minneapolis. Both caucuses erupted in chaos and violence.

One caucus, in the Seward neighborhood, was able to finish its work. But the other caucus, in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, abruptly ended after Omar, Johnson’s aide who was allegedly warned not to attend, was injured during a fight and Minneapolis police shut down the scene.

“That’s not a good reason you should be beaten up … just [for] supporting somebody,” Abdi Mohamed, a Noor supporter who worked at the event, later said during an interview. “That’s un-American. That’s not why we came here. If we wanted violence, we could have stayed in Somalia. There’s plenty of violence every day.”

Officials in the city of Minneapolis human resources department are investigating possible workplace misconduct over actions that occurred in City Hall during the runup to the caucus. A city spokesman confirmed there is an open complaint against Warsame, but couldn’t provide additional details including whether the complaint and investigation are related.

“That’s really something I don’t want to talk about,” Warsame said when asked about the initial comment that Omar stay home. In a later interview, Warsame said that he has not been contacted about any possible city investigation, declining to say more.

Abdi Warsame
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Abdi Warsame

Warsame also denied that he or any of his associates were involved in the caucus disturbance. “Like I said, I wasn’t involved in it,” he said. “My office was not involved in it.”

Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said the department’s First Precinct is investigating the caucus fight, but Johnson and other City Hall officials have been critical of those efforts so far.

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“I would like to see a better response,” Blong Yang, who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said in an interview. “In this case, I think folks can just say, ‘If this is a Somali person and she works for Andrew Johnson and our police department won’t even take her statement and won’t even look at her case, how can anybody have faith?’ ”

A new Cedar-Riverside neighborhood caucus with much tighter rules and restrictions has been scheduled for Wednesday, but the community has been in tumult for weeks surrounding the race.

“The real problem is for 15 years the Somali community has been participating in this process and have had none of these problems,” DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said. “And it’s just a few people, on both sides frankly, that are causing trouble and ruining it for everyone else.”

Troubles leading up to caucus

Omar said she knew there could be trouble for her at the caucus at least a day before it began.

The outspoken activist is the associate chair of the state Senate district Democratic group. She worked to help set up the event at the Brian Coyle Community Center as part of her role with the party.

But during a discussion in the City Council offices Feb. 3, the day before the caucus, Warsame told Johnson that he should order his staffer to remain at home and take care of her children instead of attending the DFL event, according to Omar. He warned Johnson that something bad could happen to her if she attended and was concerned Omar had a conflict of interest because of her perceived preference for Noor in the race. Omar also doesn’t live in the precinct.

Johnson said the comment was made to him, but he declined to name the person who said it. He gave the name to the city attorney’s office, Council President Barb Johnson and the city HR department. “I can confirm that that statement indeed did happen,” Andrew Johnson said. “They did say that she needs to stay home to take care of her kids, that she shouldn’t interfere.”

A source close to the investigation said Johnson told city officials that Warsame made the comment. Shortly after the caucus fight that Tuesday night, Johnson and Warsame spoke on the phone, and Warsame said, “I told you this was going to happen,” according to the source.

Allegations of payment

The night of the caucus was chaotic even hours before the event that was to begin at 7 p.m.

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Omar and Mohamed, the Noor volunteer who registered caucus-goers, said violent threats came from a small group of people from the beginning of the caucus.

Mohamed and another attendee at the Brian Coyle center also said a group of young men were paid to be at the political event. The reason for the alleged payments remains unclear; also unclear is who made the payments.

Mohamed said a young man who was registering caucus-goers was rude to elderly Somali people who were attempting to sign in. In addition to yelling obscenities, witnessed by a MinnPost reporter, Mohamed said the young man told him he had been paid to be there.

“He said, ‘As long as I get paid I don’t care what’s going on,’ ” according to Mohamed, “‘I don’t care about this BS.’ ”

Earlier in the night, a MinnPost reporter also heard a group of young men discussing that $20 wasn’t enough money, but the context of the conversation wasn’t clear. The young men didn’t appear to be interested in politics or the event, but instead were joking around among themselves.

A source at the caucus who was not supporting either candidate and requested his name not be used out of fear for his safety said friends had told him they were paid $20 apiece to be at the event.

“It’s unseemly,” Martin said of paying people to attend caucus. “But there’s nothing in our party constitution or our bylaws that prevents that.”

Mohamed said it was clear from the young men’s body language that their intentions were to disrupt the event.

“We all know that — it’s more than obvious,” he said. “They were doing a job.”

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A chaotic caucus

There were many arguments throughout the night, including over details like table and chair placement, but at the heart of the dispute was an argument over who would chair the event.

Knowing the event was going to be heated, both campaigns agreed to terms that would set up a system of co-chairs of the caucus. According to Kahn, as it became clear the Noor campaign had most of the support at the caucus, Noor’s campaign tried to do away with the caucus co-chairs rule.

Phyllis KahnRep. Phyllis Kahn

Noor supporters said their supporter, ZamZam Ali, won out over activist and Kahn supporter Mohamed Jama to run the meeting.

Jama, an outgoing youth activist, has been the head of the Cedar-Riverside Youth Council since he was 14, and at age 20, he is an established figure in the Minneapolis Somali community. Jama also worked on Warsame’s successful City Council bid.

Jama told MinnPost that he works on the Kahn campaign and initially said he wasn’t paid. He later clarified his comment, likening his role to a “consultant” who helped Kahn by setting up meetings and events while introducing her to members of the community. He said he had been reimbursed by the campaign for food and other purchases. Kahn declined to comment on whether Jama was being paid by her campaign.

After the disagreement over who would run the caucus, Jama stood on a table and began chanting his initials. That’s when chaos broke out, with diverging stories from both sides over who threw the first blow.

Competing complaints

Jama said Omar slapped him before she was hit. Omar denied that and said a group of women attacked her while others held her hands.

Omar was beaten as the crowded gym churned with activity. Earlier, Brian Coyle Center officials had called police, who eventually shut down the event when fighting broke out. Omar filed a report with police about the fight, but Jama did not. No arrests were made at the scene, though one Noor supporter was handcuffed by police and released a short time later.

Kahn dismissed Omar’s injuries, acknowledging that she didn’t know whether Omar had been sent to the hospital and had the forms to prove a concussion. “I participated in the process when it was much more unfriendly to women than that,” Kahn said, describing a time she said she got the equivalent of a death threat. “Once that has happened, what’s a punch?”

Several participants aligned with Noor claim the chaos was orchestrated by Kahn supporters to try to discredit and shut down that precinct caucus, which looked like it would send many Noor supporters to the larger endorsing convention later this year.

Noor said he wanted to wait until more information came to light before pointing fingers, but said his supporters would have had no reason to disrupt and halt the caucus because he was going to win the delegate count. “For sure, we lost 43 delegates,” he said, referring to suspension of the caucus. But, he predicted, “We’ll get them back” when the caucus convenes again Wednesday.

A fight also broke out over who would be chair at the other predominantly Somali caucus in the Seward neighborhood. Police were called but didn’t make any arrests, and a report wasn’t filed. That caucus broke almost unanimously for Noor, sending 33 Noor delegates to the district convention and two for Kahn.

At some point in the process, Kahn said her campaign pointed out DFL rules related to the calling of caucuses, which are usually only rescheduled for weather-related problems. But she said she never pushed for the Cedar-Riverside caucus to be shut down. “At one point, the law was pointed out, but nobody at any point, as soon as there was a reason to be able to reconvene it, nobody had any objections,” Kahn said.

Kahn attorney Brian Rice, who was at the Cedar-Riverside caucus, said it was “preposterous” to believe that the Kahn campaign orchestrated the chaos. “It’s just nonsense.” Jama and Warsame also denied a coordinated effort to disrupt the caucus process.

Kahn supporters concerned

Kahn supporters had their own criticisms. For example, they were concerned that Noor supporters from outside the precinct would show up to support their candidate. “There was evidence that people were being brought in from outside and being told they could vote in this caucus,” Kahn said.

According to anecdotal reports, some voters were turned away from the caucus for not living in the precinct. Rice stood behind the registration table and observed the sign-in for much of the process.

“I think it’s unfair,” Noor said of the allegations. “Let’s be more blunt. I know some people who live in this district who were told that they live somewhere else: Brooklyn Park. This is being more hyped — that people are coming from other places.”

Gay marriage issue in race

Noor is facing a political attack from an unknown source for his position supporting gay marriage, which came out during his run for the state Senate in 2011.

Before the caucus convened, mosques and malls in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood were papered with fliers attacking Noor for his position, according to his supporters. A video has also appeared on YouTube featuring a debate from the 2011 race in which Noor, when asked about gay marriage, said he supports equal rights. The video appears to translate his comments in English into Somali.

It’s unclear who distributed the fliers or put out the video, but Kahn says she has made it clear she doesn’t want any such attacks coming from her side of the campaign.

“When I heard that, I specifically told [Warsame and Jama] that I didn’t want that, without accusing them of doing it, that I didn’t want that to happen, Kahn said. “[Jama] said that nobody was doing it.”  

Sixth Ward race caused tensions

This isn’t the first time allegations of intimidation and political hardball have been leveled in the Somali community.

When it came time for the city of Minneapolis to re-draw district boundaries after the new census, the redistricting council carved out a spot at the table for the East African community, drawing lines around the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis’ Sixth Ward.

The DFL Party had spent years trying to harness and utilize the growing political force in the Minneapolis Somali community, which started running its own candidates against establishment Democrats. The first dramatic example of this was Noor’s run for a Minneapolis state Senate seat in 2011. He came in a close second behind current Sen. Kari Dziedzic, despite having just entered the political scene.

That was bad news for incumbent Sixth Ward City Council Member Robert Lilligren, who would now see the Somali political organizing force turned directly on him. It also marked the first political split within the Somali community, with some members choosing to support Lilligren’s bid over Warsame.

Rice, who worked on Dziedzic’s Senate campaign, encouraged Warsame to lobby for the change, which almost guaranteed a Somali candidate like him could win the race.

Kahn and Rice were quick to throw their support behind Warsame, which Kahn acknowledges made her enemies within the party. “I’m very proud of that support. I think he’s a wonderful addition to the City Council,” Kahn said.

She added that there was no “tit-for-tat type thing” in Warsame choosing to support her in this year’s House race over Noor, even though Warsame worked on Noor’s Senate campaign in 2011.

Lilligren ultimately lost the endorsement for his seat after the precinct caucuses, which sent droves of Warsame supporters to the district’s endorsing convention. But Lilligren’s campaign filed a challenge with the party against that endorsement, arguing the caucuses in April were intentionally chaotic and featured political intimidation, bullying and hardball politics by people who supported Warsame for city council.

The DFL dismissed the challenge, citing lack of evidence. Warsame denied that any hardball politics or confusion tactics were used, and noted that his support was overwhelming in precincts across the ward.

“The [Somali] community turns out like you would not believe. Even if all the allegations we heard last year were proven to be true, looking at all the people who turned out, it still would have been 10-to-1 for [Warsame],” said Minneapolis DFL chairman Dan McConnell, who heard the complaints. “There may be a few a bad apples, but I don’t know that … there is a language barrier and there were people trying to help people with where to go, and maybe people became a little over-zealous.”

But Nimco Ahmed, Lilligren’s former aide and campaign manager, says this campaign is seeing the same troubles. Ahmed was not at the Feb. 4 caucus.

“For me, I felt that I was putting our supporters and our volunteers in danger at their own caucus and I never thought that day was coming. A lot of our supporters and volunteers ended up leaving their caucuses that night because they were scared. Those responsible,  assumed that this could happen all over again because they got away with it last year, “Ahmed said. “It gets to a point right now where guys are putting their hands on a woman, and that is not the political process we all invested in it. Today they put our entire community and the DFL Party in a really embarrassing position.”