In a surprise move, Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame this week for the first time denied making controversial statements to a council colleague.
Warsame’s latest comments — coming more than three weeks after the alleged incident — contradict those of City Council Member Andrew Johnson.
They also add more tension to City Hall relations among council members, who include seven newcomers still adjusting to their jobs.
Johnson said that one of his colleagues told him on Feb. 3 that a policy aide in his office shouldn’t attend the next day’s precinct caucus in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The colleague, confirmed to be Warsame by a source close to the investigation, told Johnson that his staffer, Ilhan Omar, should stay away from the caucus or there could be trouble for her.
Ongoing city investigation
The crowded caucus ended abruptly following an attack that left Omar with a concussion. Shortly after that, Johnson lodged a complaint with council leadership that’s led to an ongoing internal city investigation.
Warsame initially declined to comment about the complaint and the allegations.
This week, though, he told MinnPost: “I did not say those things … There is no need for me to say those things.”
When questioned further after a Tuesday meeting, he added, “It’s ludicrous. The whole thing is ludicrous, in terms of my position.
“I didn’t say those things. I did not tell someone not to go to the caucus, nor am I interested if someone went to the caucus. I did not say [that] somebody should stay at home and cook food for their family, because why would it matter to me?” Warsame said. “The reason why I don’t want to come out and talk about things is because I have nothing to hide.”
Warsame, although insisting he didn’t make the comments, refused to say that Johnson and his aide were lying about the allegations.
“Whatever reason that him and his group or who’s putting these things out,” Warsame told MinnPost on Wednesday, “they have an agenda, and that’s up to them. You ask him why he would say stuff like that.”
Johnson stands by his version
Johnson, when told of Warsame’s denial, was incredulous — and equally unequivocal: “I absolutely was told those things, so there is zero question about that.”
“It’s shocking, and, frankly, it’s sad and disheartening. Our elected officials are supposed to be honest and have integrity, so if he’s saying he never said any of those things to me, that’s absolutely false,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to work with people who are being dishonest, especially about something like that.”
In an earlier interview, Johnson had said: “I can confirm that that statement indeed did happen. “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 that shortly after the caucus fight, Johnson and Warsame spoke on the phone, and Warsame said, “I told you this was going to happen.”
Warsame did say he spoke to Johnson about a StarTribune article that Omar had posted on Facebook about his margin of victory not being historic but denied making the other alleged comments.
Johnson said the Feb. 3 conversation began with discussion of the news article but quickly turned sour.
The city has confirmed there’s an open complaint against Warsame, but other details aren’t public. City investigators are working to interview the parties.
Since 2006, there have been nine ethics complaints against elected officials in Minneapolis, according to a city spokesman.
There are different types of complaints that can be filed within the city, and the spokesman declined to specify if the complaint against Warsame was one of those nine. Johnson also was unclear about how the complaint was categorized because it stemmed from concerns he raised with council leadership on the night of the caucus.
Last week, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges moved the police investigation of the caucus beating to the St. Paul Police Department to maintain impartiality.
Council members reserving judgment
Since the complaint and internal investigation surfaced, City Council members have had to deal with an unusual work environment.
So far, many of the council members are reserving judgment about their colleagues’ dispute.
However, one new council member, Alondra Cano, a Johnson ally, has raised serious concerns.
“My office and my staff, we are women, and certainly I’m concerned about the way this might affect our relationship and our workplace environment,” Cano said in an interview. “I’m just not sure. Once you cross that boundary, it’s just hard to know when it’s going to be crossed again.”
Cano said she sent out an email to council leadership the day after the attack “because I was extremely distraught at the information that Andrew Johnson had shared with me, and I was really concerned about the ways that we as a council were supposed to work together.”
Cano added in the interview: “I’m hearing these reports from another colleague about situations that happened in City Hall, and I’m just wondering: What is it that we’re going to do about this? What is it that we’re going to discuss as a legislative body around the ethics and the practices of this kind of work?”
Council leadership responded to Cano directly and assured her of the city’s ongoing investigation into the matter.
Barb Johnson: Not seeing tension
City Council President Barb Johnson told MinnPost Wednesday that she has not seen any tension among council members.
“That would surprise me,” she said, declining to comment about the details of the investigation. “I think we’re professionals here.”
“I would say the work of the council is proceeding … normally, and people are being respectful of each other as colleagues,” Barb Johnson said.
Several City Council members said they expect work to continue routinely while the internal city investigation runs its course.
Blong Yang, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, who has been critical of the police’s initial response to Omar’s beating, said the workplace complaint hasn’t affected his ability to interact with others.
Yang also viewed the issue pragmatically.
“You’re just one of 13 votes,” he said, speaking of the council’s size. “I think if people can understand that dynamic, it’s not that hard to recognize that sometimes you do just have to work with people you don’t like. I’m sure people here have done that all the time … there’s going to be times that we just hate each other, but hopefully that doesn’t stop us from doing the business of the city.”
Cano said she has a lot of questions about the incident that she hopes the investigation will resolve. Until then, she said, it’s tough to know how things will play out.
Andrew Johnson agreed that the findings from the investigations would make the situation much clearer and said that he spoke with an investigator about the incident on Monday.
Paul Ostrow, a former City Council president, said he hadn’t heard of anything quite like the current complaint at City Hall. Ostrow, first elected in 1997, said during his tenure the council typically worked things out behind the scenes.
“When you get into potential physical threats and that kind of intimidation, that does make working together fairly impossible,” Ostrow said.
“This takes it to a different level,” he added. “The very accusation is itself a challenge.”
Council Member Cam Gordon seemed genuinely out of the fray. “It seems like we’re able to get our work done just fine,” he said. “But it is definitely unexpected, and not a welcomed or planned turn of events.”
“Internal and external investigations aside, I have not had any problems working with Council Member Warsame,” Council Member Linea Palmisano said in an interview. “In fact, I have found him personally a pleasure to work with.”
But, she added, “This is difficult for the council to grapple with.”
“I don’t know if this kind of thing has happened in the past, but certainly it’s new for all of us as the new 13 working together,” Cano said. “I think it’s a little bit like walking on eggshells right now. Folks are figuring out who they can talk to and who they can’t.”