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The race for a Minneapolis House seat draws three serious DFL candidates — and a bunch of questions

Mohamud Noor has returned to challenge longtime Rep. Phyllis Kahn for her seat in the Minnesota House, but a third serious candidate has also emerged: former city council aide Ilhan Omar. 

Phyllis KahnRep. Phyllis Kahn

In a state House district in the heart of Minneapolis, one political theory is getting a lot of play: Two opponents are better than one.

But better for whom?

Incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn says it’s better for her. The Democrat from Nicollet Island has represented state House District 60B — which covers the University of Minnesota campus and touches communities like Cedar Riverside, Seward and Prospect Park — for the last 43 years. More recently, she’s grown accustomed to fending off opponents from within her own party and the growing and politically active Somali community, the base of which was drawn into her turf after the 2012 redistricting process.

Last fall, she defeated former Minneapolis School Board Member Mohamud Noor in a contentious and drawn out primary campaign. Noor was Kahn’s first serious challenge in years, mobilizing the Somali community behind him at precinct caucuses, including one that ended abruptly in violence. Noor later blocked Kahn from winning the DFL endorsement, but it wasn’t enough to prevail in the primary, where Kahn triumphed with 54 percent of the vote.

Noor has returned to challenge Kahn again in 2016, but a third serious candidate has also emerged: Ilhan Omar, a former city council aide who was previously a vocal supporter of Noor.  

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“The demographics of the district haven’t changed since the last election; what has changed is [Phyllis] is opposing two candidates who were basically working together in 2014,” said Jamal Abdulahi, a long time DFL activist and community member who is neutral in the race. “Now [Noor and Omar] are both candidates, and I think from an endorsement perspective, that might slightly improve Phyllis Kahn’s chances of beating back the competition.” 

But both Noor and Omar, who say they remain friends, want to see an end to the identity politics that marked the last campaign. More candidates are better for everyone, they say. 

“I think she is trying to lump us together,” Noor said. “I’m going to put it back to her and say, ‘Yes, two is always better than one. This is a representative democracy, and more people participating is better than not. We want to conquer the divide, and this is a moment we have to step out of that box, with black voters on one side and white voters on the other side.” 

On the issues 

This time around, Noor is ramping up his progressive credentials in the strongly DFL district, calling for a $15-per-hour minimum wage (as a starting point), free tuition at two-year colleges and more investments in early childhood education. Recent Census data showed wide and growing income gaps between black and white residents. Noor said he’s encouraged that Gov. Mark Dayton wants to address the issue, but he said it’s going to take more members of the Legislature doing something about it too. 

“If we raise the bottom everything will go up, but if we let the bottom sink, everything will go down,” said Noor, who is currently head of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. “This is not identity politics — it’s a reality we live in the state of Minnesota. It’s disturbing, and it’s shameful.”

Since the last election, Omar says she had “countless conversations” with friends and people in the community. Many people were disappointed by the results in 2014, which saw Kahn win nine out of 12 precincts across the district. Omar thought she could bridge the gap between the Somali community and other parts of the district dominated by students and seniors, so she jumped into the race. “This is not a decision I made lightly,” she said.

Omar currently works as director of policy and initiatives for the Women Organizing Women (WOW) Network, and previously worked as a policy aide for Minneapolis Council Member Andrew Johnson and as a nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota.

She says she’s talking with voters about supporting small businesses, protecting the environment and cutting back on college debt. She’s also interested in working on criminal justice reform, especially as the Legislature ramps up a discussion about the state’s escalating prison population. Omar wants to see more emphasis put on sentence reform and rehabilitation, not creating more space in prisons. “This is a district that has diversity in so many ways,” she said. “We needed to find someone who is willing to work and be a representative who can embody all of that and bring their voices to the Capitol.”

House District 60B
House District 60B

Kahn was first elected in a historic wave for women legislators in 1972. Formerly a scientist at the University of Minnesota, she’s running again on her science background and her seniority in the Legislature, which has put her on several high-level finance committees, including the Legacy Committee. In those roles, Kahn said she’s secured funding for the Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar Riverside, Somali youth athletics and funding to help U.S. Attorney Andy Luger’s efforts to curb recruitment of Somali teens into terrorist groups. 

“None of these things are things — if they had been elected in their first term — [Noor or Omar] would have been able to do,” Kahn said. “People have this vision that it’s me against the Somali community, but I have a good third of the Somali community working on my side, maybe more now.”

House Democrats lost the majority last fall, but Kahn thinks they have a shot at taking it back in 2016. She’d like to serve one more term in the majority, she said, and see out the rest of Dayton’s term. He retires in 2018. “People always ask me how long I’m going to stay,” Kahn said. “Even though I did get stuff accomplished, I have more I want to do.” 

Battle for the endorsement

All three candidates plan to seek the DFL endorsement. One candidate must hit 60 percent of delegate votes to secure the backing of a political party. During the last campaign, Kahn was leading on the ballots at the endorsing convention but didn’t hit 60 percent. Noor’s supporters hung on as some of her delegates went home, and ultimately no one was able to hit the required threshold.

This time, Noor is not necessarily promising to abide by that process. “My goal is to seek the DFL endorsement as a first step. We haven’t started the process after that,” he said. “I think people enjoyed going through the primary because they enjoyed being given an opportunity to vote.”

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar

This year, many of Kahn’s supporters are returning, including Abdi Warsame, the Minneapolis City Council member who helped organize and mobilize members of the community to support her in the endorsing contest and the primary. 

“She is a relentless campaigner and I think she proved that last time,” said Brian Rice, a Kahn supporter who also represented her in several ballot disputes during the last campaign. “A lot of people thought, ‘Oh well, she’s too old to run again.’ Some people, if you remember, were calling her an ‘old Jewish lady’ during the campaign. Maybe she is, but she’s tough as nails.” 

Omar has the backing of Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano and several members of the Minnesota Student Association, the undergraduate student government at the U.  

“In the last campaign, Noor was largely competing on Somali votes. Can Ilhan change that? I think that remains to be seen,” Abdulahi said. “But she is a smart woman, and I think she gets that.” 

A smoother process?

The last campaign in the district was marred by allegations of threats and voter fraud. Omar was sent to the hospital with a concussion in April 2014 after an early precinct caucus in the race turned violent. Omar was a source of friction in the race, initially serving as an officer in the local DFL party, who was supposed to remain neutral. But many in the district perceived her to be a supporter of Noor, and there were allegations that Warsame urged her to stay away from the caucus event.

Harrison Nelson, chair of Senate District 60 DFL, said efforts are being made to make sure the precinct caucuses and endorsement process go smoothly this time. That includes hiring unaffiliated translators who speak both Somali and English.

Farhio Khalif Jordan, who serves as associate chair of the local DFL group and the Somali American Caucus of the DFL Party, is remaining neutral in the contest until an endorsement is made. But she said the presence of not one, but two Somali candidates in the DFL process is “a lot of pressure, but it’s also exciting.” 

“The pressure is greater than it was last time,” she said. “The Somali community has to understand this is an opportunity. We live in the land to today where you can get out and vote, where we have opportunity here. But we have to educate my community that you don’t have to vote for someone because you were told to do it, vote for someone because you think they will do something good for the community.”