When Mahamoud Wardere made a bid for mayor of Minneapolis in 2001, he knew he wasn’t going to win. All he wanted was to introduce his then little-known Somali-American community to more Minnesotans.
At the time, Somalis were a relatively small but growing community of refugees still reeling from the civil war that uprooted them from their East African home. In Minnesota, they struggled to come to terms with the hard reality of establishing a new life in a place dominated by a vastly different culture, language and religion.
“They were really confused,” Wardere explained. “Many expected the war to end, thinking they would go back to Somalia. There was a sense of isolation. They thought they would always be foreigners in Minnesota.”
Even as Somalis began to gradually integrate into the broader community, they remained little known to many Minnesotans, which is why Wardere decided to make his bid for office. “I wanted the politicians to know we existed, to listen to us and ask for our vote,” he says. And so he became the first Somali-American to appear on a ballot anywhere in the United States.
Fifteen years on, much has changed. The state’s Somali community now claims three elected officials — Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame; Minneapolis School Board Member Siad Ali, and Mankato Public Schools board member Abdi Sabrie — and no small amount of influence in local and state politics. This summer, two Somali-American candidates, Mohamud Noor and Ilhan Omar, are involved in one of the state’s most high-profile legislative races, with both competing in the Aug. 9 DFL primary against Phyllis Kahn, who has represented the Minnesota House District 60B for more than four decades.
On one hand, the Noor-Omar-Kahn contest offers a clear illustration of the Somali community’s stature and engagement in Minnesota’s political life, especially compared to many other immigrant groups in Minnesota. But the race has also exposed a serious division among the state’s Somali-Americans, who — for the first time — are witnessing two strong candidates challenge each other for office.
“We can do a lot better if we are united,” says Wardere. “We are a small community in the state. We cannot afford to divide our votes.”
A political journey
When it comes to politics, Somali-Americans don’t hold back. Over the last several years, the Minneapolis neighborhoods dominated by Somalis — Seward and Cedar-Riverside — have produced some of the state’s highest voter turnout numbers in caucus and primary elections.
Those voters especially come out when a Somali candidate appears on the ballot. Warsame was one of the first in the community to take full advantage of that engagement, mobilizing the city’s Ward 6 residents to easily defeat incumbent council member Robert Lilligren in 2013.
The following year, Noor lost to Kahn in the District 60B primary by less than 400 votes — a race Kahn later admitted was the toughest in her 44-year political career.
It wasn’t always this way, though. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Somali community in Minneapolis was much smaller, and many Somalis were new refugees who weren’t yet eligible to vote or were far more concerned with more basic needs, such as finding employment, housing and schools. When Wardere ran for Minneapolis mayor in 2001, for example, he was among 21 candidates fighting to unseat then-incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, and received just a tiny percentage of primary votes.
But in the general election that year, R.T. Rybak, who emerged from the primary to take on Belton, actively courted the city’s Somali-American vote, after having been introduced to the community by a young activist named Mohammed Jibril. “They wanted to get involved in the campaign,” says Rybak. “As someone who was not taken seriously by almost every other constituency in the city, it was tremendous to have people who were willing to participate from the beginning.”
At the time, two issues dominated the community’s concerns: the lack of affordable housing and poor police-community relations, the latter of which came to a head over the 2002 police killing of Abu Kassim Jeilani, a 28-year-old Somali-American with mental illness who didn’t speak English. The community accused the department of using excessive force, and the case inspired many Somali-Americans to become more politically involved, highlighting community issues at both the city and state levels.
“This is a community that has incredible sophistication in understanding politics,” Rybak said. “When you walk into a coffee shop with lots of Somalis, it’s more likely that you hear people talking about politics, global and local. When you get in a cab, you keep hearing NPR’s ‘The World.’ When you’re walking down the street, you will hear comments about politics.”
‘This is my last time voting’
That passion for politics has now created a serious division within the community over the Noor and Omar candidacies, with the competition dominating conversations at community hubs and kitchen tables across Minnesota.
On a recent Monday evening, for instance, Halima Shumal walked into a community room in the Seward Tower East housing complex in Minneapolis, and almost immediately got into a political debate.
Two Somali-American men occupied one corner of the brightly lit room, clinging to their cellphones. As Shumal took a seat on the other side of the room, one of them told her: “You didn’t vote for me the last time I ran. What happened?”
Shumal responded with a laugh. The man never ran for anything, but the question sparked a discussion about the District 60B seat. “This is my last time voting for a Somali candidate,” Shumal said. “Why can we not have one candidate? Why fight over the same seat?”
‘We are missing a chance’
It’s not hard to find others expressing similar sentiments at Somali gatherings across the state — and even in the diaspora Somali community in Canada and Europe, with many worrying that the competition will divide the district’s Somali-American voting bloc — and decrease the chance that either will win the seat. “It’s about time we should get state representation,” says Wardere. “This bothers me a lot, because we are missing a chance.”
It hasn’t helped that there are few conspicuous policy differences between Omar and Noor. Both promise that, if elected, they will work to create affordable education options, advocate for economic and job development projects and improve racial justice.
The two DFL candidates have other similarities as well: Both were born in Somalia and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya before their arrival in the U.S. And both are extremely popular within Minnesota’s Somali-American community.
And, obviously, both think they are the right candidate for the seat. “People say, ‘We elected people, they never show up; they never provide what they’ll say they’ll do,’” said Noor, who is currently the executive director of the Confederation of the Somali Community of Minnesota. “This time, I’m telling you, that’s not going to happen. If I make a promise, I’ll keep my promise.”
Omar, who has long been involved in DFL politics and now leads policy initiatives at the Women Organizing Women Network, said her love for equity and inclusion inspired her to jump into the race. “It was something that was instilled in me,” she said. “Having relationships with people and working together in creating a better community, where everybody feels included, where everybody feels she or he has a voice. That was always important to me.”
‘Some ended with tears’
In response to the community’s concerns, early this year respected Somali-American elders and leaders called Omar and Noor to several private meetings, urging them to work out a deal: in essence, get one candidate to drop out in hopes of both reducing tensions within the community — and to increase the chance of sending the first Somali-American to the state Capitol.
But neither candidate would bow out. “Some ended with tears, some ended with screams,” Omar said of the meetings. “There was a lot of passion and a desire to have a different kind of evolution than the painful one that we’re going through right now.”
Omar says Noor has had plenty of opportunities to win, and that her candidacy offers the best chance to defeat Kahn. “If I knew, in all seriousness, that Mohamud would run, [and] that he had a chance of winning the seat, I wouldn’t run,” she says.
While Noor admits he had talks with Omar, he denied the community is divided over their candidacies, adding that he thinks the story is propaganda the media fabricated to sensationalize the campaign. “To me, having that opportunity to have one candidate running for the seat is absolutely required,” Noor said. “But we live in a pluralistic society, where anyone has an opportunity to run.”
“We don’t ask that question when two white individuals are running against each other,” he says. “The community has an opportunity to choose who they want to represent them. It could be one of the East Africans. They can be voting for Phyllis Kahn. But there’s nothing called division. This is a time when people will think for themselves.”