Rep. Ilhan Omar’s open seat draws wide pack of DFLers

Sunday July 15, 2018
Jessie Van Berkel

When state Rep. Ilhan Omar moved to run for the U.S. House, seven DFLers made the 11th-hour decision to run in one the most left-leaning legislative districts in Minnesota. The Aug. 14 primary will all but determine who ends up at the State Capitol.

Mohamud Noor believes this is his year.

State Rep. Ilhan Omar opened the door he was unable to crack, defeating 22-term incumbent Phyllis Kahn in 2016 and becoming the first Somali-American legislator in the U.S. So when Omar decided to run for Congress in a last-minute DFL shake-up, Noor took his third shot at representing the Minneapolis district that includes the University of Minnesota and surrounding neighborhoods, like Cedar-Riverside and Prospect Park.

But he was not alone. Seven Democrats made the 11th-hour decision to run in one the most left-leaning legislative districts in Minnesota, where the Aug. 14 primary will all but determine who ends up at the State Capitol.

Peter Wagenius, policy director for former mayors Betsy Hodges and R.T. Rybak, has also launched a campaign, along with neighborhood and environmental activist Cordelia “Corde” Pierson, three graduate students and real estate agent Mary Mellen.

It is the most crowded House primary race in Minnesota, and Omar’s late departure left candidates with just two months to let voters know who they are.

“This campaign setting puts a premium on strengthening the relationships we have and building relationships with the community that we might not have, and it puts it all into hyperdrive,” said Pierson, a Marcy-Holmes resident who recently stepped down as executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Fund.

The DFL candidates had only hours to make up their mind about running. State Attorney General Lori Swanson announced the day before the candidate filing deadline that she would run for governor, then U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison decided to run for her open seat, and then Omar chose to run for Ellison’s.

The state House candidates said they are quickly getting acquainted with voters as they knock on doors and make calls. They have found housing-related concerns — particularly soaring rental costs — are a shared priority across their nearly 45,000-person district.

Candidates said they need to draw support from the district’s disparate pockets, which are divided by the Mississippi River, university campus, freeway and railroad tracks. In wealthy Prospect Park, some people are worried about Minneapolis’ 2040 comprehensive plan and the changes it could bring to their neighborhood. University students want to prevent tuition increases and combat student debt. Many East African residents in the Cedar-Riverside and Seward neighborhoods are worried about President Donald Trump’s travel ban on largely Muslim countries, candidates said.

Noor said he is able to connect with the different constituencies — students, immigrants and longtime residents — and ensure Somali-Americans are represented at the Legislature following Omar’s history-making tenure. Whoever wins will represent a district where nearly 22 percent of the population was born outside the U.S. and more than one-fifth of the population is black or African-American, according to census data.

“If you look at the demographics [of] who is sitting at the table at the State Capitol, there is a significant lack of people of color in general,” Noor said. “Being an African American, being an immigrant, being a refugee, being a Somali, being a Muslim, all those things play a role. And I think having that representation and that voice — there’s that pressure of filling the shoes that Ilhan left.”

Noor has sought other offices besides the Minnesota House. He ran for the Minneapolis Board of Education and lost but was later appointed to the board. He lost a state Senate bid in 2010 and was narrowly defeated by Abdi Warsame in the 2017 Minneapolis City Council election.

Kahn, who beat Noor in 2014, has not endorsed anyone yet, but said she is leaning toward Wagenius. She believes he has the strongest record and will be popular in her Nicollet Island neighborhood and his own community of Prospect Park. But she acknowledged it could be Noor’s year.

“It just depends whether people ended up liking him or not liking him,” Kahn said of Noor, noting that his name must be very familiar to voters, but there are negatives to running so many times.

Wagenius said he takes Noor “very seriously.” But he pointed to his own work on the Green Line light rail, the bar and restaurant smoking ban and raising Minneapolis’ minimum wage to $15 to show what he can do for the district.

“Anybody can say they’re effective, but I have a record,” he said. Wagenius is the son of Rep. Jean Wagenius, who has represented another Minneapolis district in the state House since 1987.

Two Republican candidates, Joseph Patiño and Fadumo Taani, are also in the race. Taani said she is running to bridge the gap between the Somali community and fellow Republicans, and hopes to break down misconceptions she said both sides hold of one another.

The district is securely DFL, said Sonia Neculescu, Omar’s former campaign manager and chair of the local DFL Senate District. Nonetheless, she hopes House candidates encourage voters to turn out and support gubernatorial and other statewide candidates, too.

Omar reached out to students and engaged them in her campaign, Neculescu said. Their support can be a deciding factor in a district where 55 percent of the population is 24 years old or younger, she said.

Three graduate students are hoping to draw fellow University of Minnesota-goers to the polls: Angelo Jaramillo, a student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs who has worked on campaigns and recently interned in the state Senate; Joshua Preston, a law school student, student government member and National Guard infantryman; and law student Haaris Pasha, who said Prof. Myron Orfield encouraged him to run.

Pasha, who has raised about $17,000 so far, said candidates don’t need a lot of money to win the district — they need to excite voters.

“This is a district where you build what this party looks like 60, 30, 20, 15 years from now,” Pasha said.

In the solidly blue seat, Democrats don’t have to play defense, he said. Candidates can push the envelope on policy ideas that might not yet be popular in other parts of the state.

“This is where you can have someone who is a person of color, who is Muslim and he’s not the boogeyman,” said Pasha, who is Muslim and whose parents moved to Minnesota from Pakistan. “You may not be able to do that in Erin Maye Quade’s district [in Apple Valley] or in Plymouth, but you can do that here and I think it’s an important seat.”