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How Ilhan Omar Won Over Hearts in Minnesota’s Fifth

By Emily Witt, New Yorker

Most coverage of Ilhan Omar, the thirty-five-year-old state legislator who won the Democratic primary in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District last night, has focussed on her identity. She was born in Somalia, and she came to the United States when she was twelve, knowing only two phrases of English: “hello” and “shut up.” Now her primary victory makes her likely to become the first Somali-American and one of the first two Muslim women (along with Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib) in Congress. But stories about these “firsts” tend to miss Omar’s certainty about who she is, and the rightness of her desire to “expand what is politically possible,” including cancelling student debt, banning private prisons, increasing the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., and cutting funding for “perpetual war and military aggression.” She supports passing a national bill of rights for renters, the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act, and automatically registering every eighteen-year-old to vote. These are the stances Omar is referring to when she speaks, as she does often, about “a politics of moral clarity and courage.”

Celebrating her primary win on Tuesday night, Ilhan Omar didn’t give the impression that her success was unexpected. She told the crowd, “I’ve always said you get what you organize for.”Photograph by Mark Vancleave / Star Tribune / AP

Last night, the city of Minneapolis broke a record for turnout in a midterm primary. Omar beat her closest Democratic rival by more than twenty thousand votes, out of 135,318 votes cast for Democrats in the Fifth District, which includes Minneapolis and its inner-ring suburbs. (Compare that to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory last month, in New York’s Fourteenth District: she won by four thousand votes, out of only twenty-eight thousand cast.) Around 9:30 p.m., shortly after the race was called, Omar ascended a podium at a Somali restaurant called Safari to the power anthem “Wavin’ Flag,” by the Somali-Canadian pop singer K’naan. She paused to acknowledge a chorus of ululations before addressing the room.

“We did it, we won—oh, my God,” she said. Omar, who is small and thin, has a tiny silver stud in her nose. Surrounded by student campaign workers, Somali-American constituents, close friends, and her three kids, who were dressed casually for the occasion, she was smiling jubilantly, but didn’t give the impression that her success was entirely unexpected. There were no power suits, stilted thumbs-up, or stiff waves. Omar speaks English with a slight Somali inflection, which comes out when she gets more animated. She told the crowd, “I’ve always said you get what you organize for.”

Minnesota takes pride in its lineage of liberal politicians. I grew up in the Fifth District, in the eighties and nineties, going to Twins games at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, named for a senator and Vice-President remembered for his advocacy of civil rights. In 2002, both of the state’s senators, Mark Dayton and Paul Wellstone, were among the minority who voted against the Iraq War. Wellstone’s death, in a plane crash, two weeks later, was a loss from which the state has never fully recovered. But Democratic politics in Minnesota is also a story of failed national ambitions, from Eugene McCarthy’s five unsuccessful bids for the Presidency to Humphrey’s nadir, at the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention, and Walter Mondale’s catastrophic loss to Ronald Reagan, in 1984. The revelations of sexual harassment that resulted in Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate, and the allegations of domestic abuse that now threaten the career of the congressman Keith Ellison, are only the latest disappointments. (Ellison has denied the claims, and local Democrats seem inclined to withhold judgment.) If he leaves a void at the vanguard of Minnesota progressivism, it may well be filled by Omar.

Ellison, formerly a state legislator, won the Fifth District seat in 2006, becoming the first Muslim elected to Congress. Playing up his support for single-payer health care and his opposition to the Iraq War, and hiring local community organizers to run his campaign, he pioneered the strategy of pursuing groups of voters with historically low turnout rates. The Fifth District reëlected Ellison five times, and he grew to national prominence as both one of the most progressive members of Congress and an early supporter of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential run. Last year, Ellison ran to chair the Democratic National Committee, on the strength of Minnesota’s voter-turnout rate, which was the highest of any state in the 2016 election. His loss, in February, was seen as a snub of his turnout strategy, and of the Party’s progressive wing, in favor of the traditional focus on targeting centrist swing voters and the Obama-Clinton establishment.

Read more: How Ilhan Omar Won Over Hearts in Minnesota’s Fifth

Source: The New Yorker

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