Somali-American Activist Ilhan Omar Makes History During Minnesota Democratic Party Primary

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Somali-American Activist Ilhan Omar Makes History During Minnesota Democratic Party Primary

Michelle D. Anderson

Omar's win means she will likely become the first Somali-American legislator in the United States.

Ilhan Omar, a noted feminist and liberal policy advocate from Minnesota, has won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary in the 60B Minneapolis House district.

Her win means she will likely become the first Somali-American legislator in the United States, the Star-Tribune reported Tuesday. It also means incumbent DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who was first elected to the House in 1972, will not serve a 23rd term.

After the primary results came in, Kahn told the Star-Tribune that Omar “mobilized a lot of people that we didn’t see before in previous elections.” This year, according to Omar’s campaign, 5,868 people from the district voted in the primary—an increase of 37 percent from the 2014 primary.

Omar, 33, currently works as the director of policy initiatives at Women Organizing Women, a local nonprofit organization that seeks to empower women to become engaged citizens and community leaders, according to the group’s official website.

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The group has a special focus on first– and second-generation immigrant women like Omar, who describes herself as an “intersectional feminist, mom, part-time social justice crusader, full-time political junkie” on Twitter.

On November 8, Omar will face Republican Abdimalik Askar, a Somali-American elementary school principal and community entrepreneur in the general election. If Omar wins, she will represent an area that includes the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a community with a large number of Somali and East African immigrants, along with the University of Minnesota. The Star-Tribune noted that the district is “heavily DFL.”

“Our campaign is about connecting with people and engaging them in the political process. We are uniting the diverse voices of our district—long term residents, East African immigrants and students. I will make sure their voices are heard at the Capitol,” Omar said in an official statement released after her primary win.

She added that as a woman of color, people told her she would not be able to raise money and win the election.

“Those people were wrong, and I want every young woman of color out there to know that they have the power—and support—to run for office and win,” Omar said.

Omar’s platform includes criminal justice reform, instituting more environmental protections, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and making higher education more accessible. She also wants to enact police reforms, including banning stops for vehicle violations like expired license plate tags and broken taillights. “Instead, we should institute a policy where police car dash cams be used to assign tickets objectively. If such a law were in place, Philando Castile would still be alive,” her platform states. Castile was fatally shot by police officers outside of St. Paul last month after being pulled over for a reportedly broken taillight.

In the past, Omar has helped to ban environmentally harmful containers; pass a city ordinance to allow businesses to extend their hours to accommodate Muslims celebrating Ramadan; and win paid parental leave for City of Minneapolis employees, according to her campaign.

Omar, who was born in Somalia, immigrated to the United States after her family escaped a civil war and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years.

Her official bio says that her interest in politics began as a 14-year-old student who acted as an interpreter for her grandfather at local DFL caucuses.

“It was a free process and it wasn’t like the one he was exposed to,” Omar told the Guardian earlier this year. “In America you could be involved in a political party and you didn’t have to be a member of a specific class.”

Omar went on to earn degrees in business administration, political science, and international studies and complete a policy fellowship at University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Her professional experience includes working as a community health educator at the University of Minnesota and as a senior policy aid for Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson.

In the weeks leading up to her win, Omar won the public endorsements of former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and several local activists and University of Minnesota students.

“From a refugee camp to the State Capitol with intelligence and insight,” Rybak told the Star-Tribune. “This is a wonderful story to tell as Americans, and a great source of pride for the state of Minnesota’s open arms.”