The show kept going even after the lights came up at a recent St. Louis Park screening of a documentary that tells the story of state Rep. Ilhan Omar’s historic election as America’s first Somali-American state legislator.
Moments later, the film’s star stepped out to greet the audience, holding a hand to her heart while she took in the standing ovation. Omar, now a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, is poised to make history again — an immigrant who fled Somalia as a child, now likely to become the first Somali-American member of Congress.
The screening crowd followed Omar into the lobby after the film, mobbing her for selfies and halting, only briefly, her forward progress.
Omar is heavily favored in the race against Republican Jennifer Zielinski for the safely Democratic, Minneapolis-area congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. After less than two years at the State Capitol, she’s likely headed to Washington armed with a celebrity profile that preceded even her first election. Omar has been on magazine covers, in music videos, and on national cable shows and has been chronicled by media around the world.
“I think people have really been excited to see the emergence of someone who they never really imagined would be part of this democracy,” Omar told the Star Tribune.
Yet as she campaigns, Omar is also defending herself against a handful of recurrent controversies.
A Republican colleague in the state House has filed three complaints against her, including two alleging misuse of campaign funds — at least one of which is being investigated by state regulators. Her marriage and immigration history also have been scrutinized.
Omar criticized the Republican lawmaker, Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, as bent on derailing a Muslim woman’s campaign, saying he has “an insane obsession with what is in my files.” Drazkowski said he dug into the records after noticing Omar’s campaign was docked $1,100 for filing an annual financial report six months late.
“If there are elements of race or sex or religion that are being brought into this, the finger points to Rep. Omar but no one else,” Drazkowski said.
Persistent claims she married a brother to help him gain citizenship, Omar tweeted this week, are the provenance of “fake journalists on bigoted blogs.”
“It’s really strange, right, to try to prove a negative,” Omar said in the interview. “If someone was asking me, do I have a brother by that name, I don’t. If someone was asking … are there court documents that are false … there is no truth to that.”
If elected, Omar stands to join a new wave of young progressive lawmakers backing ambitious goals like debt-free college, Medicare-for-all and abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Supporters point to accomplishments in her one term in St. Paul that included finding resources for the Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood and creating a criminal penalty for police officers who have sex with people in their custody.
“Ilhan, as the person she is going to Congress, I think has an ability to bring people together and work across the aisle to get things done,” said Andrew Johnson, a Minneapolis City Council member for whom Omar worked as a senior policy aide before she ran in 2016.
Voters in the Fifth District, which includes Minneapolis and several surrounding suburbs, have not sent a Republican to Congress since 1962. This month, the district’s Republican Party launched a web and billboard campaign dubbed “Stop Ilhan.” It called the candidate “dangerous for Minnesota.”
The site displays a mug shot of Omar from a 2013 arrest for trespassing and refusing to leave a hotel lobby filled with visitors following the Somali president on his visit to deliver a speech. According to a Minneapolis police report, she sneaked back in after officers cleared the hotel and was arrested after becoming argumentative and again refusing to leave. Charges were later dropped.
Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board does not confirm or deny complaints it receives or investigations it undertakes. But this month, Drazkowski released a letter he said he received in August from the board’s assistant executive director, which identified him as the complainant in an ongoing probe into allegations that Omar misused campaign funds to pay her divorce lawyer.
Drazkowski said the board is also considering another complaint that Omar improperly used campaign funds to fly to events in Estonia and Boston.
Omar said her campaign “would assume what we did was legitimate.”
Local Republicans and conservative media are also repeating claims that first surfaced in 2016 that Omar’s ex-husband, Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, was actually a brother she married to help gain citizenship, and that she later committed perjury in a divorce filing.
Omar, who was born in 1982, has three children with Ahmed Hirsi. The two married, she said, in their faith tradition in 2002, and briefly separated before she married Elmi in 2009. She has said they divorced in 2011 before Elmi, a British citizen, returned to London and Omar reunited with Hirsi that year. Omar and Hirsi legally married this year after Omar’s divorce with Elmi was finalized.
During an interview, Omar showed a reporter cellphone photos of documents from her family’s U.S. entry in 1995 after fleeing Somalia’s civil war. She declined to provide copies of the papers, which included refugee resettlement approval forms and identification cards, but they appeared to list her father, siblings and Omar by order of birth, with Omar as the youngest of seven children. No one named Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, who is three years younger than Omar, could be seen listed in the documents.
“For someone like me, who left a war-torn country at the age of 8, who got refugee status to come to America, where in the world am I finding a sibling 15 years, 20 years later to seek to do what people accuse me of?” Omar said.
Jesse Pfliger, chairman of the Fifth District Republican Party, said the web campaign “makes no new or unfounded allegations. We are simply asking questions, referencing articles and other media.”
Zielinski, who works as a clinical specialist for Allina Health, has volunteered for Republican causes over the last decade. She was an unsuccessful candidate for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in 2017. She cites the economy and continuation of the 2017 Republican tax cuts as top goals, but also said she would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act if there’s not a better alternative to replace it.
Omar has far exceeded Zielinski in fundraising: as of the last filing deadline in mid-October, Omar had raised $726,310 to Zielinski’s $21,322. At the only debate of their campaign this week, Omar said if elected and given the opportunity, she would vote to impeach President Donald Trump.
Omar has also recently addressed older tweets critical of Israel with members of the Fifth District’s large Jewish population. In 2012, as the Israeli military carried out an aerial campaign against rocket attacks by Hamas, she tweeted that Israel had “hypnotized the world” and referred to its “evil doings.” In a tweet earlier this year, in defense of those earlier remarks, she tweeted to a conservative critic that “Drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews.”
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said Omar’s more recent statements opposing a movement to boycott Israel were encouraging but that “we remain deeply concerned” by tweets from before she decided to run for Congress.
Omar described attention to the tweets as an effort to “stigmatize and shame me into saying something other than what I believed. … I don’t think there is anyone who spends five minutes with me who does not clearly see where my values are and that I will advocate for them and defend them and their humanity always.”
State Rep. Erin Murphy, a Democratic candidate for governor this year, served with Omar in the Legislature and has campaigned with her in greater Minnesota, said she is more than just an inspirational figure.
Omar “is a person who is willing to confront the status quo,” Murphy said. “She is not afraid of taking on a controversy and she is dogged to fight for the things she believes.”
As the election nears, Omar’s rising political celebrity has her grappling with a role that is likely to involve more than just representing her constituents in Washington. At the screening of “Time For Ilhan,” a young boy asked how it felt to have so many people depending on her. Omar said she knew she had to work for those who elected her but also “not mess it up for everyone else who sees themselves represented in me.”