Set to become the highest-ranking elected official of Somali descent in the United States, Abdi Warsame has received substantial media coverage in the wake of last week’s Minneapolis City Council elections. Less attention has been focused on Blong Yang and Alondra Cano — the first Hmong and Latina candidates to win City Council seats — though their victories are no less significant for the city. This trio of victorious candidates reflects a substantial shift in the political landscape in Minneapolis and newfound (and hard-fought) political power for the city’s growing immigrant communities.
Warsame’s historic victory may have been assured on March 27, 2012. That is when the Minneapolis Charter Commission redrew ward boundaries in the city and fundamentally transformed the Sixth Ward’s demographic profile.
The new boundaries created a ward with 45 percent of its population identified as African-American according to the 2010 census (compared with 28 percent of the population under the previous ward boundaries). While not all of the African-Americans in the Sixth are of Somali descent (much less naturalized Somali adults), this shift clearly played a major role in Warsame’s victory. Warsame received more than 90 percent of the first-choice votes in the ward’s Third Precinct, the section most associated with Somali residents. Overall, he captured 64 percent of first-choice votes cast in the ward.
Yang (in the Fifth Ward) and Cano (in the Ninth) followed different paths to their victories. Like Warsame, Cano probably benefited from redrawn boundaries that increased the proportion of Latino residents living in her ward, but there is little evidence that boundary shifts had a large impact on Yang’s candidacy. Unlike Warsame, Yang and Cano won by relatively small margins and relied on securing the second- and third-choice votes on many ballots to win.
And in contrast to Warsame’s strategy of mobilizing support from a single ethnic group, both Yang and Cano needed to attract a broader coalition of voters from different racial and ethnic groups.
The leadership succession we are witnessing on the Minneapolis City Council follows a story line that has been repeated over and over in American history. As immigrants arrive in this country, they often initially live in neighborhoods with other immigrants who share a common national origin. The resulting residential concentrations of immigrants from the same country of origin create neighborhoods with familiar cultures that help immigrants as they transition to a new society.
As time passes, immigrants become more integrated into their new communities, and many choose to naturalize and gain the right to formally participate in electoral politics. So long as district boundaries are drawn in a manner that does not dilute the electoral power of newly naturalized immigrants, these groups may field their own candidates and/or work with other ethnic groups to create winning political coalitions that give them a direct voice in municipal politics.
In pursuing their paths to political power, Warsame, Yang and Cano are participating in a quintessentially American tale that was originally spun in Minnesota by Irish, Italians, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians and other immigrants who arrived before them. Just as it did then, success for these candidates highlights not only the growing political power of immigrants, but also their increased importance for schools, the labor market and community life in Minneapolis.
Ryan Allen is an assistant professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Minnesota.