A day after political tensions in Minneapolis’ Somali community erupted into caucus-night chaos, leaders grappled with how to repair their image and simultaneously channel its massive political ambitions in a more peaceful manner.
The Cedar-Riverside precinct hadn’t even elected officers Tuesday night when a brief melee broke out between activists on opposing sides of a legislative race between DFLers Mohamud Noor and longtime Rep. Phyllis Kahn, highly unusual for the normally staid events.
Facilities staff decided to end the event, at the Brian Coyle Community Center, prompting a handful of police officers to begin loudly dispersing hundreds of confused attendees.
“It became a farce,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame, a Kahn supporter who became the country’s most prominent Somali-American politician last fall.
“And now the community looks bad. Now the Somalis look horrible … All the negative assumptions people have of our community [are] going to come to the fore because three or four individuals couldn’t behave themselves.”
Warsame, who was not at the Coyle Center, has received about 50 calls from concerned community members.
He worries that people will stop participating if the process isn’t improved. “People might start saying, ‘If I go to these places, people will start fighting each other.’ ”
The Somali community has grown into a major political force in Minneapolis, able to assemble massive numbers of voters at political events. Some well-attended yet similarly chaotic caucuses in April helped propel Warsame to win the DFL endorsement over incumbent Robert Lilligren, who complained that the events were tainted by irregularities.
But many attendees who speak little or no English are also not well-informed about the process, raising fears among opposing activists that voters will be manipulated.
Control of caucus at issue
That was at the core of Tuesday’s dispute, which revolved around who could most fairly preside over the caucus. The Noor and Kahn campaigns agreed beforehand that representatives of both campaigns would share the job, but the agreement was broken as the caucus got underway. Both sides pointed fingers Wednesday about who broke the promise.
No one was seriously injured during the brief skirmish, but Ilhan Omar, the DFL’s vice chair for Senate District 60, which surrounds the Cedar-Riverside area, said she was struck in the mouth. She said she was there to make sure “that people are not bamboozled when things are happening in a different language and [the district chair] can’t understand.”
Omar’s presence and actions irked Kahn supporters, who noted that she does not live in the precinct and alleged that she is a Noor supporter. She says she is publicly neutral in the race.
In an interview Wednesday, Omar said that the Kahn co-chair was trying to lead the caucus alone and that she tried to ensure the Noor co-chair was recognized.
Brian Rice, an attorney representing Kahn’s campaign, countered that the Kahn representative honored the agreement and that Omar was pushing their representative to run it alone.
Greg Oliver, DFL chair of the Senate district, said he didn’t know which side broke the agreement, since much of the argument was in Somali.
“All I know is at some point they started to scream at each other and I was in the middle,” Oliver said.
Even the registration desk was a chaotic scene, requiring Oliver to tell several Noor supporters from Brooklyn Park that they could caucus only in their home precinct.
The caucus ended before it could elect 43 of the House district’s 381 delegates. The state DFL announced Wednesday that it would reconvene the caucus later. It attracted more attendees than many others around the state.
“You have to be impressed with their passion for democracy,” said Oliver, who would like to see better voter education. “Because there were more people in that room interested in a caucus for state representative than … precincts less than a half a mile away that only had four people show up.”
‘Larger growing pains’ at work
Kahn, who attended Tuesday’s event, expects that the reconvened caucus will have outside chairs and professional translators.
It was initially unclear whether the caucus could be held again under state statute, though party officials will likely argue the first one never officially ended.
“The only way for postponing or changing is bad weather, and I don’t know if bad social climate is equivalent to bad weather,” Kahn said.
Ken Martin, chair of the state DFL, said the party has invested a lot of time and energy into arranging translators and interpreters as well as training East Africans to hold leadership roles.
But he added that a lot of tension from the Somali community is spilling into the Kahn-Noor race.
“In some senses the race is becoming a proxy war for larger growing pains and issues within the community,” he said.
Noor attributed the problems to “bad apples” who must be addressed, rather than the community as a whole.
“The community is not satisfied with what happened,” Noor said. “It’s not about the people who came out peacefully. It’s something that was instigated despite the overwhelming [number of] people coming out to participate in their precinct caucus, which doesn’t happen usually.”
Noor was recently appointed to the Minneapolis school board and is now running against Kahn, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1972. After the Cedar-Riverside-area caucus is reconvened, the DFL will endorse a candidate at its district convention in April.
“There is a lot of blame being thrown around,” Warsame said. “But what I know is that we need to improve the process.”