Four candidates for the Sixth Ward’s City Council seat met this week to discuss their campaign platforms for the first time since the DFL convention, when challenger Abdi Warsame won the party endorsement on a wave of East African enthusiasm for electing one of their own.
Council Member Robert Lilligren spent the candidate forum promoting the work he has done for minorities and immigrants in the diverse ward during his 12 years in office, noting that he has employed speakers of Somali and Spanish on his staff.
“It’s very important to get to communities where they are and not expect communities to come to me,” said Lilligren.
Warsame, who is of Somali descent, sought to appeal to residents outside the East African community. He said he had traveled to Norway and Sweden and reminded voters that he emigrated here from the U.K., where he spent most of his life.
“Remember, I’m European American,” said Warsame, who left Somali as a child.
Two lesser-known East African candidates, Abdi Addow and Mahamed Cali, also jostled for attention during the forum. Addow appeared to be criticizing Warsame for divisiveness, though he did not name him, and said that he is uniting all communities. Cali made an interesting appeal for votes, telling the crowd that whatever they want is what he is advocating.
Asked how the candidates would improve housing for low-income residents, Lilligren said the most affordable housing is the housing the city already has, and he wants to support existing housing before building new units. He said he would engage low-income homeowners and renters to help find a solution.
Warsame said that he would ensure no public resources are used to foreclose on residents, and that they needed to educate renters- especially in immigrant communities – on their rights and responsibilities. He took a swipe at Lilligren, saying that when they call to talk to a City Council member they are directed to 311, “and I don’t think that’s enough.”
Cali said that over the last eight years working as a community organizer he has seen a lot of low-income housing problems. He said people must understand that large families especially cannot find the housing they need. Addow agreed, and called for landlord accountability.
Questioned about the most important need in the Sixth Ward, Cali declined to name just one, saying the area needs better housing and jobs, and business people must be able to win loans. Addow echoed his comments, calling for employment, housing, safety, and unity.
Lilligren said equity and fairness. Warsame said most of the people in the ward are unemployed or underemployed, and that the city must have work with livable wages. He wants to see the city have better vocational training programs. “The number one fix is jobs,” he said.”
The tensest moment of the forum came when candidates fielded a question submitted by the audience that asked their positions on same-sex marriage.
Warsame, who was first in line to answer, paused for nearly 10 seconds. “My opinion of same sex marriage?” he asked.
There were rumblings in the audience. One man called out to the moderator that there are already laws protecting same-sex marriage, and questioned whether it was relevant to a council race, prompting applause. But others in the audience pressed for an answer.
“I feel like everybody else,” said Warsame. He said that same sex marriage is the law of the land and he respects the law.
Addow also paused before answering.
“It’s a very touchy question,” he said, adding that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman “but everybody has the right to choose whatever they want.”
Cali voiced similar sentiments, saying, “a rule is a rule, but as a Muslim, no I don’t support it.”
Lilligren, who is gay, said he supports same sex marriage. He noted that while the sixth ward elected (in 1983) the first openly gay council member, Brian Coyle, four of its nine precincts voted last year for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He said that it is important to have a gay man lead the community toward acceptance.
In closing remarks, Lilligren stressed the need for continuity of leadership in City Hall, given that a new mayor and council members will be arriving after the Nov. 5 election.
But Warsame slighted Lilligren in his own conclusion, saying they needed to move away from failure and dirty tricks toward change. He ignored his other rivals and told the crowd that the choice is between him and the council member. "Let's make history," he said.