Abdi Warsame made history Tuesday by becoming the highest elected Somali in the country, winning a seat on the City Council in a landslide.
Two decades after a wave of East Africans arrived in Minneapolis to escape civil war, they emerged as a political force to elect one of their own for the first time to City Hall, jumping out of their seats at a Cedar-Riverside theater to cheer, clap and embrace one another as Warsame took the stage.
It was part of a sweeping turnover on the City Council, where seven new members will be sworn in next year. Two other challengers knocked out incumbents by a 2-1 margin in wards spanning Uptown, the North Loop and Northeast, and the council seemed likely to have its first Hmong and Hispanic members when all votes are counted.
“I’m an American who happens to be Somali. … This is my base and I’m proud of that,” Warsame said during the celebration at the Mixed Blood Theatre.
“But I’m here to represent everyone in my ward. If I don’t, I will have failed.”
Warsame secured 64 percent of first-place votes for the Sixth Ward seat. He defeated 12-year Council Member Robert Lilligren, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who strove to show that he could connect with East African voters even if he didn’t share the same cultural background.
Voter turnout in the ward exploded since the last council race in 2009, and Warsame won with three times as many votes as Lilligren garnered in his last election.
Warsame, 35, left Somalia as a child and spent much of his life in England. He moved to Minneapolis in 2006 and heads the tenant association for the Riverside Plaza, the high-rises that house 4,000 East Africans.
He set up a modest campaign office in the Somali mall across the street and built a formidable ground operation of hundreds of East African volunteers that stunned even political veterans. They mobilized about 1,500 supporters to cast early ballots, giving them a significant edge going into Election Day.
“He might have generated more volunteer hours from those Somali people who are eager to participate in a democratic process than any of the mayoral campaigns,” said attorney Brian Rice, who has advised the campaign.
Osman Abdi, who works at an uncle’s grocery store near Warsame’s office, said “you can feel” the excitement among East African voters. “Some people closed their shops to help him. There’s been a mass movement since last week.”
Warsame had an early triumph in April, when Lilligren relinquished his bid for the DFL endorsement after Warsame showed up with significantly more supporters.
2 more incumbents fall
In the Third Ward, attorney Jacob Frey’s campaign highlighting the hipster and affluent empty-nest energy of the city’s central riverfront carried him to a resounding victory over two-term incumbent Diane Hofstede to represent the North Loop and northeast Minneapolis.
Frey, who had DFL endorsement, captured 61 percent of the first-choice votes.
“Everybody said we couldn’t do it,” Frey told a cheering crowd at Elsie’s, a bar and bowling alley. He thanked Hofstede Tuesday night for her “brilliant public service.”
Lisa Bender, 35, delivered a similarly devastating blow to first-term Council Member Meg Tuthill in Uptown’s Tenth Ward, garnering 64 percent of first-place votes.
“We worked incredibly hard and knocked and called 60,000 times during the last six months,” said Bender, who won the DFL endorsement, while her campaign celebrated at Bryant Lake Bowl.
In north Minneapolis’ Fifth Ward, attorney Blong Yang had the lead in first- and second-place votes, though not a plurality. The Hmong candidate would take the place of Don Samuels, who gave up his seat to run for mayor.
He hesitated to say that he had won outright. “Assuming that I won, I feel fantastic,” said Yang, 37.
Like Yang, Alondra Cano in the Ninth Ward had the lead, but not a majority of votes. The DFLer would be the first Mexican-American to serve on the council if she wins the close race against Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore.
Andrew Johnson, 29, triumphed in the southeast corner’s Twelfth Ward, which was vacated by longtime Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy.
Linea Palmisano, 37, had the lead in southwest Minneapolis’ Thirteenth Ward, left open by Council Member Betsy Hodges to run for mayor, but it was unclear Tuesday evening whether she had enough support to win after second- and third-choice votes were counted.
Staff writers M.L. Smith and Steve Brandt contributed to this report.