State Rep. Phyllis Kahn has comfortably represented eastern Minneapolis for 42 years, an ebullient, Ivy League-trained physicist who led the charge on women’s rights and a statewide smoking ban in a seat long considered one of the safest in the Legislature.
But this year, Kahn is facing a serious challenge from fellow DFLer Mohamud Noor, a Somali-American who left Africa 15 years ago, learned computer skills to build a career in Minnesota and earned an appointed spot on the Minneapolis school board.
Now the two are locked in an endorsement battle, pitting an establishment DFLer against an upstart whose supporters say would add more diversity and fresh thinking to the city’s legislative delegation. Delegates could decide the fate of the seat at Saturday’s convention, one of many endorsing events happening across the state this spring.
Noor, 36, has picked up support from some big names, including former Mayor R.T. Rybak, Stonewall DFL and former state Rep. Matt Entenza. But Kahn, 77, boasts an even longer list of high-profile DFL supporters, including Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and the state’s highest-elected Somali-American, Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame.
Even with those big names and longevity on her side, Kahn isn’t resting easy. “I think this is the first time we’ve done this much door-knocking before a convention,” she said as she looked for delegates on a recent afternoon along East River Parkway, clad in a fleece top, hiking shoes and her signature glasses.
Her district covers a broad swath of eastern Minneapolis, including the University of Minnesota, Cedar-Riverside, Prospect Park and Nicollet Island. She quips it includes the three Ss: “students, Somalis and seniors.”
Noor said he’s prepared to represent the area’s diversity. “This district deserves a representative who can understand the challenges faced by the students, the immigrants, progressives [and] activists who care about the district,” he said recently while supporters milled about a fundraiser at a restaurant along St. Anthony Main.
Greg Oliver, chair of the local DFL Senate district, says it is not unusual for Kahn to face a challenger for endorsement. But, he adds, “according to people that I know that have been around a long time, this is a more serious challenge than most.”
The race has spotlighted the growing pains of the city’s increasingly politically active Somali-American community, enough that activists broke out into a brief melee at a caucus event this February. Warsame’s support of Kahn illustrates that their support is not uniform, though Noor won 65 percent of the Cedar-Riverside delegates.
Former state and Minneapolis DFL chair Brian Melendez said emerging communities can find their political footing in more than one way.
“One common way is for the community’s leaders to form alliances with the existing political establishment,” he said in an e-mail. “Another way is for the community’s own members to step forward as candidates themselves. The tension in the Kahn-Noor race arises because both forces are at work in the same race.”
Saturday’s outcome will be decided by delegates. And while most attention was focused on the caucus-night fracas, caucus turnout was simultaneously dismal at precincts in and around the University of Minnesota area, meaning they will send fewer delegates to the convention. The Cedar-Riverside, Prospect Park-East River Road, Nicollet Island-East Hennepin areas fared better.
Kahn and Noor have both pledged to abide by the party’s endorsement. In an interview, Noor would say only that he planned to abide by the “process,” but his campaign later clarified that he would abide by the endorsement.
Seniority an asset
Kahn’s supporters point to her extensive work on livability and equality issues at the Legislature, where she is tied for second-longest tenure in the history of the Minnesota House. She spearheaded the 1975 bill that among other things created separate nonsmoking sections in restaurants, a law that allowed women to keep their maiden names after marriage and key revisions to the state’s bicycle regulations.
She now chairs the Legacy Committee, which doles out about $600 million every two years in outdoors- and arts-related grants — a position that has occasionally put her at odds with outdoor activists.
“Having served in the Legislature, I know that when you walk in the door you soon discover that folks with seniority have the power,” Betty Folliard, a former state representative, said as she prepared for a door-knocking event last weekend.
Kahn ran for office after suing the University of Minnesota for gender discrimination while she was a research associate, with expertise in complicated fields such as Bacteriophage genetics. “When people ask me do you miss doing science, the answer is no, I can’t sit still long enough for results anymore,” Kahn said.
One delegate who was home during Kahn’s outing, Chip Halbach, highlighted her environmental record.
“To have someone who understands the process, who has been a long-standing supporter of all of the human rights issues that I consider important is just someone I feel should be in the Legislature,” said Halbach, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership.
Rather than highlighting policy differences, Noor supporters say they are largely driven by a desire for fresh thinking and more diversity at the Capitol.
Sitting at a Noor fundraiser at a restaurant along St. Anthony Main this week, supporter Daniel Yang observed that only a handful of people of color serve in the Minnesota House. “I think that’s shameful to the state,” said Yang, an organizer for the Native American Development Institute. “And so that’s why I support Noor and his voice and the unique perspective that he’ll bring to the House.”
Noor is currently executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota and recently resigned from his systems management job with the state of Minnesota. Just last year he was appointed to temporarily fill the seat occupied by the late Hussein Samatar on the Minneapolis school board.
In opening remarks to supporters, campaign volunteer Matt Musel highlighted some of the tension that has surrounded the race between Kahn and Noor.
“You’re all very brave for being here,” Musel said. “This is not an easy place to stand. This is not an easy place to stand because there’s a lot of forces who are uncomfortable with the change, that are afraid of the change.”
Noor stresses education in his campaign stump speech, advocating for more investment in early childhood programs and highlighting his own outstanding student loans as an example of the challenges people face every day. He also reviews his background, starting when he arrived in the country 15 years ago from Kenya with few resources. “Even the clothes I brought with myself, those were not usable anymore,” he told the group. He took odd jobs, bought a computer and successfully pursued a computer science degree, which would eventually help him land a job with the state.
“There are good reasons to support either candidate,” Melendez said. “And there are Somali and non-Somali voters in both camps.”