Minneapolis mayoral candidates mix it up in bid to woo Somali votes

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2013 - 11:49 AM

Appeals include vows to help business, improve education in Mpls.

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Muna Ahmed, left, was among those taking in the mayoral debate at Safari restaurant Friday, May 31, 2013, in Minneapolis, MN.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Minneapolis mayoral candidates described the city’s Somali immigrants as an important political force at a campaign forum Friday night, vowing to help them more easily open small businesses, smooth tensions between cops and cabdrivers in their community, and win positions in City Hall.

The event at Safari, a Somali restaurant on East Lake Street, came two weeks before DFL delegates meet at a convention to choose the party’s candidate for mayor. Organizers said the forum, moderated by members of the Somali DFL caucus, was the first of its kind for a mayor’s race.

Council Members Gary Schiff, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels; former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, and former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew — the party’s top contenders — had largely similar messages about how they would bolster Somali-Americans if elected.

‘Powerful force’

Cut regulatory tape and get out of the way of the city’s many Somali-owned small businesses, from south Minneapolis to Cedar-Riverside. Get more Somali perspectives involved in city decisions. Improve educational opportunities, particularly in early childhood.

“The Somali community in Minneapolis is a large and powerful force,” said Hodges.

She wants to have Somali input on ensuring that youth programs combating violence and joblessness are tailored to the needs of their population and to simplify the regulatory code to help their businesses. Hodges also stressed the need to have more interns from the STEP-UP program for minority youth move on to join the city’s board and commissions.

Andrew said the vote could come down to the city’s Somali population.He said that he would establish a Somali advisory committee for the mayor’s office, increase hiring of people of color, and work closely with Abdi Warsame, a Somali candidate who won the DFL endorsement in April to represent the City Council’s Sixth Ward. Andrew also surprised the audience with the news that he had once driven a cab, just like many East African immigrants.

Schiff vowed to launch the rewriting of the city’s outdated regulatory code on his first day in office and direct the city attorney to seek the Somali community’s input. He said he would start an early childhood investment fund and ensure diversity in every department, from police to fire to public works.

“We must make sure that the hiring of the city of Minneapolis represents and reflects the diversity of our people,” said Schiff.

Cherryhomes said she would hire Somali-speaking people in the licensing division to work with Somali-owned businesses and plans to promote the civil rights department’s efforts to include more minorities in city jobs. She also wants to improve their access to loans, offer more business education to entrepreneurs, and give them more access to city contracts.

“The Somali community has really stepped up to become an active part of our city and you are to be complimented,” said Cherryhomes.

Samuels said he identified with the Somali experience, as an immigrant from Jamaica who came to the U.S. with $83 four decades ago and worked multiple jobs to get by. “I know what it means to have to adjust to the culture, to be misunderstood … part of my agenda is certainly to help the adjustment of the immigrant community, especially our young people,” he said.

Jobs, business

Samuels described closing the education achievement gap between whites and nonwhites as his priority. He also noted his early advocacy of setting aside 32 percent of the construction jobs on the new Minnesota Vikings stadium for minorities, and said he would promote Somali restaurants and other venues as tourist attractions.

While some of the issues touched on specific challenges in the Somali community, such as complaints by Somali cabdrivers of police harassment, an organizer of the forum said the subjects candidates discussed matter to many more people.

These issues — access to good education and jobs – “affect all the other communities,” said Osman Omar, the organizer.

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