PHILADELPHIA – Abdul Ahmed, a Somali-American state employee from Coon Rapids, had no strong desire to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention until his politics-loving 10-year-old son intervened.
The boy urged along his father in successful runs for district and then state convention delegate. “At the state convention, he said, ‘I know you didn’t campaign for national so do you mind if I campaign for you?’ ” Ahmed recalled Tuesday, seeming still a little amazed to be here. “Long story short: I ended up with the highest vote.”
Now Ahmed is part of the Minnesota DFL’s deeply diverse delegation to Philadelphia, where on Tuesday night they joined the Democratic Party in successfully nominating Hillary Clinton as the first woman to lead a major-party presidential ticket. Such diverse coalitions are increasingly indispensable to the future of the Democratic Party, which this year is going up against a Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who has stoked deep unease among many nonwhite and new immigrant voters with talk of border walls and Muslim bans.
“All of this stuff has been just below the surface, but he has allowed that whisper of racism and intolerance to become somewhat socially acceptable because here’s the Republican candidate for president saying it out loud and getting cheered for it,” said state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, who on Thursday will speak from the national convention stage.
Flanagan, who believes she was tapped to speak to bring an American Indian voice to the arena, said she lately has felt compelled to shield her 4-year-old daughter from seeing Trump on TV. “When he started calling [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas,’ I said OK, let’s change the channel,” she said.
There’s wide-ranging diversity among the 84 DFL delegates to Philadelphia: blacks and Latinos, Asian-Americans of several backgrounds, Somali-American immigrants and Indians are all represented, and in all of those cases by more than one delegate. The delegation features other types of diversity, too: there are gay delegates, a transgender delegate, and several with physical or mental disabilities.
Mara Glubka is one of about two dozen transgender convention delegates from around the country. The 63-year-old Richfield resident was inspired to get involved this year after the wave of proposed new laws nationwide intended to mandate which bathroom Americans use.
“It’s causing a great deal of suffering around the country,” said Glubka, who said she lost her job after transitioning five years ago. She said that she was particularly motivated by meeting young transgender individuals at a political rally and that she is considering her own run for office.
Keith McLain, a 36-year-old delegate from Byron, is battling cystic fibrosis — a disease without a cure. The average life expectancy of someone with the disease is 38. He said his parents moved the family to Minnesota in order to access its health care system and government insurance for his treatment.
“The thing I know 100 percent for sure is that I wouldn’t be here without all the people around me and all the people who never knew me but who did the right things for me,” McLain said.
The diversity in Minnesota’s delegation did not happen by accident.
The Democratic National Committee, working with the state parties, set concrete representation goals for each delegation. DFL Chairman Ken Martin said Minnesota was able to exceed its goal, in part by actively identifying potential delegates at the grass-roots level and encouraging them to seek the position. It led to a delegation that is certainly far more racially diverse than the state as a whole.
“Here’s the reality for Donald Trump,” said Martin, who is white. “He’s appealing primarily to noneducated white voters that skew older. That percentage of the voting population is shrinking quite rapidly. We know the demographic trends in this country favor Democrats for the foreseeable future.”
Recent national polling bears that out. One particularly stark example: Earlier in July, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the two crucial swing states that hosted this year’s national conventions, found that Trump had a remarkable 0 percent level of support among black voters. Similar polling disadvantages have emerged among Latino voters, a bloc that not too long ago was viewed as potentially winnable by the right Republican candidate.
Trump himself has repeatedly disputed suggestions that he personally is racist or making racially coded appeals.
“Donald Trump, I wasn’t able to finish watching his speech” at last week’s convention, said Asad Aliweyd, a delegate and a Somali-American immigrant who lives in Eden Prairie. “He was directly attacking who I am: as a black person, an immigrant, a Muslim. All these things he was talking about were directly tied to my heart and my family.”
In Minnesota, some Republican Party leaders have tried to make inroads with nonwhite voters, including Somali-Americans. The state GOP’s delegation to Cleveland did include a handful of nonwhite delegates and alternates, but had nowhere near the level of diversity as that of the DFL group.
Both Aliweyd and Ahmed said that they know fellow Somali-Americans in Minnesota who might be more personally inclined toward Republicans’ message of economic and social conservatism but that Trump’s rhetoric is likely diminishing that opportunity. Ahmed said he would have once liked to bring his 10-year-old son to Republican political events, too, but no longer feels safe doing so.
“What I’m hoping is that [Republicans] get a major defeat in this election, and moderates will lead the party, and make a party that is open to everyone,” said Aliweyd, who founded an organization that aims to improve the lives and economic prospects of East African immigrants in Minnesota.
For the most part, delegates who were worried about the climate for nonwhites, immigrants and people on society’s margins under Trump were at the same time confident that he won’t prevail in November.
“I know that’s not true American values, and good always seems to win in the end,” said Nausheena Hussain, a Brooklyn Park delegate and daughter of immigrants from India.
Ahmed’s 10-year-old son, Abdulahi Jama, meanwhile, has a life plan of becoming governor of Minnesota (by age 25) and then one day president. “He’s one of the best public speakers I know, so much better than me,” Ahmed said in the voice of a proud father.
He admits worry about the election’s outcome.
“But I’m also pretty confident that the American people are smart,” Ahmed said. “We wouldn’t be the greatest nation in the world if we weren’t smart.”