WILLMAR, Minn. – During a recent swing through downtown here, Bashir Abdi learned that local shop owner Seinab Jama would be traveling to Somalia during the historic and increasingly tight presidential election.
A newly hired DFL organizer, Abdi made arrangements for Jama, 49, to vote early at Willmar City Hall.
In dramatically different ways, DFLers and Republicans are trying to connect with voters in these fast-growing immigrant communities in outstate Minnesota. The parties are trying to cement lasting constituencies in these battleground districts where voters have seesawed back and forth between Republican and DFL legislative candidates in recent election cycles.
DFLers have taken an aggressive approach, hiring political organizers who have deep roots in rural communities in hopes they will tip the balance in swing districts up and down the ballot in November and for years to come.
“We’ve changed our model this cycle, and we’re investing a lot more energy, time and resources into building up longer-term relationships with leaders in these communities, and voters in these communities,” DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said.
Rather than adding expensive staffers in these areas, Republicans are banking on new immigrant populations warming to their fight to lower taxes and ease government regulations, issues at the center of the lives of new entrepreneurs, like Jama.
“Our hope is that we wouldn’t rely on the presence of a staff person to get things done, it’s to try to build more organic leadership,” Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said.
From Willmar to Worthington and in other small towns around Minnesota, rural main streets are undergoing a remarkable transformation. Downtowns once lined with dress shops, diners and hardware stores run by Scandinavians and Germans are now dotted with Somali coffeehouses and Latino grocery stores.
With an eye on the demographic trends, Martin said his party has changed how it conducts outreach in rural communities of color. Party officials are hiring organizers locally, rather than sending in organizers from outside the area in the closing weeks and months before an election.
Abdi, a father of four who studies political science at nearby Ridgewater College, has emerged as an ideal organizer for the DFL. He earned experience talking with local Somali voters as he knocked on doors for Shawn Mueske, a local City Council member.
New residents are drawn to these outstate communities because of jobs in agriculture and the poultry industry. Without immigrants, Willmar’s downtown business district would have hollowed out, leaving behind empty storefronts. Jama, who said she would vote for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats down the ticket, now occupies the space vacated by Elmquist Jewelers, a century-old business started by Swedish immigrants. Two years ago it moved out of downtown, about 2 miles east.
Recent immigrants have quickly become part of the community’s cultural fabric. In a first, students at Willmar High School in September elected a Somali-American senior to be homecoming queen.
Latino entrepreneurs are also thriving, catering to immigrants who can find familiar creature comforts from their homelands in restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries that have opened in this west-central Minnesota city.
Mary Sawatzky, a former DFL House member from Willmar, has come to rely on organizers like Abdi who she said will play a critical role in her election bid, particularly with new Somali residents who may not speak English well. “When I’m door-knocking and I don’t necessarily know who’s behind the door, then I’ll write their name down, and if it’s a language barrier, then I’ll refer them to Bashir.”
In a rematch, she faces Rep. Dave Baker, the Republican incumbent, who beat her in 2014 by only 214 votes.
Baker said he is worried DFLers have outmatched Republicans’ outreach efforts with minorities.
“Those resources that the DFL is really focused on and spending here is a bit concerning because I don’t have those resources,” Baker said.
When door-knocking, he does his best to communicate through language barriers, leaving some of his translated campaign literature with Somali residents.
State political leaders are planning for outstate Minnesota’s changing racial makeup, which is making legislative races competitive in new ways.
In St. Cloud, GOP Rep. Jim Knoblach won his 2014 race by 69 votes.
Projections by the state demographer’s office show that central Minnesota, a region that includes St. Cloud, will see its overall population grow from about 491,000 in 2015 to nearly 671,000 by 2035.
Much of that growth will be driven by jumps in the minority population, according to the 2009 report. The number of black and Latino residents, for instance, in the region is expected to grow 111 percent and 117 percent, respectively, between 2015 and 2035. In comparison, the number of white residents will grow by 31 percent.
Martin, the state DFL Party chairman, has labored to build a more diverse infrastructure within the state party and recruit more candidates of color. The state’s glaring racial disparities in education, housing and the workforce are receiving more attention from state leaders as minority populations grow.
“This state is changing, and it’s changing rapidly,” Martin said.
Downey, GOP Party chairman, said he’s hopeful his party’s hands-off approach will pay off. “For the long haul, for the health of our party and our success to really integrate and get to know these communities, whether they’re minority or otherwise ... our longer term strategy has more staying power and is probably more effective.”