Somali-Americans begin making mark on local politics

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 - 6:27 AM

Once wary of getting involved, Somali-Americans are becoming a political force.

Sadik Warfa was a wide-eyed teenager from a crowded refugee camp when he came to the United States in 1993, part of a first wave of Somalis fleeing a homeland ravaged by warring clans.

As a group, the refugees lacked money and education. Many barely spoke English. But they had strong clan loyalties, a knack for entrepreneurship and drive.

Now those same Somalis are becoming a political force in Minnesota. They are registering to vote, volunteering for campaigns, running for office and even forming a basic building block in U.S. politics -- their own political action committee. Warfa, after graduating from college and opening an accounting business, ran for office in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2010.

The growing political activism of Minnesota's roughly 70,000 Somalis -- the largest single population of Somalis in the United States -- is causing Minnesota DFLers and Republicans to take notice.

"I've been really amazed at what's happened," said Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. "It would be a real danger for political parties to ignore this newfound muscle."

State Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said the Somalis may be fresh territory for the GOP. "There are tremendous opportunities for Republicans among all Minnesotans," he said, "but especially among new Americans and immigrant communities."

State Republicans recently tapped a Somali-American to lead the party's Immigrant Relations Committee and the DFL now has a Somali-American Caucus.

In Minneapolis, which boasts the state's biggest Somali population, activists have gotten busy.

"We cannot just sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to fix our problems," Mohamud Noor told Somalis celebrating the recent launch of a new political action committee.

But Somalis know they face many hurdles on the journey to upward political mobility.

Years of living under a military dictatorship without free elections, followed by a bloody civil war that pitted clans against one another, have left those who escaped Somalia traumatized and wary of government.

'Unpack your suitcase'

Many Somali refugees clung to a "suitcase mentality" years after their arrival, said Hashi Shafi, executive director of Somali Action Alliance, a nonprofit group that pushes the importance of voting. They believed that someday they would return to their homeland, so there was no need to get involved in U.S. politics.

Shafi challenged that mindset on local Somali TV programs. It's time, he said, to "unpack your suitcase and get involved."

These days, many Somalis consider Minnesota their home, he said. A new generation is growing up fully invested in the only homeland they have known.

Some of them can be found at the tiny office of the Somali Action Alliance, on Minneapolis' E. Franklin Avenue. There, armed with clipboards and rolls of address listings for previously registered voters, they doggedly canvass Somali neighborhoods every week, encouraging them to vote.

At times, it's a tough sell.

"Some of them back in the Third World country where they came from, the government instead of serving people are oppressing them," said Sadiq Mohamud, a volunteer.

But every now and then, they get a fresh burst of inspiration. In a special primary election for a state Senate seat last year, mainstream power groups were startled by the vigorous challenge put up by Somali-born Mohamud Noor against the better-known and better-funded Kari Dziedzic.

A political neophyte, Noor nevertheless galvanized Somali voters and snatched some key endorsements out from under Dziedzic. He managed to capture 95 percent of all votes cast in one Somali-dominated precinct and 26 percent of all votes cast in the primary. Dziedzic ultimately eked out a win with 32 percent in the five-way primary. But Noor's showing served notice that Somalis had power in their collective voice.

"For the first time, the East Africans have woken up to the fact that we are a large segment of the city and our vote is important," said Abdulkadir Warsame, who campaigned for Noor.

A new brand

Warfa trained, American style, for his latest campaign, for his Minneapolis district's DFL nomination for the state Senate. He hired consultants to help polish his oratory skills and tame his Somali accent. He still remembered to greet Somali shopkeepers with a warm "Salam alaikum" (peace be with you), but his dress was every inch the American politician on the rise -- dark power suit, shined shoes and the requisite American flag pinned to his lapel. For debate prep, Warfa studied clips of the famed 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

He even fine-tuned his brand of politics, calling himself a business-minded Democrat with an independent streak.

Warfa lost, but he remains undeterred and is already setting his sights on a Minneapolis council seat next year.

"I still have a deep desire to serve the state of Minnesota in some capacity," Warfa said. "I have not given up. I can really see that I will be a great leader."

Somali political activism has evolved so much that Warfa has already drawn a competitor -- fellow Somali Warsame, who helped draw Minneapolis' political map after the 2010 census.

Key moment

Like other immigrant groups in America, Somalis started at the bottom. But their refugee status may have accelerated their political involvement, said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.

"If they came here as an educated class, as doctors and engineers, then you probably would see deferred political engagement because they'd be more about making sure their businesses grew," Ellison said. "But because they come here with few tools, they use the tools they have, which is a vote."

The first lesson in activism came in 2002. U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who started as a community organizer from way back, began dropping in on East African community events. Facing a tough re-election against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, Wellstone came early, stayed late and talked with all comers.

"He used to tell them it doesn't matter the numbers, what matters is that you believe in the process and you show up," said Hussein Samatar, a Minneapolis school board member who, in 2010, became perhaps the nation's first Somali-American elected official.

Soon, Coleman followed suit, enlisting well-known activist Mahamoud Wardere to head his efforts. Wardere had made his own run for Minneapolis mayor a year earlier.

That Senate election, Samatar said, "was the first key moment or trigger, if you will, for the community to feel that they could actually vote for someone that they cared about."

Wellstone died 13 days before that election and Coleman won. But even after becoming senator, Coleman nurtured his connections with Somalis, hiring Wardere for his staff.

The insights Wardere gained on that job reinforced how important it was for Somali immigrants to engage in politics. "If you are not at the table, you are missing everything," he said. "Just being at the table is power."

A matter of time

Though the community has yet to win a major office, Ellison said he believes it's bound to happen. "I think it's a matter of time because they're doing all the right things," he said.

While most politically active Somalis are involved with the DFL Party, political allegiances are still forming.

"Now I think your average Somali person is looking at the world through the eyes of a new American, ... through the eyes of a person of color, ... through the eyes of a low- to moderate-income person. So they're Democrats," Ellison said, laughing. But, he said, "as the community grows and matures, political ideology will spread and you'll have a wider and more diverse point of views coming out of the Somali community."

Dan Severson, a former Republican legislator, now does minority outreach for the party, acknowledges that his party got a slow start with Somalis.

"When I started reaching out to the community, we sat down at a table with a lot of the community leaders there and they basically said, 'We didn't even know there were Republicans.' ... I'll be the first to admit that the Republican Party has been delinquent in that."

But Severson has been meeting with imams and other Somali leaders to sell them on the GOP's values and gathers weekly with groups of Somalis and other minority members at party headquarters.

Samatar, a DFLer, said that Somalis have "a long, long way to go." But, he added, "I feel that we can actually win seats now ... maybe in two years, maybe in four years. I can really see that happening."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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