As vanloads of East African immigrants streamed into City Hall, Abdi Warsame’s phone was abuzz in the campaign office at a Somali mall in Cedar-Riverside.
The Somali-American candidate’s aggressive campaign against longtime Council Member Robert Lilligren includes mobilizing hundreds of immigrants in his community to cast early absentee ballots, to ensure voting by the sick, the elderly and Muslims embarking this fall on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
His efforts have paid off: Most of the 585 absentee ballots cast in the city so far have come from the Sixth Ward, where boundaries were redrawn in last year’s redistricting and which now include more East African immigrants.
And as they mobilize to elect one of their own for the first time, Lilligren is more vulnerable than ever. He abandoned his bid for the DFL nomination after hundreds of Warsame’s supporters packed the April caucuses and convention, and Warsame easily won the party endorsement.
Asked if he thinks he is in trouble, the incumbent paused.
“I think this is winnable. I think I can win,” he said, also acknowledging that the East African vote is significant but that he does have volunteers and support from that community. The biggest concern he hears on the campaign trail is over “equity,” or ensuring that minorities do as well as whites in health, jobs and education.
“We need to be comfortable with having a broader dialogue of what racial disparities mean,” he said.
Warsame, too, talks about the struggles of the ward’s minority population: a lack of jobs, a lack of prospects, less access to healthy foods.
“Robert Lilligren has been here 12 years, and the gap has grown,” said Warsame.
He stressed that he would represent everyone in the ward, not just immigrants, and promote better education and simpler regulations for people starting small businesses.
Warsame left Somalia for London as a child and moved to the United States in 2006. He heads the tenant organization for Riverside Plaza, home to 4,000 East Africans.
He said he has it tougher than the other challengers because he needs not only to promote himself, but also to educate residents about the political system and the value of voting. The way Warsame sees it, even losing the election will not matter as long as the community is respected for its political participation.
But the efforts to get so many people to the polls have been exhausting. “I’m tired and burned out,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of gray hairs now.”
Ward 10: The evolving Uptown area
Council Member Meg Tuthill has walked a fine line trying to balance vitality and livability in one of the city’s fastest-growing areas, where homeowners share neighborhoods with 20-somethings starting their careers. The longtime neighborhood activist known for her blunt style is now locked in a tight race against DFL-endorsed urban planner Lisa Bender, whose supporters believe she can better connect with a wide variety of constituents.
Bender, 35, was a co-founder of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition — the city’s primary bike advocacy group — and was a city planner in San Francisco before managing a program in Minnesota that encouraged safe biking and walking to school.