Abdi Warsame used strategy and hard work to record a “first” on the Minneapolis City Council.
After Somali immigrants failed to elect one of their own to the Minnesota Senate two years ago, a small group of them joined supporters of the victor, Kari Dziedzic, for a campaign event in her father’s home in northeast Minneapolis.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who was there, urged the East African attendees not to give up, saying their time would come.
One of the Somali-Americans in the crowd that day was Abdi Warsame, who became the first member of his community to win election to the Minneapolis City Council this month, two decades after Somali refugees began arriving in the state.
“I felt like he was speaking to me that day,” Warsame said.
His landslide victory in the Sixth Ward race signals the rising political influence of Somali-Americans in Minneapolis and offers a window into the changing demographics that also swept into office the council’s first members of Hmong and Mexican descent.
But Warsame’s win was different from that of the other immigrant candidates, Blong Yang and Alondra Cano, in that he relied more heavily on bringing members of his cultural community out to the polls — some for the first time.
“He couldn’t have done it without other communities in the Sixth Ward, but everyone recognizes the Somali vote was important for him. It was really impressive,” said Ryan Allen, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who is studying Somali-Americans’ experience in the Twin Cities.
Somali immigrants have created mosques and nonprofits and gotten involved with civic life in ways that outsiders have not immediately seen, he said, and “all of that activity built a base that Warsame was able to take advantage of.”
Warsame joins Ahmed Hassan, elected the same night as he was to the City Council in Clarkston, Ga., as the highest elected Somali-Americans in the United States.
The right ‘ingredients’
Warsame is quick to describe himself as European-American, too, given that he left Somalia as a child for England, where he lived until immigrating to Minneapolis in 2006.
He worked at a Wells Fargo call center in Roseville before heading the tenants’ organization for Riverside Plaza, the high-rises in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that house 4,000 East African immigrants. The job furthered his connections within the Somali-American community.
Warsame said he learned the art of public discourse from his stepfather, who had been a diplomat in Somalia. He has a 7-year-old daughter who lives in Texas but is otherwise guarded about his personal life. He is a fan of Clint Eastwood and Coen brother movies but gave up soccer, admitting he has “two left feet” and no longer has the stamina for the sport.
Early in the campaign, Warsame feared that his Somali would not be up to scratch. Given his relatively recent arrival in the United States and his largely Western background, he did not initially seem like the kind of person whom Somali-Americans would rally around.
Being of Somali descent helped his candidacy, but it wasn’t enough. Members of the community insist that not just any Somali-American could win, and one of his minor rivals, Mohamed Cali, was a case a point. Cali garnered little interest in the Sixth Ward race in 2009 and won few votes this time around, too.
Warsame, though, is “an exceptional speaker and he’s got an extremely nice personality; he’s just kind of got the ingredients,” said Brian Rice, a politically connected attorney who advised the campaign. “He was an exceptional person to take on this mission.”
Warsame put it this way: “It wasn’t, ‘Abdi is the greatest candidate of all time.’ It was hard work.”