Somali-Americans reflect on caucus chaos

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2014 - 12:46 AM

Tuesday night’s altercation ended a Minneapolis caucus early and raised questions for Somali-Americans.

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Mohamud Noor, taking phone calls Wednesday, said the Somali community “is not satisfied with what happened” Tuesday night at the Brian Coyle Community Center.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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A day after political tensions in Minneapolis’ Somali community erupted into caucus-night chaos, leaders grappled with how to repair their image and simultaneously channel its massive political ambitions in a more peaceful manner.

The Cedar-Riverside precinct hadn’t even elected officers Tuesday night when a brief melee broke out between activists on opposing sides of a legislative race between DFLers Mohamud Noor and longtime Rep. Phyllis Kahn, highly unusual for the normally staid events.

Facilities staff decided to end the event, at the Brian Coyle Community Center, prompting a handful of police officers to begin loudly dispersing hundreds of confused attendees.

“It became a farce,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame, a Kahn supporter who became the country’s most prominent Somali-American politician last fall.

“And now the community looks bad. Now the Somalis look horrible … All the negative assumptions people have of our community [are] going to come to the fore because three or four individuals couldn’t behave themselves.”

Warsame, who was not at the Coyle Center, has received about 50 calls from concerned community members.

He worries that people will stop participating if the process isn’t improved. “People might start saying, ‘If I go to these places, people will start fighting each other.’ ”

The Somali community has grown into a major political force in Minneapolis, able to assemble massive numbers of voters at political events. Some well-attended yet similarly chaotic caucuses in April helped propel Warsame to win the DFL endorsement over incumbent Robert Lilligren, who complained that the events were tainted by irregularities.

But many attendees who speak little or no English are also not well-informed about the process, raising fears among opposing activists that voters will be manipulated.

Control of caucus at issue

That was at the core of Tuesday’s dispute, which revolved around who could most fairly preside over the caucus. The Noor and Kahn campaigns agreed beforehand that representatives of both campaigns would share the job, but the agreement was broken as the caucus got underway. Both sides pointed fingers Wednesday about who broke the promise.

No one was seriously injured during the brief skirmish, but Ilhan Omar, the DFL’s vice chair for Senate District 60, which surrounds the Cedar-Riverside area, said she was struck in the mouth. She said she was there to make sure “that people are not bamboozled when things are happening in a different language and [the district chair] can’t understand.”

Omar’s presence and actions irked Kahn supporters, who noted that she does not live in the precinct and alleged that she is a Noor supporter. She says she is publicly neutral in the race.

In an interview Wednesday, Omar said that the Kahn co-chair was trying to lead the caucus alone and that she tried to ensure the Noor co-chair was recognized.

Brian Rice, an attorney representing Kahn’s campaign, countered that the Kahn representative honored the agreement and that Omar was pushing their representative to run it alone.

Greg Oliver, DFL chair of the Senate district, said he didn’t know which side broke the agreement, since much of the argument was in Somali.

“All I know is at some point they started to scream at each other and I was in the middle,” Oliver said.

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  • Mohamud Noor, left, and volunteer Wil Bernstrom went over phone lists of undecided delegates before making calls in Minneapolis, Wednesday, February 5, 2014. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com ORG XMIT: MIN1402052005330116

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