A humdinger of a vote is coming up in Minneapolis

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • December 3, 2011 - 4:20 PM

We the politically fixated tend to think that a segment of Minnesota's population has arrived when it lands one of its own in the Legislature, particularly the Senate.

So much has been made of the Senate's "firsts" that their names spring easily to mind: B. Robert Lewis, first African-American; Allan Spear, first openly gay man; Harold (Skip) Finn, first Native American; Satveer Chaudhary, first Asian-American; Conrad Vega, first Latino; Nancy Brataas, first woman elected in her own right -- that is, not completing the term of a recently deceased husband; Mee Moua, first Hmong-American; Patricia Torres Ray, first Latina.

Tuesday's DFL special-election primary in east Minneapolis District 59 could be a big step toward putting another name on that list.

Somali-American Mohamud Noor, 33, is making a strong run in a five-way contest, in a district so DFL-dominated that its primary is the de facto election. (Republican Ben Schwanke is making sure that voters in the Jan. 10 special election to fill former Sen. Larry Pogemiller's seat find two names on the ballot.)

Noor turned heads when he snagged endorsements from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, Take Action Minnesota and Stonewall DFL, the party's gay-rights caucus.

But hold the balloon drop. To join the Senate's "firsts" club, Noor will have to beat a candidate backed by another underrepresented group whose long quest for inclusion isn't finished.

Kari Dziedzic, 49, is a staunch feminist. That's something that couldn't be said of her father, Walt, the cop-cum-city pol who enjoys living-legend status in northeast Minneapolis.

Walt still knows how to wrangle votes. He's busy on his daughter's behalf. So are the admirers she's won during five years as top aide for Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein.

The daughter has a political asset her father never did: the backing of Womenwinning, the DFL-leaning, check-writing feminists formerly known as the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund.

The Womenwinning set admires Noor, several members indicated at a fundraising event Thursday. But they aren't about to start tapping on anybody else's glass ceiling when they haven't finished breaking through their own.

"I know the importance of having good, strong women in the Minnesota Senate," said Sen. Linda Higgins as she introduced Dziedzic. "We look at things differently [than do men]. We're more likely to figure out solutions rather than just go head-to-head and punch people's noses."

Clearly, it isn't easy being a white male in Minneapolis politics these days. But that didn't deter three in that demographic category from filing for Pogey's old seat.

Completing the Dec. 6 primary dance card are two City Hall veterans and one hard-charging newcomer.

There's Paul Ostrow, 53, a 12-year Minneapolis City Council member and former council president who left office two years ago and became an Anoka County prosecutor; Peter Wagenius, 40, policy director and alter ego for Mayor R.T. Rybak, and Jacob Frey, 30, an articulate attorney and community activist who left a plum Faegre & Benson job to run for office.

Watching these five high-powered candidates do a one-month dash from filing date to primary Election Day has provided lovers of Minneapolis politics with more entertainment than they've had for several years.

Subtle and not-so-subtle barbs flew among several rival camps last week. For example, Wagenius issued a letter bragging that he's the only candidate who has "taken on big special interests and won."

It was a shot at the city's police and firefighters' unions, which have battled Rybak and the City Council over pension benefits for years. Those unions back Dziedzic. But a wounded howl came from Ostrow, who was a leader of the council's side of that very fight.

The charm of such personality-rich clashes may be lost on those who live beyond the cozy confines of northeast and southeast Minneapolis.

But for remote viewers, Tuesday's primary has already demonstrated one thing: City DFLers are not a discouraged or depleted lot, regardless of weakness in the Democrats' national prospects. The talent in this lineup is impressive.

The other thing to watch Tuesday will be the turnout in Cedar-Riverside precincts, home to some 2,500 Somali-American ready-to-vote citizens and the locus of Noor's hope to become a state Senate "first."

Somali refugees began arriving in Minneapolis in big numbers almost 20 years ago with an understandable focus on survival, not politics. But like other immigrants before them, they are learning that life in America isn't complete without democratic participation.

As his endorsements demonstrate, Noor can snare non-Somali support. His background includes seven years as a systems administrator at the state Department of Human Services and service on the Council of Black Minnesotans, the Children's Theater board and neighborhood organizations.

Still, in this competitive field, Noor's chances hinge on whether Somali-Americans are ready to plunge deeper into local and state politics than they have to date.

And on whether they will vote in numbers big enough to overcome a more seasoned force that's mobilized to do their own overcoming, the feminists for Dziedzic.

Jacob Frey spoke well last week when he said: "Until we have become a Senate district and a state of full inclusion, we haven't completed our democratic journey."

Tuesday will be a marker on that journey, both for feminists and for Somali-Americans.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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