Getting attention does not equal effective leadership. That is a reality that U.S. House Rep. Ilhan Omar urgently needs to grasp as she settles into her new role representing Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District.
Omar, a Democrat, is the subject of national headlines yet again after making more disturbing remarks on social media. Over the weekend, two of her Twitter posts on a pro-Israel lobbying organization's financial clout were widely condemned as anti-Semitic by influential individuals. Among the critics: Omar's Democratic and Republican House colleagues; former presidential daughter Chelsea Clinton; Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. Add the Star Tribune Editorial Board to that list.
"Words matter Rep. @IlhanMN. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the US and abroad," Greenblatt said Sunday on Twitter. "The use of this tired anti-Semitic trope about Jews and money is inappropriate and upsetting. As Americans and Jews, we expect our politicians to condemn bigotry, not fuel it."
Omar's tweets came less than a month after the Editorial Board criticized her for spreading conspiracy theories about U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. The controversial comments also came on the heels of a January apology from Omar after a New York Times columnist raised concerns about a 2012 tweet in which Omar said Israel had "hypnotized the world" while doing "evil."
With an apology comes the expectation of change and personal growth. Omar's two tweets from the past weekend made it clear that hasn't happened. The flippant tone of one of her statements also underscores doubts about her judgment, particularly when this latest communications crisis could have been easily avoided. She didn't have to retweet another person's controversial views on Israel's congressional influence. But she did and then added her own comment: "It's all about the Benjamins, baby" and included a musical note emoji. This may allude to a 1997 rap song that included the same phrase.
Another Twitter user then asked Omar who she thinks "is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel." Omar didn't have to respond, but she did, tweeting "AIPAC" in reply. AIPAC stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The U.S.-based organization is indeed an influential special interest, though far from the top when it comes to political contributions. In an OpenSecrets.org ranking, AIPAC came in at 5,558 out of 19,087 organizations during the 2018 election cycle.
Omar, a Muslim and former Somali refugee, certainly has every right to her pro-Palestinian views. Nor should AIPAC or the Israeli government be off-limits to criticism. But given the volatile mix of religion, history and complexity at work here, statements must be calibrated with great care. Effective advocacy involves building alliances, not alienating many who likely share her call for more diversity in the nation's political leadership.
On Monday, House Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi sharply rebuked Omar. Omar's communications director did not respond to an editorial writer's inquiry. Omar did issue a grudging apology on Twitter later Monday, saying her remorse was unequivocal but renewing her criticism of AIPAC.
Minnesota's largely urban Fifth District needs a hardworking representative who can articulate constituent needs and pass legislation. The continuing controversies will make it hard for Omar to enlist the congressional colleagues she'll need to get the work done.
As Omar looks to the future, former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken's early career offers a good model. He also came to Washington, D.C., with a high profile and a propensity for off-the-cuff remarks. He chose to forgo the limelight and develop deep policy expertise in digital privacy, Indian affairs and campaign finance.
Before his fall, Franken built credibility instead of relying on his celebrity, and he did so by carefully choosing what to say and when to say it. Omar would serve herself and her district well by doing the same.