WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has traded insults with President Donald Trump on Twitter and generated headlines all over the world — not all of them flattering. Amid that controversy, the House freshman from Minnesota is now trying to craft a different narrative focused on everything but those issues.
This week, with an eye on her Minneapolis-area district, Omar’s office launched a social media campaign meant to highlight “the everyday needs in the Fifth District of Minnesota and what Rep. Omar’s office is doing to serve them.”
Engaging with the national political arena, she said, “doesn’t mean that our constituents don’t have a permanent nest in our own heads.”
Omar is chief sponsor of 22 House bills and amendments, work she says reflects the values she campaigned on and issues of concern in Minneapolis and surrounding communities. Measures to provide universal school lunches, forgive all federal and private student loans, and provide tax credits to help mobile home renters purchase their home are among her initiatives.
The House has not yet passed any of Omar’s bills individually, but she was able to amend several of her measures into larger bills passed by the House. That includes an amendment she sponsored to House File 1, a major government reform bill that was a top priority of House Democrats. Omar’s amendment toughens federal rules governing lobbyists for foreign governments. The Republican-controlled Senate has not voted on that bill, which is the case for most of the major bills approved by House Democrats.
“She’s just putting one foot in front of the other,” said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a fellow Democrat whose district neighbors Omar’s. McCollum noted she is a co-sponsor of Omar’s bill to direct federal grants toward zero-waste practices.
“In the caucus, she moves around freely. She doesn’t avoid people, people don’t avoid her,” said McCollum, adding that Omar has had to contend “with a president who makes constant racist and Islamophobic remarks.”
Omar’s first months in office were upturned by a tweet and a public remark she made that were widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. Widespread criticism from fellow House Democrats culminated in a vote on a resolution broadly condemning bigotry. Omar apologized and supported the resolution.
Recent months brought headlines about her personal life, with Omar filing for divorce amid revelations of an alleged relationship with a paid political adviser. The allegations surfaced in his own divorce filings. Omar initially denied an affair in a TV interview, and she has since adopted a blanket “no comment” for inquiries about the situation.
John Mason, a Democratic activist from Minneapolis and political unknown who is challenging Omar in the DFL primary next year, said she’s in a position of constantly having to respond. A long shot given Omar’s popularity on the left and large fundraising hauls, Mason nonetheless said he’s been encouraged by talking to many people in the strongly Democratic district who, he said, tell him they wish Omar would focus more on what he called “kitchen table issues.”
As part of the social media campaign highlighting Omar’s district work, her office said in a news release that it has closed 207 constituent cases and helped recover $411,365 for constituents in disputed government benefits. Omar’s official Instagram account, with 228,000 followers, highlighted a woman who got $11,000 from the Social Security Administration.
Omar, who is the first Somali-American federal lawmaker, and her team have held 16 roundtable meetings and town halls in the Fifth District, and her news releases assert that staff members have met with hundreds of constituents and responded to thousands more letters.
“I think for me, it’s about keeping a calm and cool head, because on any given day you can control the things you can,” said Connor McNutt, who leads Omar’s congressional office. The staff is small, and it has contended with levels of attention more befitting a presidential candidate or congressional leader.
McNutt, a 30-year-old Faribault native, met Omar days after she was elected to the state Legislature in 2016. He worked as her legislative assistant, assigned to Omar and two other DFL House members.
Omar’s small team of top aides has mostly remained in place, save for her Minneapolis-based district director, who left at the end of July.
Some of Omar’s work has focused on foreign policy and global human rights issues. The first African refugee to serve in Congress, she sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has joined in four separate congressional delegation trips to Africa.
“It’s one of the things I work on,” Omar said of foreign policy. “But the majority of my work is truly around income inequality. Canceling student debt, talking about how we create more job opportunities, how can we make college free and accessible?”
Two of Omar’s constituents tell different stories of their experience with her office.
Dan Israel, a St. Louis Park singer-songwriter, was deeply upset by some of Omar’s past comments about the nation of Israel. After criticizing her on Twitter and in the press, Israel said he contacted her office to ask for a meeting with Omar or an aide.
“I never heard a word about anything. And I am a constituent,” said Israel, a DFLer who said he damaged friendships with his criticisms. He later decided to quiet down.
“You’ve got Trump attacking her in a racist way, and I think that left a lot of Jewish people here in a quandary,” he said.
Janie Briones, a military veteran from Hopkins, voted for Omar but said she’s not politically active. She allowed Omar’s office to give her name to a reporter as an example of successful constituent service. Earlier this year, Briones said she hit a wall in trying to access veterans benefits in compensation for PTSD suffered as the result of a sexual assault while she was serving overseas.
“I was told December 2020. And my friends were getting benefits in 90, 100 days,” Briones said. She contacted Omar’s office. “I was skeptical they could help, but the whole thing was resolved in two weeks.”