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.”
The route to election began at the campaign event featuring Dayton.
Warsame and other Somali-Americans had rallied behind Dziedzic after she defeated their own candidate, Mohamud Noor, in a primary.
But the hundreds of Somali immigrants they had been able to mobilize on Noor’s behalf caught notice. Rice introduced himself to Warsame at the Dayton event, and suggested later over coffee that he advocate for more favorable ward boundaries in the city’s redistricting talks. They brought on a former state demographer to help examine a new ward that would include more East African immigrants.
The redistricting panel, charged with adjusting ward boundaries to account for population changes identified in the U.S. Census, made only minor tweaks to its proposed map until members of Warsame’s team showed up with maps of their own. Latino and American Indian advocates weighed in later, and tensions simmered as the groups feared the panel would favor one at the expense of splitting others into multiple wards.
Ultimately, the Somali community got most of what it wanted, leaving longtime Sixth Ward Council Member Robert Lilligren to face a host of unfamiliar voters after boundaries were redrawn.
A year later, Warsame marshaled hundreds of supporters to attend DFL Party precinct caucuses and the convention, overwhelming Lilligren’s campaign and winning the party’s endorsement. They set up a campaign office in a Somali mall between the light-rail Blue Line and Riverside Plaza and organized hundreds of unpaid volunteers to reach out to East Africans — and later to take them to the polls to cast early votes.
Early obstacles included accusations from Lilligren backers that Warsame’s supporters intimidated and harassed them during the caucuses. Later, several mysterious candidates filed to run with similar names in what Warsame’s campaign said was a tactic by the other side to confuse voters.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t enough for Warsame to sell himself to the East African community — he had to explain ranked-choice voting, too.
And he had to run a dual campaign that reached out to both that group — which responded more to YouTube videos and face-to-face meetings — and others beyond their community with more traditional mailers and political endorsements.
His campaign targeted voters using a database showing who voted in recent elections, but also built files to track up to 1,500 East African voters, some of whom received as many as seven door knocks over the months.
“My vote is not going to matter — you’re not going to win,” some told Warsame at first. Others said, “What am I voting for? I just voted for Obama last year.” Still others gave vague brush-offs, wary of political sales pitches.
“I would say, ‘It’s not about winning. Even if you lose, people will take you seriously … by voting you have power,’ ” Warsame recalled.
A voice at City Hall
In the end, well over double the number of Sixth Ward citizens who voted in the last election turned out on Nov. 5.
Noor, who won a seat on the Minneapolis school board a week later, said many Somali-Americans seek services from the city as cabdrivers or as residents dealing with housing and police issues, but they have addressed them independently. Now, they will have a council member who can advocate on their behalf and explain the system at City Hall.
Why did it take so long for a Somali-American to win election to the council?
Osman Ahmed, who helped Warsame’s campaign, said that with new arrivals, it is not something that happens easily or overnight.
He said he is hopeful that the election will resonate with youth in their community who feel disconnected from society because they are black and Muslim and that it will prevent them from becoming radicalized.
This, he said, could allow them to “see the reality: become a good American and they can be on the top.”