Voters in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District are being bombarded with appeals from two rival Democrats in a nationally watched primary election that, if not for its high-profile incumbent, would get only dutiful attention from party insiders.
Ads and glossy mailers are blanketing the district as millions of dollars pour in from all over the country, defying expectations in one of the nation’s safest Democratic districts, which includes Minneapolis. The difference this year is U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose rocketing profile in a single term in Congress has inspired fierce loyalty — and opposition — far beyond the borders of the district.
At 37, Omar has emerged as a leading protagonist of the progressive left, earning the backing of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom she supported in the Democratic presidential primaries. Her frequent criticisms of President Donald Trump have made her a popular target of national conservatives, but she’s been denounced by some Jewish leaders and fellow Democrats for several past comments about the political influence of Israel.
Some of Omar’s biggest critics are placing their bets — and considerable resources — on political newcomer Antone Melton-Meaux, her leading opponent in the five-way Aug. 11 primary. The 47-year-old mediation lawyer and Minneapolis resident entered the race in December with a laser-focused message: Omar is more concerned about her national profile than the needs of her constituents in Minneapolis.
“I was frustrated that she was missing votes on a regular basis,” said Melton-Meaux, who frequently cites that Omar missed 40 votes in Congress during 2019. “That’s 40 times in which the residents of this district have been silenced. That’s Black and brown folks, that immigrants, that’s union workers.”
Omar declined an interview request for this article, but her campaign is combating those claims, saying she missed a small fraction of procedural votes out of the hundreds of votes she cast in Washington last year because she was doing work in the district and dealing with an illness in the family. Omar’s father died in June from complications of COVID-19.
Her aides say she’s authored dozens of bills and amendments in the House, 17 of which passed off the floor, more than any other member of the Minnesota delegation.
“She’s a whip of the progressive caucus, she’s a regional whip for the Democratic caucus, she has close relationships with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi,” said Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s campaign spokesman. “She is an organizer at heart and is someone who is a coalition builder in Congress.”
But Omar’s profile as one of the first Muslim women in Congress and national progressive champion has cut both ways at home, where her Twitter battles with Trump — compounded by lingering controversies about her family life — have often overshadowed her district work.
An even greater distraction came from her divorce last year from the father of her three children. She has since married a political consultant whose firm has taken in more than $1 million from her campaign, prompting a complaint to the Federal Election Commission. Those and other controversies have opened the way for her critics to say she has been less than attentive to her own constituents.
“I live in north Minneapolis and it’s a community that has for far too long been neglected,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Melton-Meaux supporter and Black activist who runs the Racial Justice Network. “It’s important for me as a resident from north Minneapolis, who is raising children in this area and who lives in this community that there’s someone there who I can reach out to by phone, or reach out to or send an e-mail,” she said.
It’s an argument that resonates in a district that has become the epicenter of a national reckoning on race in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. His death brought new urgency to race and class issues that have long simmered in the district, one of the most diverse in the state.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, who represented the district before Omar, said he’s worked with her for years on issues of affordable housing, policing and racial disparities. He and others have said it’s hard to criticize Melton-Meaux as a newcomer to politics. But Ellison noted that the challenger has spent more time defining what he’s against than what he’s for.
“His campaign is all built around not being her,” Ellison said. “We know what you’re not, but what are you? Nobody knows that.”
The killing of Floyd has emerged a central theme in the final stretch of the race, with both candidates highlighting their experiences being Black in America. Melton-Meaux describes being detained in a room for hours as a young law student because police wrongfully accused him of a crime. Omar fled war-torn Somalia at a young age, only to be bullied and discriminated against as a Black Muslim woman in America. She has been a frequent target of death threats.
As the Black Lives Matter movement finds new energy, Melton-Meaux’s opponents are criticizing him for a 2015 Star Tribune op-ed where he pushed back on protesters’ anti-police chants and said the movement needed to create a bigger tent and focus on racial disparities in education, health care and the economy. In response, Melton-Meaux said the piece was written out of love for the movement and wants it to grow and “build collaborations and partnerships.”
In both style and policy, the race also has become a proxy fight between the establishment and progressive wings of the party, with Omar as a major backer of Medicare for All and publicly supporting a push to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department in favor of a new public safety agency.
Melton-Meaux said he doesn’t support eliminating police, even if he agrees more funding should be moved from law enforcement to community services. And while he would support a single-payer health care bill if it came up for a vote, he prefers a system that focuses more resources on primary care.
Health care is the “top, number one” motivating issue for Geri Katz, who supports Medicare for All and said Omar has been not only a supporter but also a key organizer in pushing for the policy, Sanders’ signature campaign issue.
But a strong undercurrent in the race has sprung up from foreign policy, specifically Omar’s support for a Palestinian-inspired boycott of Israel, which banned her from entering the country last year. As a Jewish woman, Katz is worried about how Omar’s past comments about the lobbying influence of Israel in Washington, D.C., are being used against her.
Omar apologized for several tweets last February after some criticized her for trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, but the animosity toward her from some groups hasn’t waned in the meantime. It’s contributed, in part, to a $3.2 million influx of cash directly into Melton-Meaux’s campaign between April and June of this year, including nearly a half-million dollars bundled by pro-Israel political action committees. Pro-Israel PAC Americans for Tomorrow’s Future is also sending mailers in the district discussing Melton-Meaux’s commitment to oppose racism but doesn’t mention Israel.
“Calling someone who does criticize the policies of the government of Israel anti-Semitic feels like my community is being used as a club by people who don’t actually care about us,” Katz said.
But Shep Harris, the mayor of suburban Golden Valley, who is also Jewish, said Omar’s comments have broken trust for some in the district. He’s supporting Melton-Meaux’s campaign, but he said whatever happens, Omar has work to do to repair those relationships.
“There are many people who are dissatisfied, disappointed, disgruntled, offended by behavior, by actions, by votes, by lack of votes,” he said. “I hope the message is sent loud and clear, whether she wins or not, that she has a lot of work to do in this district.”
Primary battles like the one facing voters in the Fifth could become part of the norm, said Todd Rapp, a political consultant and veteran of DFL campaigns in the state. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow member of the progressive “Squad” with Omar, faced a well-funded primary challenger in New York last month. She handily prevailed.
“It’s kind of the national story in politics, how primary elections have become a battleground of who is going to be the spiritual leader in the party,” Rapp said. “What we’re seeing now is the pushback on a very progressive incumbent, a pushback that’s more from the center.”