Council Member Abdi Warsame, the first and only Somali-American elected to Minneapolis office, stood outside a coffee shop in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and endorsed Council Member Jacob Frey for mayor. A few days later, Warsame’s opponent, Mohamud Noor, endorsed Mayor Betsy Hodges.
The dueling endorsements, both mutual, highlighted the growing clout of the Somali-American vote in Minneapolis politics.
The community centered on the west bank of the Mississippi River turned out in large numbers for city elections in 2013 and led the way in record-breaking DFL caucuses in April. Now candidates for mayor are jockeying for their support.
“There is more awareness and more intensity in getting out the vote by all candidates. People will show up,” said Jamal Abdulahi, an engineer who mulled a run for Congress when U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison was in the running to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Abdulahi, who backs Nekima Levy-Pounds for mayor, said when it comes to the mayor, many in the Somali community want someone who pushes back against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and is visible.
“Someone who’s in there, someone who spends a lot of time with people, someone who works on relationships rather than policy deliverables,” Abdulahi said.
The Sixth Ward, including Cedar-Riverside, has become a hotbed of municipal politics in the past 10 years.
In 2009, the area had among the lowest voter turnout in Minneapolis, around 14 percent of registered voters. That changed dramatically in 2013 when Warsame ran for City Council. Turnout rose to 33.6 percent.
Then in April, the Sixth Ward and Ninth Ward, where Mohamed Farah is running against Council Member Alondra Cano, saw huge crowds at the record-breaking DFL caucuses. Some 800 people showed up in one Cedar-Riverside precinct alone.
Much of the energy has been focused on the race between Warsame and Noor, Farah’s candidacy and the Park Board race in District 3, which covers Cedar-Riverside. Through Friday, 84 percent of the people who voted early in person were from the Sixth Ward.
Mahamud Cali, the executive director of KALY Radio, 101.7 FM, said interest in the mayor’s race is “high, it’s rising and everybody’s involved right now because this is our country and we have to be good citizens and we have to make sure the people we elect advocate for the issues that are important.”
Housing, discrimination, jobs and education are the top issues for Somali-Americans in Minneapolis, Cali said.
The radio station has 80,000 listeners, in Minnesota and across the country through streaming, he said. Frey has been interviewed on the air. Hodges will make an appearance, and Cali said other candidates have been contacted.
Frey, who regularly opens speeches to Somali audiences with a few lines of Somali and the laugh line, “What, you’ve never heard a white boy speak Somali?” appeared with Warsame to trade endorsements on Sept. 21, a day before early voting started.
“Betsy’s an OK mayor,” Warsame said. “Jacob would be a great mayor.”
Frey said Somali culture — the “humor, the warmth and banter” — remind him of his own upbringing, and he said the Somali community will have a “huge role” in the upcoming election.
“They’re looking to not just be included in the city, but to be significant players in business and culture,” Frey said.
State Rep. Ray Dehn, the top finisher at the Minneapolis DFL convention in July, was endorsed for mayor in March by state Rep. Ilhan Omar, the highest elected Somali-American public official in the country.
“There has been a move in our city to push for progressive policies that are about equality and the prosperity of all,” Omar said. “Many in the Somali community are excited to vote and support candidates who have shown an ability to lead with integrity, and not use props and gatekeepers to get their votes.”
Dehn said the various endorsements from prominent Somalis illustrate that it’s not a politically “homogeneous group.”
“This community understands that if they activate, they get involved, they can have influence,” Dehn said.
Standing up to Trump
A key issue in the Somali community is President Trump, his rhetoric and his ban on travel from some Muslim countries, including Somalia.
Hodges has been relentless in her criticism of Trump since the beginning of the year, even giving an entire speech on the subject in April, and that resonates with Somali-Americans, said Noor.
“She stood up more than any other person,” Noor said. “She understands her constituents.”
Noor and Hodges endorsed each other Tuesday and held a rally together Thursday. Noor said he endorsed Hodges because she listens and she’s focused on housing and early childhood education.
Somali voters — like all residents — want success for their families, good education, safe neighborhoods and support for their businesses, Hodges said, and now is a time to “express solidarity” with them.
“It’s really important to represent this community well at a time when Donald Trump is attacking our Somali neighbors,” Hodges said. “They are certainly a large and powerful group of voters, among many large and powerful groups of voters in our city, and that’s great.”