Minnesota Congressmen Keith Ellison, a Democrat representing the 5th District (which includes Minneapolis), and Tom Emmer, a Republican representing the 6th District (which includes St. Cloud), have formed a Congressional Somalia Caucus in Washington. Their joint statement read: “The purpose of the Somalia Caucus is to advocate for peace and stability in Somalia by ensuring the United States is providing sufficient and meaningful assistance so that democracy, good governance, and prosperity prevail over terrorism in Somalia.”
The goal of helping Somalia is admirable. But let’s be honest: The likelihood of the Congressional Somalia Caucus delivering is very low. Congress has nearly 700 caucuses. Many of these caucuses have few members and have sponsored little in the way of meaningful legislation.
Minnesota’s other congressmen and -woman have showed little enthusiasm for the Congressional Somalia Caucus so far. When I reached out to other congressional offices for comment responses ranged from no comment to unaware.
Responses from Minnesota’s two senators were similar to those from the house. Senator Al Franken’s office issued a general statement of support. There was no comment by Senator Amy Klobuchar’s office.
One reason for the muted response could be that the press release was designed for voters back in the district rather than members of congress. The joint statement from Ellison and Emmer read, in part: “for us, and the constituents we represent, Somalia is not a far off foreign policy issue, it’s a matter of domestic policy and national security.”
Statements like this are easily dismissed in Washington but have emotional appeal back in Minnesota’s large Somali community.
Ellison and Emmer are veteran politicians who know how to harvest voter emotions. The formation of a Congressional Somalia Caucus provided both with a nice public relations bump, thanks to heavy media coverage in their districts. It created the perception of doing something on behalf of Minnesota’s Somali community without any tangible deliverables.
For Minnesota’s Somali community, however, the move has more of a symbolic quality, which re-enforces attachment to Somalia politics. What's really needed are steps to integrate the community into mainstream Minnesota politics.
Rather than unveiling the futile caucus, Ellison and Emmer should have focused on more pressing issues facing Minnesota’s Somali community. Representatives Ellison and Emmer can use their influence to help solve racial discrimination in places like St. Cloud and the plight of Somali-American youth in Minneapolis.
Congressman Emmer, a former radio talk show host and conservative firebrand, has a unique platform from which to speak against racially motivated incidents including attacks on Somali mosques and job discrimination in St. Cloud. In 2013, the St. Cloud City Council refused to approve a permit for Somalis to build a mosque and the existing one was vandalized twice. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a class-action lawsuit against General Poultry, one of the largest employers in the 6th district, for discriminating against its Somali employees. Representative Tom Emmer remained silent on these issues.
Congressman Ellison, a liberal stalwart, has expressed frustration about being unable to thwart the susceptibilities of Somali-American youth living in his district. Ellison defended the informant who helped authorities arrest six suspects for attempting to join ISIS in April and asked the suspects’ supporters to remain civil during court proceedings.
But Ellison has been uncharacteristically quiet on the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) pilot program that US Attorney in Minnesota and Somali taskforce are developing in Minneapolis. Ellison, who practiced civil rights law before entering politics, could provide leadership to address concerns by some in the community about the program potentially leading to civil liberties violations.
Ellison also could do more to further the economic aspects of the pilot program by tapping into his network of liberal donors and influencers, thereby helping to build fiscal and political support for the program. He also could facilitate a visit by leaders of the House Appropriations Committee considering President’s Obama budget request for the pilot program. Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Nita Lowey (D-NY), the Ranking Democrat, should come to Minnesota for community listening sessions to ensure the president’s request is not mucked up by congress.
These are just a few ideas for representatives Ellison and Emmer, for projects that might actually improve the lives of Somali constituency in their districts. Forming a symbolic Congressional Somalia Caucus is a distraction and disservice.