U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar launched her political career with an underdog win over a well-known fellow Democrat. Now she's facing a challenger trying to pull off the same kind of upset.
After a turbulent first term in Congress, Omar faces an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from political newcomer Antone Melton-Meaux, an attorney and professional mediator who has promised a more collaborative style for a Minneapolis-based congressional seat that has been in DFL hands since 1963.
Political handicappers expect Omar, 37, to retain the endorsement of DFL Party delegates later this month. But Melton-Meaux, 47, who has raised more than $400,000 for his fledgling campaign, intends to take the race to Minnesota's Aug. 11 primary and a broader set of voters.
The showdown is highlighting Omar's stormy first 16 months in Congress, where she established herself as a nationally prominent voice on her party's left, a foil for President Donald Trump, and a lightning rod for controversy, spanning from her attacks on Israel's influence in U.S. politics to her well-publicized divorce and remarriage to her political consultant.
Primary challenges against members of Congress are rare in Minnesota, and even more rarely successful. In Omar, Melton-Meaux faces one of the most recognizable new faces of the Democratic Party, a member of the "Squad" of freshman women of color in the House — which has helped her amass more than $3.4 million in campaign cash.
But at home, Omar has suffered a few defections in the state's DFL hierarchy. Most have gravitated to Melton-Meaux. Although he is not Omar's only DFL challenger, he is by far the best funded.
"He's got some significant names and resources behind him," said Mike Erlandson, a former DFL chairman. But Erlandson, a one-time chief of staff to former Fifth District congressman Martin Sabo, said Omar would be hard to unseat.
"Few have the fundraising prowess she has behind her. Incumbents are powerful, she has very high name ID, and she's been relatively quiet this year compared to last," he said.
Omar burst into the spotlight in 2016 by defeating longtime DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn in a primary. She rocketed higher two years later when the Fifth District seat opened and she won a six-way DFL primary by some 23,000 votes. The former refugee from Somalia became one of the first Muslims and the first naturalized citizen from Africa to serve in Congress.
Melton-Meaux is an Ohio native who once worked for the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington; since moving to Minneapolis in 2008, he served on the board of many community and nonprofit groups, including the Guthrie Theater.
He said he voted for Omar in 2018. "I was hopeful she'd use her platform to great work for this district," he said. "I've been sorely disappointed ever since."
Melton-Meaux said Omar has not been engaged in her district, being too focused on "being a celebrity." He describes her as "divisive and distracted," missing votes and showing poor judgment in personal and campaign finance matters with her husband, D.C. political consultant Tim Mynett. He also accuses her of making "insensitive and hurtful remarks about our Jewish community," a reference to comments she made about Israel last year that critics considered anti-Semitic. Her pronouncements led the House to pass a resolution condemning hate speech, though it didn't name Omar.
"She's a young politician and Washington is a contact sport," said Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope City Council member and state legislative candidate. "You can make mistakes; the most important thing is that you learn from them."
One vote Melton-Meaux singled out was last year's House resolution condemning the Armenian genocide. Omar voted "present," saying the measure should have more broadly condemned human rights abuses worldwide including in the U.S.
Melton-Meaux said he also would have backed the USMCA trade deal supported by all of Minnesota's delegation save Omar. The measure faced opposition from the Democratic left.
Omar dismisses much of the criticism, saying she has been focused on her district, particularly its growing immigrant population and others on the margin. "My fight has always been for the Fifth, to fight for those who are marginalized, who never really had a seat at the table," Omar said. "My victory really is a triumph not for myself but for everyone who felt like they don't have a voice, who never thought we'd have a chance to walk in the halls of power."
Supporters like Frazier see Omar as a champion for those who have been left behind in the Twin Cities and for a more inclusive future. "I hear her talking about affordable housing, I hear her talking about immigrant rights, I hear her talking about peace in the world," Frazier said. "It shouldn't be controversial to talk about those things."
Omar has more public support from DFL elected officials in the district, but Melton-Meaux has peeled off a few: former U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, longtime civil rights activist Josie Johnson, and Nekima Levy Armstrong, an activist and former president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
"I started to have questions after seeing some of things she was saying in the media and the battles she was getting engaged on in Twitter," said Levy Armstrong. "I didn't see it prioritizing the needs of the Fifth District."
Melton-Meaux has singled out Omar's rate of missed votes, which at 5.2% is "much worse than the median of 2.2% among the lifetime of representatives currently serving," according to GovTrack.US.
"I believe that's a little misleading," Omar said. "We have nearly 95% on our voting average. That's higher than many of our colleagues," she said, noting Minnesota Republican Rep. Tom Emmer has missed more votes.
Melton-Meaux criticized Omar for having passed only one bill so far: a measure in a COVID relief package to ensure that students would continue to have access to free and reduced lunches amid school closures. But Rep. Angie Craig is the only other of five Minnesota freshman members to pass a bill so far.
"We are doing important work on behalf of our constituents," Omar said. She said her top two priorities are affordable health care and fighting climate change, which she said she believes reflects the district.
Omar has seen her personal life under scrutiny. Last August, Mynett's then-wife said the two were having an affair. Omar was also married at the time; she filed for divorce two months later. In March she announced her marriage to Mynett, also freshly divorced.
Amid the allegations of infidelity in August, Omar, still married, gave an interview to WCCO-TV denying she was dating anyone else.
"The issue here is her integrity and transparency," said Melton-Meaux.
In an interview Friday, Omar denied that she misled the public.
"My answers were truthful," she said. "As anyone who has gone through a divorce or had a difficult marriage knows, there are many complications with children and families."
Mynett's D.C.-based firm continues to be a major recipient of Omar's campaign funds, taking in nearly $800,000 so far. The arrangement has triggered a Federal Election Commission inquiry and become campaign fodder for Melton-Meaux.
Said Omar: "The relationship we have with the firm is completely legal and appropriate."
By the end of March, Melton-Meaux had raised $395,000 and had just under $200,000 in the bank. But Omar has raised $3.4 million for her re-election bid, with $1.3 million unspent.
Melton-Meaux's campaign said fundraising has been accelerating, including $121,000 raised in a single day last week.
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413