In their competitive race for Congress, the leading DFL candidates in the Fifth Congressional District tried to set themselves apart at a forum with business and community leaders Thursday, even as they struck similar messages on most major issues.

Former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, state Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray are battling for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's open congressional seat in the Aug. 14 primary. All three candidates said they're ready to take on President Donald Trump's administration if elected.

For all three, that means support for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has drawn criticism as the Trump administration pursues stricter immigration laws. All three also said they would probably vote to impeach Trump if given the chance.

"I'm ready to take that fight to their front steps," Omar said of the Trump administration.

A first-term legislator, Omar has the least legislative and political experience of the three candidates. But as the first Somali-American elected to a state legislature, she said she'd offer a new, unique voice in Congress.

In contrast, Kelliher and Torres Ray emphasized their policy­making experience.

"You need to look at the record of people in the past, and you will see what will be the future," said Torres Ray, an 11-year legislative veteran.

Kelliher, who was once among the state's most powerful Democrats before stepping down from the Legislature in 2010, added: "You need a leader who can hit the ground running."

With less than two weeks until the primary, the three women, all of whom live in Minneapolis, also agreed on issues not directly related to the current administration. All said they support the Southwest light-rail project, which would link Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. And all three expressed support for single-payer health care.

Because the Fifth District, which includes Minneapolis and some western and northern suburbs, has long voted heavily Democratic, the candidate who wins this month's primary is likely headed to Washington in January.

Omar won the DFL endorsement in June, though it's a functionally symbolic gesture because all five DFL candidates in the race will appear on the primary ballot. The other two candidates, who were not part of Thursday's forum, are Jamal Abdulahi, founder of the DFL Somali-American caucus, and real estate broker Frank Drake.

Omar was asked at Thursday's forum about recent comments she made on Twitter that were critical of Israel, and she was asked how she would balance that criticism with representing a district with a large Jewish population.

"In the Middle East, we need justice in order to have peace," Omar said. She added that she's critical of the Israeli government, just as she is critical of the U.S. government, but not of the people and their faith.

All five DFL candidates will attend a forum sponsored by Jewish organizations on Monday night at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.

Torres Ray made headlines this week following a recent arrest at a rally protesting the separation of immigrant children from their parents. She was asked Thursday how she would balance civil disobedience with solving problems, if she's elected. Torres Ray, who was also a trailblazer as the first Latina woman to serve in the Legislature, said she would continue to amplify activists' voices to help change policymaking.

Both Omar and Kelliher, who is now CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, have vowed not to accept PAC money. Kelliher said political fundraising has changed since she was in the Legislature, and on Thursday she called for overturning Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that forbids restrictions on campaign spending by outside groups.

"Get dark money out of campaigning," she said.

Whoever wins the primary is not likely to veer far from Ellison on most major issues; Omar called him a mentor. But Kelliher said she wouldn't seek out high-profile roles like Ellison did. He is the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee and is now running for Minnesota attorney general.

Torres Ray said her leadership style would also be different, saying she would hire staff members solely to work with constituents. "We have the most engaged constituency really in the state of Minnesota," she said.

Thursday's free forum, which was attended by about 75 people, was held by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Minneapolis Downtown Council along with WCCO Radio, but the candidates answered only one question about businesses and answered no questions from the audience. To listen to the hourlong forum, go to

According to federal election filings released this month, Omar has raised the most money among the field, with $176,590 raised and $150,588 left on hand. Kelliher has raised $131,606 and so far spent just $3,420 of that. Torres Ray has raised $48,447 and has $45,135 remaining.

On the Republican side, Jennifer Zielinski, a clinic specialist at Allina Health, won the GOP endorsement.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141