Opinion editor's note: After reviewing the campaigns of the five candidates in the Aug. 11 Fifth District DFL primary for Congress, the Star Tribune Editorial Board chose to focus on incumbent Rep. Ilhan Omar and challenger Antone Melton-Meaux. For more on the other candidates in the race, see the note at the end of this editorial. The Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom.
The DFL primary contest between first-term Rep. Ilhan Omar and Antone Melton-Meaux for Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District has become one of the fiercest in the country. After careful consideration and interviews with both, the Star Tribune Editorial Board recommends Melton-Meaux, a first-time candidate with strong progressive values that align well with the district, as well as consensus-building skills honed as a professional mediator.
Melton-Meaux brings a different sensibility to this race, one grounded in helping resolve disputes to move forward — a skill this country is much in need of. His thoughtful approach holds out the promise of building common ground. Whether it's health care, criminal justice or affordable housing, Melton-Meaux appears progressive, but pragmatic. While Omar wants to lead a movement, Melton-Meaux seeks to serve the Fifth District.
On law enforcement, Melton-Meaux told the Editorial Board regarding the death of George Floyd: "I've had my own issues with police, even being detained as a law student by two white officers. I know that could have been a knee on my neck but for a few circumstances." But instead of Omar's calls to defund and even dismantle the police, Melton-Meaux would work to create a system in which police are held accountable for their actions.
On health care, Omar and Melton-Meaux both support universal coverage. How they get there differs. Omar supports the purist proposal championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders that would dramatically shift the entire system to the federal government. Melton-Meaux more pragmatically builds on the Affordable Care Act by embracing the logical next step, a public option that would offer a government-run insurance program for consumers to voluntarily choose.
As she did in the Minnesota House, Omar risks overstating her legislative wins. She notes that she has co-sponsored more than 500 bills. That's about average for Democrats in the Minnesota delegation. Omar did succeed in getting school meals included in COVID-19 relief, an achievement worth noting.
There are many ways to fight for change, few of them easy when tackling entrenched systems and interests. Omar says she will "fight hard for big ideas." But the point of the fight, after all, is the change. And that often requires the ability to forge alliances and persuade.
As a mediator, Melton-Meaux said he has learned how to talk to different sides "in a language that's familiar to them," offering "a value proposition they can buy into." His experience on Capitol Hill, as a fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus, has gained him a valuable window into how skilled leaders work against the odds to bring change.
Omar's 2018 victory launched her into the national spotlight as the first Muslim woman and first refugee elected to Congress. But her time has been marred by missteps, including remarks on Israel widely regarded as anti-Semitic, an outsized number of missed votes, and campaign-finance issues. Interestingly, the DFL Party has chosen to make an issue of Melton-Meaux's finances, filing a late complaint that his campaign used "shadow" companies for his bid, a step the campaign told supporters was necessary because the Democratic Party blacklists companies that work for the challenger to an incumbent.
That gave Lee Hayes, a spokesman for Melton-Meaux's campaign, a chance to note that Omar has sent more than $1.6 million to her husband's D.C. political consulting firm, E Street Group, and is herself the target of a Federal Election Commission complaint regarding travel expenses.
It is just these kinds of ethical distractions that the Fifth District could do without. In the Editorial Board interview, Omar took little responsibility for her rocky start, instead largely blaming her critics and saying her failing was perhaps in not realizing what a "special unicorn" she would be in Congress.
Local civil-rights icon Josie Johnson, in endorsing Melton-Meaux recently, said that at such a critical time in history, "We need to be deliberate about who we ask to represent us." Johnson said she could not support "anyone who creates more division among us."
The struggle of her ancestors, she said, "has had a powerful and profound influence on me, and Antone seems to understand their perseverance for fairness, justice and equality for all in the way that he approaches his work in our community. … Antone clearly has the compassion, temperament and skills required to unite our district, as well as a nation divided by racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia."
Both Omar and Melton-Meaux have compelling stories that, in their own ways, are quintessentially American. Omar's refugee story is well-known. Melton-Meaux is the descendant of American emancipated slaves. His mother grew up picking cotton, and his father used service in Vietnam and the GI bill to put himself through college and lift his family into the middle class. Melton-Meaux rose to become an attorney and mediator who also has worked on foster children's cases through the Children's Law Center and dedicated time at the Conflict Resolution Center and College Possible.
Melton-Meaux fully grasps the needs of the diverse constituency he hopes to represent, and, if given a chance, is the kind of leader who could unite a fractured district.