An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described state Sen. Jeff Hayden's legislative district (it includes parts of south and southwest Minneapolis) and his family's south Minneapolis roots.
The results of Tuesday's DFL primary in Minnesota are worth examining closely for what they say about the mood of one segment of the electorate. One of the nation's most outspoken progressives, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, cruised to victory, defeating her main opponent, Antone Melton-Meaux, by nearly a fifth of the vote after a costly and contentious primary that saw them divvying up liberal endorsements.
Meanwhile, four incumbent DFLers in the Minnesota Legislature lost their primary bids, in each case to progressive activists who said they could be stronger, more effective voices for change, even though in most instances their agendas were remarkably similar to those of the officeholders.
It's easy to see there is an impatience for change, a dissatisfaction with the often slow, halting nature of the legislative process. In some instances, it appears to be more an issue of messenger than message.
State Rep. Raymond Dehn, who is among the most progressive House members, started out as a volunteer to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Dehn lost his endorsement and primary to Esther Agbaje, a negotiator, lawyer and daughter of Nigerian immigrants who is among a cadre of Black women candidates who are shaking up a political process they say has included too few of them. In her campaign, Agbaje said that progress on racial and social justice issues has been too slow, but also noted that her background makes her adept at "finding common ground."
Omar Fateh, a business systems analyst at the University of Minnesota who is the son of Somali immigrants, defeated longtime state Sen. Jeff Hayden, whose family roots in his Minneapolis district go back a century. Hayden recently helped shepherd police reforms after George Floyd's death, but that did not protect him from a challenge on his left. Bruce Ferguson, a resident of the Powderhorn Park area in Minneapolis, told the Sahan Journal recently that he supported Fateh not so much out of ideology or policy differences but because "I feel like a lot of the incumbent candidates move at their own pace — a pace that isn't conducive to the type of outcomes we want to see in our community."
And in Duluth, state Sen. Erik Simonson went down in defeat to challenger Jen McEwen, who highlighted climate change and health care as signature issues.
That dissatisfaction with the status quo runs like a bright thread through this DFL primary. The stresses of a pandemic, rampant unemployment and fears of eviction are pushing some voters to become impatient even with those who share their goals.
What the incumbents know, and what the challengers will learn, is that real change is hard when you are in a legislative body. No matter how energetic your voice or organized your base, you are up against other lawmakers with opposing viewpoints and equally loud voices and perceived mandates. That clash makes for a dynamic tension and, too often, gridlock. Actual progress often requires a series of smaller victories that build on one another, forged through persuasion, relationships and, yes, compromise.
Omar, who now has survived two tough primaries and a first-term in the House, has seen that play out in real time in Washington. One can propose sweeping bills, but often must settle for small amendments that nevertheless represent real advance. In her case, one of her achievements might have seemed small — an amendment to coronavirus legislation — but it resulted in millions of schoolchildren getting fed. By her second year in office she had become more adept at passing amendments and co-signing onto bills, which helps build relationships.
Challenger Melton-Meaux won the Star Tribune Editorial Board's endorsement, but Fifth District voters sent a clear message by decisively backing a House member whom President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked.
The other challengers who won Tuesday may indeed find more effective ways to push their agenda should they win their legislative races in November. We hope they also keep in mind that the art of politics is harder than it looks from the outside, and that they keep searching for that elusive common ground.