The main entrance to the Karmel Square Mall, the crown jewel of Basim Sabri’s south Minneapolis real estate empire, is plastered with campaign signs for City Council candidate Mohamud Noor.
An electronic ticker above the gate displayed a message on repeat Wednesday morning: “Remember to vote on November 7th,” followed by a list of candidates endorsed by the Sabri Business Association: Betsy Hodges for mayor, AK Hassan for Park Board, City Council candidates David Schorn for the 10th Ward and Noor for the Sixth Ward.
The mall isn’t in the Sixth Ward, but it’s a hub for the Somali-American community and a prime spot to get a political message across to Somali voters tuned into the heated campaign between Noor and incumbent Abdi Warsame. Fadumo Yusuf is also running in the Sixth Ward.
For months, Warsame has sought to cast the campaign as a battle between him and Sabri, noting the landlord’s support for Noor. And Sabri has done little to disabuse anyone of that notion.
“We need new blood downtown,” Sabri said Wednesday. “We need a person that unites and brings the community together.”
How the Sabri-Warsame dispute plays with voters will be a determining factor in the city elections. Voters are casting early ballots at double the pace set four years ago, and three in five early votes — about 2,900 so far — is from the Sixth Ward.
Mayoral candidates have also lined up behind the Sixth Ward candidates, with Council Member Jacob Frey trading endorsements with Warsame, and Hodges and Noor endorsing each other.
Warsame and Sabri have feuded openly since January, when Warsame accused the Palestinian landlord of holding Somali-American businesspeople “hostage” in substandard properties with high rents, and pledged to help build a new, independent mall.
Sabri and his family manage several buildings across south Minneapolis, including the two largest collections of Somali businesses in the Twin Cities — Karmel Square just off West Lake Street and the Village Market at the corner of 24th Street and Elliot Avenue S., better known as the 24 Mall.
“We proposed the creation of a cooperatively owned mall, and that’s what made Sabri angry,” Warsame said. “He’s supporting Noor … and that’s the contrast between us.”
Noor, who announced his run for City Council three weeks after Warsame called for a new Somali mall, said Sabri is not supporting his campaign and he has asked Sabri to stay out of the race.
The most recent campaign finance records show no Sabri donations to Noor through the end of July.
“Technically I have not welcomed his support,” Noor said of Sabri. “He has the right to support anyone he wants.”
Warsame’s fixation on Sabri is a distraction from more important issues like public safety, homelessness and affordable housing, Noor said, and when it comes to the Sabri-owned malls, he said as a council member he would engage in “conversations to find resolution to the problems.”
Sabri — who has long been involved in Minneapolis politics and went to federal prison for bribing Council Member Brian Herron in 2001 — has dived into the campaigns in the Sixth Ward and Ninth Ward, where one of Warsame’s allies, Mohamed Farah, is running.
After massive Somali-American turnout in both wards for the April caucuses, Sabri sent fliers to delegates explaining in English and Somali that they must live in the precinct where they caucused, be U.S. citizens and not be paid to participate in the DFL caucuses.
He contacted DFL officials with complaints and showed up to shake hands and pat backs at two ward conventions and the citywide convention in July.
In late July, as Warsame introduced the idea of a cooperative public market on Minnehaha Avenue, Sabri wrote a letter to the City Council and mayor claiming that Warsame once asked him for a loan, “ostensibly to use with buying a home.”
This week, Sabri added a new allegation in comments to City Pages — that a man named Kamal Yasin Ahmed asked for a $3,500 loan on Warsame’s behalf. Sabri says Ahmed was Warsame’s campaign manager and half-brother, and Sabri’s lawyer produced promissory notes documenting the loan.
Warsame said Wednesday he’s not related to Ahmed, who had nothing to do with his campaign, and denied he ever asked Sabri for a loan.
Noor called the dispute between Sabri and Warsame “ridiculous.” And he questioned what Warsame has done in the last four years about the malls.
“Sabri has existed the whole time,” Noor said.
Warsame said he has held the Sabris accountable, helped force construction of new bathrooms at the Village Market, opposed its expansion and applied pressure on the Sabri family to follow city building code.
“Everybody has downplayed the importance of these malls to our community,” Warsame said. “They are the most important thing.”