Jamal Osman joined the Minneapolis City Council during one of the most turbulent times in the city’s history.
The city’s Sixth Ward, the heart of its East African community, had been without a council member since April and hit hard by the coronavirus and unrest resulting from the death of George Floyd.
Less than a month after his swearing in, Osman found himself at the center of a report by a conservative activist group that claimed his brother improperly collected hundreds of ballots for the August special election. The allegation was retweeted by President Donald Trump, who has continually raised doubts about mail-in voting in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.
Osman, 36, a Somali-born immigrant who moved to the United States as a teenager, said he received threatening messages in the days that followed. In a recent interview, he said Muslims and immigrants have been vilified for decades.
“Unfortunately, attacks mostly based on racism and from the groups like this ... it’s not new to our community,” Osman said. “It’s almost an everyday thing for us.”
Now, he’s trying to stay focused on the council’s most urgent matters: police reform, the pandemic and the upcoming budget. He also wants to address some of the problems he has encountered through his social work in the ward, including housing insecurity, opioid addiction and mental illness.
He’s gotten to know his other council members and Mayor Jacob Frey, sat in on community meetings hosted by neighborhood groups and met with representatives of Augsburg University, the University of Minnesota and other institutions. “He strikes me as a very thoughtful leader who is really grounded in the day-to-day experiences of his neighbors in Ward Six,” City Council President Lisa Bender said. “And I really admire anyone who is stepping up to run for public office now, in the midst of the pandemic, the economic crisis, with all that our city has been through [over] the summer.”
Osman said there is an “understandable fear” in his ward that a new system of policing could endanger safety if it is not better than what currently exists. The city, he said, should make a “significant investment” to alternatives while still spending on law enforcement.
“We must be pragmatic in our decisions on this issue,” he said. “We must not make our most vulnerable residents feel like guinea pigs in a lab as we pursue the future of public safety.”
In his previous job as a resident services coordinator for CommonBond Communities, an affordable housing nonprofit that manages buildings across the Twin Cities, Osman spent much of his time at the Seward Towers, two high-rises with a sizable Somali population. Low-income families, he said, are struggling to make rent during the pandemic and are crowded in one- or two-bedroom apartments.
“My plan is to highlight that and hopefully attract investors and whatever the city can do to provide affordable housing and build affordable housing here in Ward Six,” he said.
Opioid addiction in his ward, especially among youth, is his “number one priority.” He wants to improve access to treatment, and has sought to allocate money for addressing the crisis in next year’s budget.
His former co-workers at CommonBond described him as patient, caring and committed to issues facing the East African community. Tav Buechler, who hired and supervised Osman, said it was “surreal” to see him leading a diverse ward known for being “politically dynamic.”
“He’s had a lot of challenging folks that he’s worked with over his career at CommonBond, and he had a very positive outlook in all those interactions,” Buechler said. “I think that bodes well for having to navigate those dynamics in the ward, too.”
The Sixth Ward council seat had been vacant since Abdi Warsame resigned to lead the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. No one has officially challenged the Aug. 11 election, which Osman won out of a field of a dozen candidates.
The Sept. 27 report by the group Project Veritas prompted calls by Republican lawmakers for an investigation. The FBI said it was aware of the allegations, but would neither confirm nor deny whether it’s investigating.
Osman and his brother Liban, who was featured in the story, have denied the allegations in the report, saying that he ran a fair and honest campaign.
Sheldon Mains, who sits on board of the Seward Towers Corporation and knew Osman from his work with CommonBond, said people he speaks with don’t believe the report.
“I have heard nothing negative in the neighborhood about that,” said Mains, who is also the board president for Seward Redesign.
AJ Awed, the runner-up in the special election, said he believed there was some “impropriety” in the election and was weighing what to do about it. But he holds the same belief as Osman that the Project Veritas report was intended to suppress voting in the Somali community for the upcoming presidential election.
“I think it exposed how manipulative our system of politics has gotten, how nasty it has gotten,” Awed said. “At the end of the day, what we were focused on was the issues and actually making a difference in the community.”
Osman recognized it may not be easy to deliver on all his campaign promises given the strain on the city’s finances and that the general election for the seat is next year. For now, he said, he wants to advocate for the concerns of the ward.
“Hopefully I can make a difference the short time I’m here before my next election,” he said.