Omar Fateh has big plans.
Soon to be the only self-identified Democratic socialist in the Minnesota Legislature, Fateh is carrying a deeply progressive agenda to a state Senate controlled by Republicans — and a statehouse much more used to gridlock than it is to ambitious change.
But Fateh says he aims to be more than just one vote at the Capitol. Powered by a grass-roots group of volunteers from the neighborhoods that surround the intersection where George Floyd was killed, Fateh ousted a powerful DFL state senator in a primary last August.
Now this 30-year-old Somali American senator-elect wants to bring voice to communities reeling from unrest and racked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"These are folks that are educational support professionals. They are coffeehouse baristas, they are servers, folks that have seen their wages stagnate while rents increase," Fateh said. His agenda was born of conversations with residents of his diverse district on housing, poverty, education and other issues. "I did not create this platform alone," he said.
That agenda includes a statewide minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, earned sick and safe leave, and 12 weeks or more of parental leave.
Fateh has also identified affordable housing as a top priority. It's an area that holds potential for common ground with majority Republicans, especially from rural areas, though Fateh's forthright socialism could be a tricky sell for his conservative colleagues.
"I wish him luck. You know, it's 67 opinions up there in the Senate," said Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, who sits on the Senate's agriculture, rural development and housing finance committees. "So we'll wait and see what he's like and what his passion is for housing and hopefully we'll find some common ground."
When the new legislative session convenes Tuesday, Fateh will be the first Somali American to serve in the Minnesota Senate and may be the first such state senator in the United States.
Fateh was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Virginia by Somali immigrants. His father came to the United States in 1963, during the height of the civil rights movement, and his mother emigrated in the mid-1970s.
"I believe that being someone that was born in America, raised in America, but growing up in an immigrant household, I have a foot in both communities," Fateh said.
In his childhood, Fateh spent summers in Minneapolis. After completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he made the city his home. He ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2018 before successfully ousting incumbent Jeff Hayden in last summer's DFL primary in Senate District 62.
Fateh said his parents are excited to see their son go to the Capitol.
"I think they see a lot of transformations taking place in America, but also that we have a long way to go as well," Fateh said.
Zaynab Mohamed, who's lived in the district for much of her life, volunteered full-time for Fateh's campaign. She said she never saw Hayden in the community before the August primary, and she believes Fateh will learn from that.
"Fateh knew that the same way that seat was given to you, it'll be taken back from you," Mohamed said.
As an avowed Democratic socialist, Fateh widens the Senate's ideological spectrum even further. In November, two longtime DFL senators from northern Minnesota, Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni, left the DFL caucus for their own independent group, though they are expected to work more closely with majority Republicans.
Such ideological factions have grown more common at the Capitol. In 2018, four state House Republicans left the GOP Caucus to form the New House Republican Caucus.
The political impact of this splintering will be on full display this year at the Capitol. The session will also be a first test of Fateh's ability to push his colleagues in a more progressive direction.
"I'm an unabashed capitalist, but that doesn't mean we can't find common ground as we try to work together, as long as we're working for what's in the best interest of Minnesotans," said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, chairman of the Senate's Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee.
He cited 2019's landmark wage-theft protection legislation as an example of bipartisan cooperation on a potentially controversial issue.
With higher minimum wage standards already implemented by city councils in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Pratt said he does not see the need for a statewide wage floor.
Right now the Senate is focused on getting more people in Minnesota back to work, he said.
Like many residents of his south Minneapolis district, Fateh and his wife, Kaltum Mohamed, rent an apartment in the Phillips neighborhood. Fateh said he will push for a renters bill of rights, and he wants to see local preemption laws lifted so cities can enact rent controls.
"A lot of things might be blocked, but I think Fateh's mature and can have conversations with these people, and maybe he can teach them to humanize the issues that people care about," Mohamed said. "I know for a fact that he'll always stick by his values, and I think when people know that somebody can stick by their values they tend to respect them."
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.
Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 • @zoemjack