State Rep. Ilhan Omar has been in the Minnesota Legislature for just over a month, but this Muslim refugee from Somalia has quickly emerged as a potent symbol for opponents of the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policies — and cultivated the kind of political star power that most state legislators don’t accumulate in an entire career.
Already, Omar’s calendar teems with speaking engagements at large protests, interviews with national media including People magazine and NBC’s “Today” show, and constituent meetings at the State Capitol — even as she tries to master the daily machinations of the legislative process. Since her election last November, she’s already traveled to Somalia and Turkey. Most days, she admits, she struggles to find time for lunch.
While her name now carries a political title, Omar — the first Somali-American ever elected to a state Legislature in the U.S. — is keeping close ties to the movement rising in response to President Trump.
“Many people find themselves wondering what to do now in the wake of the new president’s administration’s policies, appointees and the clear biases that are happening against immigrants and other groups in America,” Omar said last Wednesday night at a recurring constituent event, Coffee and Kulan, which means “meeting” in Somali.
The gathering at Mixed Blood Theatre, in her University of Minnesota and Cedar-Riverside-area House district, underscored Omar’s emerging legislative style. Titled “Tools of Resistance,” Omar said the event was meant to “focus on providing residents with the necessary tools to protect themselves and organize their communities.”
At the Legislature, Omar’s House DFL colleagues say that she has already shown a knack for electrifying progressives on issues like racial and economic justice and gender equality. Her quick rise has not come without controversy, including scrutiny of aspects of her personal life, and some tension with fellow leaders in the local Somali community.
Still, allies say Omar’s ascent in Minnesota politics is likely to continue.
“She has some talents that are uniquely powerful in this strange time that we all find ourselves in,” said House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “She brings a ton of energy to the caucus.”
Born in 1982, Omar fled Somalia with her family as a young child. She told the Star Tribune her father and grandfather helped her realize early how political involvement could change lives for the better.
“They didn’t have that opportunity for themselves,” Omar said. “They were born during colonial times.”
Omar, the youngest of seven, lost her mother when she was young. After four years in a Kenyan refugee camp, the family found a U.S. sponsor, relocating first to Virginia before settling in Minneapolis.
Here, Omar’s grandfather immersed her in DFL politics. Like many children of immigrants, she translated for him at caucus meetings — but quickly saw greater purpose in local politics.
After college in Fargo, Omar managed several DFL political campaigns and worked for City Council Member Andrew Johnson. In 2016, by building a coalition of college students, progressives and Somali community members, she beat longtime state Rep. Phyllis Kahn in the DFL House primary for a seat Kahn had held since 1973 and easily won in November.
Omar has harnessed social media, with more than 73,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook. In multiple national cable news interviews, she criticized Trump’s controversial bid to block entry to the U.S. for refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.
In the Legislature, Omar must balance her growing celebrity with the often unglamorous work of a rank-and-file lawmaker. With Republicans in charge, she’ll find little space to accomplish progressive priorities.
“She’s one of 134 of us here,” said state Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who chairs the Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, on which Omar now sits. “I don’t see her as being different from any other freshmen that are here.”
Controversy, criticism clouded rise
Days after winning her primary last summer, Omar faced scrutiny over a report that she had married her brother for immigration reasons. She denied he was her brother, calling the insinuations “absurd and offensive.”
Omar is not legally married to Ahmed Hirsi, who is the father of her three children. She said they’d had an Islamic marriage that ended in 2008 when they reached “an impasse in our life together.” She later met and married Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, a British citizen and the man alleged to be her brother, in 2009 in Hennepin County. After that relationship ended, Omar said she reconciled with Hirsi and remarried in their faith.
She said she’s still in the process of divorcing Elmi and declined further comment.
In December, Omar posted on social media that a Washington, D.C., cabdriver harassed her, threatened to remove her hijab and called her “ISIS.”
The incident attracted national media attention, and Omar shared details live on MSNBC. She later reported it to the district’s anti-discrimination office and the agency that oversees taxicabs.
The case has been referred to adjudication but a hearing date hasn’t yet been set, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles said last month.
While Omar’s historic candidacy resonated with many local Somalis, some community leaders have expressed frustration at what they say is a lack of access to the first Somali-American legislator.
Eager to seek roughly $11 million for Somali community initiatives from the Legislature, some members of the newly formed Coalition of Somali American Leaders said they were disappointed at what they say is Omar’s lack of engagement on their effort.
The 11-member coalition includes Ka Joog, a nonprofit that works with Somali youth. Hirsi once worked for Ka Joog before he parted ways with the organization.
“As an organization, we always embrace differences in approaches and ideas to solve issues,” said Mohamed Farah, Ka Joog’s executive director and a Minneapolis City Council candidate for Ninth Ward. But he said the group’s relationship with Omar is tainted by “personal vendetta” and a “history of tension.”
Omar disputed that she has not been accessible to leaders. She said she’s met with members of the coalition and its chief lobbyist.
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who supported Omar over Kahn, has tried to mediate between Omar and the Somali coalition. He said she has faced unfair criticism.
“Everyone expects great things immediately,” Rybak said. “Let’s give her a little while to get her feet on the ground first.”