Hundreds of East African immigrants cheered and waved when Minneapolis City Council candidate Abdi Warsame took the microphone last week at a DFL caucus across from Riverside Plaza. Shoppers congratulated him as he walked through a Somali mall a few days later, past the bright scarves and carpets for sale.
On the surface, it is a happy tale: the city’s Somalis, denied democracy in their homeland, uniting to elect one of their own to the council.
But the Sixth Ward’s two other campaigns tell a darker story of political hardball, and have filed challenges to the caucuses after complaining to DFL leaders that Warsame’s supporters harassed and intimidated attendees.
The allegations come days before Saturday’s closely watched DFL endorsing convention. The event pits Warsame against another Somali candidate, Mohamed Cali, and 11-year Council Member Robert Lilligren, who must prove himself to a much larger population of East African immigrants after a redistricting panel last year redrew the ward’s boundaries. The shift came after Warsame and others advocated for more Somalis to be grouped in one ward.
Volunteers for Lilligren’s campaign said in interviews that people on Warsame’s team essentially took over the April 16 caucuses, speaking in Somali and criticizing those who supported the other candidates, while also trying to turn more conservative Somali elders away from Lilligren by highlighting his openly gay status.
“It’s very unsettling. It’s very distressing. Can we run a clean race?” said Maryam Marne Zafar, a caucus captain for Lilligren who submitted one of the challenges.
Warsame dismissed his opponents’ claims, saying they were unhappy because so few people showed up to support them. He also said he specifically told his team to not make an issue of Lilligren’s sexual orientation.
“People are making up stories,” said Warsame, who left Somalia as a child and would be the highest elected Somali in Minnesota if he wins the council seat. “They have to find an excuse so all of a sudden the establishment feels overwhelmed and the underdogs, the newcomers, are somehow intimidating. We follow the rules.”
Caucuses described as chaotic
In interviews by the Star Tribune with the other candidates and seven other caucus attendees, a picture emerged of caucuses marked by chaos and confusion, with some men wearing Warsame buttons purposely or inadvertently intimidating and excluding those from other campaigns. Caucuses broke for Muslim prayer at 8 p.m. — which the DFL had approved ahead of time — prompting some participants who were not Muslim to leave because of the delays. Much of the business was carried out in Somali, which some caucusgoers did not understand.
Khalid Mohamed, a Lilligren volunteer, said a man wearing a Warsame button shouted at him to give him the pen as he tried to write his name on a delegate sign-in sheet at the Phillips Community Center. Only eight people came out for the councilman that day, he said, compared with about 200 for Warsame, and supporters of the other campaign called him a traitor and an undercover snitch when they saw his Lilligren sticker.
He tried to come back later and write his name again, but the same man grabbed and pushed him. Robert Albee, campaign manager for Cali, said he could hear the fracas from inside an office and came out to see Mohamed against a wall surrounded by men shouting at him in Somali.
“It was very chaotic, it was just a mess, whatever the DFL rules had for the caucus was thrown out the window,” said Mohamed, a college student who interns at City Hall.
Lilligren and 20 supporters who had witnessed or experienced the alleged harassment gathered last week at his home to air their concerns with DFL officials. DFL Chairman Dan McConnell said the party would not comment until the challenges were resolved.
In a challenge filed with the DFL Party, Albee said the convener of the Fifth Precinct caucus — at Phillips Community Center — showed up late, did not bring enough supporters to handle about 150 people and lost control of the meeting to Warsame’s campaign. The challenge filed by Zafar said one witness saw a Warsame supporter register attendees instead of the designated DFL official and try to bully people into switching sides. Lilligren’s campaign staff said they had secured support from a number of people in Somali high-rises the afternoon of the caucuses, but by the time the campaign showed up to get them to the events, some of the would-be supporters changed their minds, saying the Warsame campaign had threatened them.
Nimco Ahmed, Lilligren’s longtime City Hall aide, said that when she was campaigning for Lilligren at a Somali high-rise, a woman came up and asked how much they were paying for people to come to support Lilligren. “I said, ‘I’m not paying anything’ ... she said, ‘Well, your opponent is paying.’ ”
But Warsame said no one was paid to show up, and that the community could not be bought or bribed. He stressed that no one with his campaign had intimidated anyone.
Warsame acknowledged that caucuses were messy and chaotic, but said Cedar-Riverside had no turnout four years ago, and the DFL never expected this.
He is executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association and lives with his 6-year-old daughter in Cedar-Riverside. He said his campaign has raised $10,000 so far, and brought people to the caucuses in four buses and 50 minivans. They will rent more for Saturday’s event.
He appears to have strong support. At one caucus in the Brian Coyle Center, nearly every attendee a reporter spoke with vouched support for Warsame, and the candidate received a more enthusiastic reaction from the crowd than did Lilligren and Cali. Some of Warsame’s supporters hovered at the front of the room to monitor the proceedings.
“The reality is this is a movement, we want change,” he said. “We’re going to bring a whole new generation of voters, a whole new immigrant community and also a better understanding between the larger community and east Africans.”