Ilhan Omar’s historic victory over 44-year incumbent DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn came after months of dogged work from an army of devoted campaign volunteers who knocked on tens of thousands of doors on her behalf.
Omar built a vast coalition of support beyond East African citizens and tried to connect with many new voters, winning a three-way battle in what emerged as the most wild and unpredictable legislative primary in the state. In a DFL stronghold, Omar is nearly certain to become the nation’s first Somali-American legislator next year.
“I think some people thought that she was just going to build a campaign that appealed to the Somali community, and when you really look at her campaign effort, it was a very broad cross-section of the community,” DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said.
Martin said Omar’s campaign reminded him of the 1990 race run by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, a fiery liberal legend in Minnesota politics who came from behind to knock off an incumbent Republican senator.
“He really inspired a lot of disaffected and disillusioned people who were frustrated with politics and wanted a change, and she did the same thing,” Martin said.
Omar’s victory is already drawing significant worldwide attention. Her campaign spokeswoman said Wednesday she already had received 50 interview requests from local, national and international reporters.
Omar’s ambitions for the Legislature appeared, at first, unlikely to be realized. She spent part of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya and immigrated to the U.S. knowing only a few words of English. Omar spent decades living with her family in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside area, a district represented by Kahn since 1973.
Though she had years of experience as a political activist, Omar, 33, said that after she announced her bid for Kahn’s seat, many people told her that they saw no clear path toward a victory for a Somali-American woman.
The district spanning Cedar-Riverside, the University of Minnesota, and the Seward and Marcy Holmes neighborhoods has grown more ethnically diverse, and voter turnout has increased as East African candidates have become more eager to step into politics.
Community activist Mohamud Noor unsuccessfully challenged state Rep. Kari Dziedzic in 2011 and Kahn in 2014. Abdi Warsame defeated Robert Lilligren in 2013 to become the first Somali-American on the Minneapolis City Council.
Noor’s decision to run again this year seemed likely to split the district’s East African votes and favor Kahn. And the presence of three candidates at the local DFL convention helped cause a deadlock, with no endorsement.
But Omar persisted. She focused extensively outside her own community, particularly engaging students from the university and Augsburg College.
The campaign had long planned to use e-mails, social media and phone reminders to mobilize students to vote, in an effort to offset the reality that the primary would take place while school was out.
Omar also raised far more money than anyone else.
“She had a grass-roots campaign the likes of which I’ve never seen before,” Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson said. “They outworked the other candidates, and you saw that at every level — from the [endorsing] convention to fundraising to their interactions with residents.”
Omar was Johnson’s campaign manager in 2013 and worked as his policy aide at City Hall.
Johnson said it is mistake for anybody to assume Omar’s victory was the result of being a Somali-American candidate in a diverse district.
“Anybody who writes this off … is inaccurately dismissing all of the hard work and the broad support that she has been able to build across the district,” he said.
“She’s been relentless,” said Muhim Abdi, the coordinator for Omar’s outreach efforts to East African voters. Abdi said she never took a day off and was always knocking on doors.
Brian Rice, a longtime political operative and an adviser to Kahn, said he suggested early in the campaign that the maximum number of voters in the district that they could get to come out in the primary election was 5,500.
Instead, 5,868 people showed up. Rice credits Omar for bringing out several hundred more students, extra Somali-American voters and other people from the neighborhoods.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to Omar’s campaign; they got those voters engaged,” Rice said.
Yahye Mohamed, who worked with Omar’s campaign, held the door as several supporters visited her campaign office Tuesday night before going to the Kalsan Restaurant for the election results party.
Over shouts of “Time for a woman to lead,” Mohamed explained that he was proud of the campaign team and the way they worked with the community to gain support.
In her victory speech, Omar described her campaign team as the best in the country.
“What we did tonight,” she said, “no one thought was possible.”