U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar sparred Friday with Democratic rival Antone Melton-Meaux over who is best positioned to deliver progressive policy wins in an overwhelmingly liberal district that includes Minneapolis, now at the center of national debate over police and race issues.
In a wide-ranging, hourlong debate on WCCO radio, Omar and Melton-Meaux were both put on the defensive about their massive fundraising hauls from donors outside the Fifth District in a nationally watched primary on Aug. 11 that has attracted millions of dollars on each side.
Also in the mix was John Mason, another DFL candidate, who has run a quiet campaign. But the encounter was the first, and possibly the last, direct exchange between Omar and Melton-Meaux, a political newcomer charging that the incumbent’s turbulent two years in Congress have not served the district well.
“We don’t need more dividers,” Melton-Meaux said. “We need more uniters.”
Omar lamented that so much of the contest has focused on “personalities.” She portrayed herself as a progressive voice for the district, which has been in DFL hands for decades. “What I do every day is listen to you and turn that into legislation,” she said.
Omar also cited her endorsement Friday by DFL Gov. Tim Walz, citing it as an example of her strong support from community leaders in Minnesota.
Omar, elected in 2018 with 78% of the vote, is an ally of powerful progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has championed ambitious proposals such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and eliminating rent and student loan debt.
“I have done the work of building coalitions in the district, in Congress, to try to make sure that we have our voices implemented in every single piece of legislation that’s introduced,” Omar said.
While Melton-Meaux differed little with Omar on specific policy points, he said she takes an unrealistic approach that guarantees little actual progress. As an example he cited her “Homes for All” proposal meant to end homelessness.
“That has a trillion-dollar price tag, no funding mechanism, only six cosponsors, no Senate companion,” Melton-Meaux said. “That’s not a progressive agenda, that’s just a platitude.”
Mason also noted that Omar’s support for Medicare for All is out of step with House Democratic leaders, who are committed to protecting the Obama-era Affordable Care Act from GOP efforts to dismantle it.
But some of the sharpest attacks in the debate came from exchanges over their fundraising, much of it from donors and interest groups from out of state.
Altogether, including money raised by GOP candidate Lacy Johnson, the race has attracted more than $10 million in contributions, making it one of the costliest in the nation.
While Omar has proved herself a prolific fundraiser, Melton-Meaux has outraised her since he entered the race, and he noted that he has received more money than she has from within the district.
But Omar and Mason alike were sharply critical of Melton-Meaux for the fact that a significant portion of his fundraising and spending from some outside groups has been from Republican donors mainly motivated by a desire to get her out of office.
“These are people really who are very much invested in creating a toxic environment, that are invested in a president who not only has a Muslim ban but invested in singling out the only member in Congress that comes from one of those countries that is on the Muslim ban,” said Omar, who emigrated to the U.S. from Somalia with her family.
Melton-Meaux jabbed back by arguing that Omar’s campaign has “tried to plant the idea that I’m anti-immigrant, which is deeply troubling.” He said the attack came in response to his use of his personal story as the descendant of American slaves.
Omar responded: “I never have, and it’s really sad that is being, that lie is being spoken right here.”
A debate moderator asked Omar to respond to frequent criticism, from Melton-Meaux and others, of her recent marriage to a D.C.-based political consultant whose firm is a major recipient of her re-election funds.
A Federal Election Commission (FEC) filing this week shows that the firm, the E Street Group, has now received more than $1.6 million from Omar’s campaign.
“I don’t pay my husband. I pay the firm to do work,” Omar said. Most of the $600,000 directed to the firm since July 1 went directly to other vendors for TV commercials and campaign literature, she said.
Melton-Meaux also attacked both Omar and Mason for past campaign finance violations.
“I find it ironic I’m the only person on this panel who hasn’t had an ethics violation on campaign finance,” Melton-Meaux said, noting that Mason was reprimanded by the FEC for not filing reports on time. Omar faced past scrutiny from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board when she was a state legislator.
While more of Mason’s attacks were pointed at Melton-Meaux, he did save some criticism for Omar. He said he’s found it disingenuous that she has positioned herself as President Donald Trump’s “worst nightmare.”
In fact, Mason said, “she’s Trump’s best dream,” adding, “the only person benefiting from Omar is Omar.”