Opinion editor's note: Editorial endorsements represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. The board bases its endorsement decisions on candidate interviews and other reporting.
Minneapolis dominates Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District, but the district is also home to three-quarters of a million residents, about half of whom live in first-ring suburbs.
DFL-endorsed Rep. Ilhan Omar has represented this diverse district for two terms and is vying for a third against the strongest opponent she has faced to date: former Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels. After interviewing both and considering their records, the Star Tribune Editorial Board is endorsing Samuels in the Aug. 9 DFL primary.
Samuels is a candidate of rare caliber, almost ideally suited to represent the mix of ethnicities and issues confronting the district. Firmly rooted in and committed to his North Side Minneapolis community, he has spent a lifetime walking his talk, seeking collaboration and compromise to produce results that have had an impact far beyond his area.
As a two-term council member, Samuels held vigils to mark the violent deaths of those in his community and drew some of the most influential names in the state to them, raising awareness of the toll violence was taking by circulating comments from neighbors in memorial books. He leads a company called MicroGrants, which uses modest grants to help low-income people start a small business or career. He co-founded the PEACE Foundation, which later became the Northside Achievement Zone. It has won national acclaim for its poverty-fighting efforts and millions in federal grants to better educate low-income children.
When Samuels sees problems, he sets out to address them, engaging as many others as possible. As a council member, he initiated a Ban the Box statute that helped ex-offenders find jobs and paved the way for similar legislation statewide. When a police officer killed Philando Castile after a routine stop, Samuels, as a private citizen, started Lights On!, a project that allows officers in participating departments to give out vouchers for equipment repairs instead of costly tickets. That one program, he said, has since spread to 16 states, with thousands of vehicles repaired.
That is the kind of innovation and collaborative spirit that yields results.
"I have a long history of service to the community," Samuels said in an interview with the Editorial Board. After a bullet came through his window years ago, he and his wife, Sondra, began to organize. In canvassing the district, Samuels said he is convinced voters are "looking for a new kind of leadership that is collaborative, cooperative, healing and productive. That's what I'm offering."
Samuels, 72, is an immigrant born in Jamaica to a preacher and a seamstress. Immigrating here at age 20 "with $83 in my pocket," he was left with a deep appreciation for the difficulties immigrants face. Samuels said he is committed to re-establishing the U.S. as "a harbor for people being terrorized or persecuted in their own countries."
Samuels helped lead opposition to a city charter amendment in the last election that would have dismantled the Minneapolis Police Department, a proposal that lacked an actual plan for what would come in its place. He won a lawsuit against the city over language that said police would be hired under the new plan "if necessary." Samuels said he felt confident in his stand because he knew that many in the community wanted better, more targeted enforcement and stricter means to hold rogue or undisciplined officers accountable for their actions.
Samuels was proved correct by pre-election polls showing a solid majority of Black residents opposing the amendment and by the election itself, in which voters decisively rejected it. He quickly added that activists who brought the amendment played an essential role in raising awareness and envisioning change. He said he was glad to see Mayor Jacob Frey incorporate some elements, including naming nationally noted law enforcement expert Cedric Alexander as the city's first public safety commissioner.
In addition to public safety, Samuels said he would seek a more substantial federal role in affordable housing, homelessness and "basic inequities that exist in our communities" such as achievement gaps.
Samuels also expressed a unique goal: To meet and spend at least a half-hour with every member of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike. That way, he said, "When I take a vote in two years, when I rise to make a statement, they'll be looking not at an enemy, but an opponent who also had coffee with them one day."
Omar, 39, after a rocky and controversial start, remains a polarizing figure who often is at odds with her own party's leadership in Washington. That by itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but Omar too often has been on the wrong side of critical decisions that carried high stakes for Minnesota.
When former President Barack Obama decried "defund the police" as poor sloganeering that would hurt those who needed help, Omar hit back by tweeting that it was "not a slogan but a demand." When a critical vote came as President Joe Biden was working furiously to build consensus for a long-awaited, $1 trillion infrastructure package, Omar was the only Democrat in the Minnesota delegation to vote against it and one of only six Democrats in Congress to do so. For Minnesota, the bill meant billions of federal dollars for roads, bridges, high-speed internet, safer drinking water and improved airports. Luckily, 13 Republicans joined in to pass the bill, which was later signed into law.
Omar often appears disconnected from her district and unwilling to work with leaders such as Frey, going so far as to tell voters not to rank him in the recent mayoral election. When asked by the Editorial Board for thoughts on Alexander, Omar said she did not recognize the name and had no opinion, even though his nomination to the high-profile public safety role was prominently reported by local news outlets.
Minnesota's Fifth District needs a congressional representative who can not only fight for an agenda but also help make it happen. That involves good relationships and a willingness to compromise.
In this race, Samuels is that candidate.
In addition to Samuels and Omar, other candidates in the Aug. 9 DFL primary are AJ Kern, Albert Ross and Nate Schluter. A GOP primary in that district includes Republican Party-endorsed Cicely Davis, plus Royce White and Guy T. Gaskin.
For more information about the candidates, go to this editorial at startribune.com/opinion and click on their full names.
Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.