WASHINGTON – DFLers vying for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s seat were met with a fresh challenge Friday as the DFL Party announced a special endorsing convention on June 17 in Minneapolis.
The rapidly approaching convention gives candidates just over a week to win over party activists and donors in the state’s most reliably Democratic stronghold, where Ellison racked up commanding re-election victories before his abrupt decision to run for Minnesota attorney general.
The race intensified earlier Friday when DFL Gov. Mark Dayton endorsed first-term state Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, saying in a statement that she’s shown “tremendous leadership” at the Minnesota Capitol and will champion progressive values in Congress.
“It’s going to be really important in this battle in Congress between the people and special interests,” said Omar, the first Somali-American elected to a state legislature. “It’s very vital that we are resisting the destructive politics and the divisive policies that are coming from this administration.”
Ellison is among the most progressive voices in the U.S. House, a distinction that has made him a frequent target of bitter attacks from Republicans in Minnesota and across the country. In the crowded field, Omar might have an edge in national exposure, appearing on “The Daily Show,” the cover of Time magazine and a music video for pop rock band Maroon 5.
But Omar, who was elected in 2016, also has the least legislative and political experience of the four DFL candidates who have served in the statehouse. Sen. Bobby Joe Champion was elected to the state Legislature a decade ago, serving first in the House; Sen. Patricia Torres Ray was elected in 2007; and former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher served for about a dozen years at the statehouse.
Focused on Trump
These veteran legislators say that their long legislative records make them qualified to continue Ellison’s work. So far, the candidates have focused their talking points largely on Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump.
The district includes eastern Hennepin County, including all of Minneapolis, along with parts of Anoka and Ramsey counties.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in January showed that voters in Hennepin and Ramsey counties have the most intense disapproval of the president in the state.
Kelliher said that she went “toe to toe” with former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, logging significant legislative wins on the environment and health care. She touted her leadership on developing Minnesota’s renewable energy standard. Kelliher said she also played a key role in making health care available to Minnesotans under the Affordable Care Act, and she plans to advocate for single-payer health care if elected to Congress.
Asked if she was motivated by Trump, Kelliher said, “Absolutely yes! I’m as distressed as many citizens are about the direction that we have taken here. I respect people with a different point of view but I think we are in dangerous territory in terms of the judgment of the chief executive of our country.”
Champion pointed to his record of winning Republican allies on racial equity measures in the Minnesota Legislature as evidence of how he would approach the job of congressman. He maintained that Ellison’s successor needs experience to be successful.
“You have to have a record, you have to have some longevity for people to get a clear sense of your life as a legislator,” Champion said. “How do you work with other people? What are some of the big issues you will work on? What sort of patience have you exhibited?”
Champion added that he has the opportunity “to really talk about what Democrats stand for and why those policies have always been the best policies … to improve the quality of life for all Minnesotans as well as folks across the nation — be it immigration, transportation, higher education.”
Torres Ray recounted how she left a good job to run for state Senate after seeing Pawlenty “devastate our state.” Now, she’s prompted by dissatisfaction with Trump. “The positions that the president is taking in Washington with regard to immigration, labor, education and environmental policy are disastrous,” she said.
She noted how in the beginning of her political career she had to decide how to spend $78 million in legacy funding for parks and trails. Torres Ray also highlighted reforms she made in English language education and addressing the home foreclosure crisis.
“Washington is very complicated,” said Torres Ray, the first Latina in the state Senate. “And we need to make absolutely sure that we send a person who has enough experience in the policy process, in the political process, in the coalition-building process that is required to do the work in that environment. So you have to be tested … and I think I have been tested.”
In addition to more well-known names at the Capitol, DFLers Jamal Abdi Abdulahi and Frank Nelson Drake are also running.
Spirit of the party
Even with the endorsing convention next week, the DFL contest likely won’t be settled until the August primary. The winner will face one of three Republicans in November. The GOP field includes Christopher Chamberlin, Jennifer Zielinski and Bob Carney Jr.
The last Republican to win the district was U.S. Rep. Walter Judd, who held the seat until 1963.
Mike Erlandson, a former state DFL chairman who also lost to Ellison in a primary, said that primary voters will decide on something bigger than experience — they’re looking for candidates who represent the spirit of the party. Omar’s national profile will help with fundraising in an election where it will take more money than normal to win, according to Erlandson.
Brian Melendez, another past party chairman, said there are a number of strong candidates in the race. But because of the quick timeline, “There is probably going to be less opportunity for calm reflection in this election than most of us would like to see.”