The short, frenzied scramble among DFLers to fill the congressional seat U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison held for 11 years climaxes Tuesday — and the primary winner may well be bound for Washington.
The leading candidates are former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, state Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray; Jamal Abdi Abdulahi, a community organizer, and Frank Drake, who ran for the seat in 2016 as a Republican, are also running in the DFL primary. They’ve had just two months to knock on doors and reach out to voters after Ellison dropped out of the race in June to run for state attorney general.
The winner moves to a November election showdown against likely Republican candidate Jennifer Zielinski. Voters in the Fifth Congressional District, which includes all of Minneapolis and a handful of neighboring suburbs, have a long history of leaning heavily Democratic, making Tuesday’s DFL primary winner the prohibitive favorite.
In trying to appeal to a progressive electorate, the three contenders have vowed to largely continue Ellison’s policies and fight back against President Donald Trump. With similar stances on the issues, they’re trying to distinguish themselves in the Tuesday primary by their legislative records and life experiences.
“Because it’s Democrat against Democrat, I don’t think [voters] are as concerned. … Right now that’s the challenge for all three of us,” Torres Ray said. “I think we’re going to vote in very similar ways on all the issues.”
On a recent afternoon, Kelliher went to the North Side to talk to voters eating at 13-year-old Jaequan Faulkner’s hot dog stand. As she and campaign aides ate hot dogs on the lawn nearby, she struck up a conversation with Bryan Aust, an immigration lawyer on his lunch break.
People are “very scared,” said Aust, who wants to see more congressional oversight on immigration.
Kelliher told him that if Democrats take control of the House, at least one legislative body will have the power to call Trump administration officials to testify. She said she’d done the same as speaker of the House with the administration of then-GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty — calling officials before a legislative committee to push back against budget cuts.
With her current campaign, “It became pretty clear quickly that the battles with Pawlenty meant something to people and that they saw it as a proxy for being able to go to D.C. and effectively fight,” said Kelliher, who has recited that experience in her campaign ads and been endorsed by numerous DFL legislators and local elected leaders.
She has the longest and highest-profile legislative career of any of the candidates, having served 12 years as a state legislator and four as speaker, in addition to being the DFL-endorsed candidate for governor in 2010 (she lost the primary to Gov. Mark Dayton). Kelliher said the biggest change she’s seen since returning to politics after an eight-year absence is that voters are much more engaged — and their number one concern is Trump.
Kelliher said people are also looking for a more hands-on representative who is in Minneapolis more regularly, given that Ellison’s role as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee has seen him traveling around the country over the past two years.
A Colombian immigrant and 11-year legislator, Torres Ray said she’d be the best advocate for people of color, inclusion and social justice. Her priority is addressing family separation, especially among migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and she said she wants to advocate for the urban American Indian community in Congress. Torres Ray said she’s worked on child welfare for 16 years, so family separation is in her background.
“I want to put absolute emphasis and priority on agencies affecting families,” said Torres Ray, who has picked up endorsements from several DFL legislators and progressive activists.
Torres Ray recently visited an encampment of homeless American Indians along Hiawatha Avenue, where she’s working with a member of the group, Katherine Yanez, to get out the vote on Tuesday.
“Minorities need to be the priority,” Yanez told Torres Ray above the din of traffic, standing amid a cluster of tents.
Afterward, Torres Ray noted, “Margaret is a very smart woman who has done exceptionally well in her career as a politician, but I don’t remember [her talking] about these issues [of social justice] in a compelling way. Today she’s talking about fighting Pawlenty and developing infrastructure. That’s something we have to do, of course … but this is my priority: fighting some of the most intractable problems that affect minorities.”
She said that Omar, a first-term Somali-American legislator who won the DFL endorsement, offers a compelling, strong voice — but that it’s important to build experience as a legislator because the work is not easy.
The Fifth District race will be a test of how much of Omar’s national celebrity translates into local support. The first Somali-American state legislator in the U.S., Omar has talked extensively about her history as a refugee and Muslim and believes she’s the best person to fight Trump’s policies on immigration and Muslims. She has also noted that as a millennial renter with student debt, she is better connected to the experiences of many groups that are underrepresented in Congress, and like Ellison has been successful at driving up voter turnout.
“You need to have the fluency of … lived experiences of the people you are trying to represent,” said Omar, who has endorsements of several DFL-aligned groups and elected officials.
Omar recently traveled to Southern California for fundraising events hosted by the political action committee (PAC) for that state’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Joe Salas, the PAC’s president, said sending Omar to Congress would repudiate Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim countries.
“By sending one of those people he wants to ban from the country to Washington, D.C., to represent them in Congress, we think that’s a very powerful message,” Salas said.
Omar has drawn national media attention but also controversy. Some conservative bloggers alleged she married her brother to help him obtain U.S. citizenship, which Omar adamantly denied. This July, she said she’d return $2,500 in college speaking fees after a GOP legislator raised questions about a violation of House ethics rules; Omar said she’d accepted the speaking arrangements before she was elected and learned about the ethics policy.
Omar has also drawn criticism in the Jewish community for previous statements critical of the Israeli government and military. She has said that criticism of Israeli military strikes against Palestinians does not mean she is anti-Semitic.
At Birchwood Cafe on Thursday, Omar met with several dozen voters to talk about her campaign. Education was a major theme, as voters raised concerns about charter school oversight, bias against students of color, and the challenges facing the public school system.
Omar said on one hand people advocate for diversity “as our best asset,” and on the other students wind up going to school with people just like them.
“Segregation really is not good,” she said.
Emily Walz, 36, said after the event that she was impressed and that Omar knew a lot about a wide range of issues. But Sam Crossley, 31, said he was still undecided. He was impressed by her emphasis on education, but he said that much of education policy is decided at the state level and wants to hear more about what she could do about it in Congress.