MN lawmakers in urgent need of more diversity, candidate says

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar

Editor’s Update:  On Nov. 8, Ilhan Omar made history by becoming the nation’s first Somali American Muslim woman in elected office. We are revisiting this story, which originally ran April 13, 2016, in light of her historical win. We hope to feature a follow up post-election story on her in the coming days. 

“There is urgency in our state. We are the best in everything; we make the top of the list in everything. But, people who look like me are on the bottom of everything.” These are the words of Minnesota House District 60B Democratic candidate Ilhan Omar.

Omar moved to Minnesota with her family in 1997 from Arlington, Virginia, where she lived for two years and attended middle school. A Somali native, Omar also lived for four years in a refugee camp in Kenya.

She and her sister were raised by a single father. “My father was very excited about moving to Minnesota for the occupational and educational opportunities that he could seek out…for our family.”

Omar attended Edison High School while growing up in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, where she and her family (husband and three children) still reside. She has a 13-year-old at Sanford Middle School, a 10-year-old at Bratt Elementary, and a three-year-old who Omar describes as “going on 50” and who is being cared for by Grandma while Omar and her husband work.

Omar attended the University of Minnesota, but she wanted to be able to build better relationships with her teachers, so she later transferred to a smaller school, North Dakota State University. She graduated there with a degree in political science and an international studies degree.

She has worked for University of Minnesota Extension as a community educator as well as working with the Minnesota After School Network, lobbying to get funding to extend after-school programming.

“I became involved with running two campaigns,” explains Omar. “In 2013, I helped my former boss as a campaign manager for [Minneapolis] city council. It was really exciting because we were able to see seven new council members and a new mayor come in, and there were lots of changes that had previously been proposed but had not gotten any traction.

“I have tried to spend a lot of my years trying to get people access and create programs for people to participate in the political process that way.” If she is endorsed, Omar says two things can happen.

The first would be to challenge the Republican-endorsed candidate in November. Or, if Omar is endorsed, the current representative can go against the endorsement and run against Omar in the November primaries. The current representative, Phyllis Kahn, has held the 60B seat for 42 years, so Omar may run against another Democrat in the primary.

The district that Omar seeks to represent includes the following communities: Marcy-Holm, Nicollet Island, Cedar-Riverside, Seward, Prospect Park, Como, the East and West Banks on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities Campus, and Augsburg.

On March 1 there was a caucus; then Omar and her team geared up for the state convention on April 9. “My grandfather, who helped raise me, was very interested in going to a caucus process, although he was not a member of any political party or any elite group or having any special privileges.” Omar says his interest became hers.

“He was really just excited about the ability to show up to a neighborhood meeting and get involved and be a part of the decision making,” says Omar. “So that is where my love began with the political process. I try to spend a lot of my time helping with the political process.”

In 2013 Omar began “thinking about a lot of the things that I am passionate about, like creating affordable and flexible college, and you have to do it at city and state levels. I am really passionate about reforming our criminal justice system, and I did some work at the city, but I wanted to do that at a state level. I am really passionate about creating opportunities where we all thrive economically.

“In the district that I live in, we have one of the highest concentrations of minority-owned businesses that are run by women,” continues Omar. “So…we are investing in that in our district. We are very diverse.

“We have a lot to brag about, but one thing we do not have is a representative democracy where we feel the person who represents us is truly channeling our voice and sort of bringing a collective governing mentality…collaborating with their constituents on issues at the Capitol. That is why I want to see change, and I see myself as a bridge-builder and a collaborator.”

Omar says she likes to think of “building power with people and not for people. So that is why I decided to run for the state representative seat for District 60B.”

However, her main reason for running is this: “Our racial extremes are really high for a state that is not poor. So we need to have a conversation about reallocating resources to places where they are needed. Those conversations are not going to happen with the same people at the table, because if you look at our incarceration rate, it has gone up in the last 10-20 years. If you look at our racial disparities, they have gone up in the last 20 years.

“So, all of these things are happening because we have a lack of diversity and a lack of different perspectives at the Capitol,” continued Omar. “That is the urgency, and that is what needs to change. We cannot have policy change unless we have people who represent the people of these communities.”


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