Rep. Ilhan Omar, vying for her third term in Congress, points to her political record as to why she’s still the person best fit for the job. The Somali-born refugee rose to the national spotlight in 2016 as the first Somali American state legislator (District 60B) in the U.S.
Shortly afterward, as former Congressman Keith Ellison pivoted towards the state’s attorney general’s office, Omar set her sights on representing the 5th Congressional District. That political ambition paid off as Omar was elected to Congress in 2018 and shattered multiple glass ceilings as the first woman of color from Minnesota to serve in Congress and one of the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress.
In her time since being elected, Omar has gained a reputation for her progressive policies on climate change, health care, and a $15 minimum wage alongside some of her colleagues who have been branded as “The Squad.”
In this interview with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Omar (IO) discusses what she’s recently done in Congress so far to address the issues relating to abortion access, gun reform, ensuring voting rights, and more.
MSR: What can people expect from Congress in the upcoming months to protect access to abortion at a federal level and what are the benefits and limits of the president’s recent executive order?
IO: Thank you for that question. There’s a lot that we can do on a federal level. Congress today passed two pieces of legislation. The first is the Women’s Health Protection Act, which codifies Roe into law. The second is legislation that helps people who are pregnant to be able to cross state lines legally and obtain an abortion.
I think those two pieces of legislation are very much helpful, and there’s a real need for us to make abortion legal federally in this country. The executive order that the president put forth is a huge step. Obviously, there’s more work that can be done, and the two pieces of legislation that we just passed can help get us there.
MSR: With the spur of recent shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, Chicago and Minneapolis, what can you say about the efforts by Congress to curb mass shootings and pass gun control laws?
IO: There’s obviously a lot more that we can do. It’s great to have voted for and supported the bipartisan Safer Communities Act. This is a significant piece of legislation and will make a huge difference in communities like ours in Minneapolis and Chicago.
Going forward, we need to ban AR-15s and other assault rifles, pass universal background checks—which will help prevent a lot of people who shouldn’t have guns from having access to them—and we should be doing a lot more to make sure that domestic abusers don’t have access to guns.
There’s a lot more funding that we can pass in supporting mental health services and substance use, more than what’s in the current legislation that we just passed. We need to all look at those things and get them passed in the Senate, and we’re not going to be able to do that if we do not get rid of the filibuster and reform some of the undemocratic elements of this system that is prohibiting some of these changes from taking place.
MSR: Why is it important that we look back on the events of January 6 and understand what happened?
IO: I know the hearings are traumatizing for us who lived through that day and feared for our lives. We have to remember that President Trump waged a deliberate months-long campaign to discredit the outcome of the presidential election and keep himself in office. That is a huge threat to our democracy and our republic. I think the American people clearly need to see it.
I’m one of the first people to introduce a resolution to impeach Trump for the insurrection. I literally wrote it as I was in hiding. I think our democracy is the thing that makes our country unique and revered around the world, and we have to do everything that we can to defend it by holding any and all of these insurrectionists accountable.
MSR: How is Congress working to ensure our democracy, but also working to support Americans now?
IO: As we’ve been fighting to defend our democracy, I’ve also been able to introduce and pass legislation to help feed over 30 million children school meals in this country with my Meals Act that passed, and I continue to advocate to get resources to the district like the $17 million in community projects that we’ve been able to deliver.
We continue to make a difference in the lives of our constituents by doing thousands of constituent casework, whether it’s immigration or supporting our veterans with the resources that they need, or helping our elders with their Social Security and disability checks, or just making sure people have access to housing with our federal housing program.
MSR: On the point of defending our democracy, we’ve seen an effort to chip away at voting rights across the country. What can you tell us about the work that is happening to defend voting rights?
IO: Democracy and the love for democracy is the reason I have organized voter turnouts [and been] an advocate trying to get people to caucus and participate in leading. The first legislation that I held a press conference on was the For the People Act, which is HR 1, which strengthens our democracy.
I’m proud of the work that I’ve done in fighting against Voter ID in the state of Minnesota. I’m proud of the background that I have in making sure Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District has a high voter turnout and that we continue to encourage people to participate.
We are lucky and might be living on an island here in the United States with all of the things that we will have access to that others throughout the country might not.
MSR: You’re one of the most visible members of Congress and have experienced harassment and threats of violence. With all of this divisiveness, much of it directed towards you, how are you doing?
IO: It’s a scary time to step up and want to serve in public life. We deal with massive levels of death threats. We have people who have been imprisoned for threatening our lives.
But I think there are many of our constituents that are dealing with the threats to their constitutional rights every single day, so it is an honor and a privilege to be able to utilize my unique voice to understand the kind of challenges that our democracy is facing and advocating for the policies that I advocate for.
MSR: Over the years, you’ve been a leading voice for student debt relief. What should people expect to come from Congress or the administration when it comes to the forgiveness of student loans?
IO: We’ve asked for the readiness of the Education Department because in April, when I sat down with the president at the White House, we got an agreement that the president will move forward with student debt cancellation.
That is soon to be announced, hopefully in the first week of August. We just wanted to make sure that the Department of Education is ready to roll out that cancellation when that executive order is signed. This has been an important issue for me and my constituents, and I wanted to make sure that we saw this issue through, because I know that it’s going to make a huge difference in the lives of many people.
MSR: Is there an exact figure that we can expect?
IO: I don’t know what the exact amount will be at this moment. I hope it is significant enough that people are able to feel the relief that it will provide.
MSR: In a previous MSR article, Don Samuels stated that your views on public safety differed from the views of the majority of voters in the district and that your voting record was out of line with the party. What is your response to how your view on public safety and your voting record is being characterized?
IO: Changes are clearly needed to keep all of our communities safe. All that I think is important to many of our constituents is to be and feel safe.
I think it’s really important to remember I enjoy the support of leadership in the house. We’ve had the First Lady of the United States come into our district to celebrate the work that I’ve been able to do and the resources that I’ve been able to deliver to our state in regards to providing childcare access.
And as someone who gets to enjoy and have sit-down conversations with the president, I wouldn’t categorize my relationship with our party and its leadership and the work that I’ve been able to accomplish as not being in line with the party. I think anybody that is making those assessments is truly out of sync with reality.
MSR: There was a large turnout in the Twin Cities for Somali Week in celebration of Somalia’s Independence. You were well-received at plenty of the events in the community but received boos from the crowd at the Suldaan Seeraar concert at the Target Center while presenting him with an award. What can you say about that moment?
IO: It was a beautiful moment. It was an opportunity to welcome Suldaan and it was a thoughtful gesture from Kahin who designed an award to present to him. I think it ended up being really meaningful to Suldaan to be able to receive an award, and I hope he does get the opportunity to have many more concerts now that he is going to be a resident of the United States.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com.