There’s “No Question” a Progressive Woman Will Replace Keith Ellison in Congress. But Who Will It Be?

The three female frontrunners in a Minnesota House race have similar platforms and are turning to their experiences and identities to make their cases.

Ilhan Omar, a candidate for State Representative for District 60B in Minnesota, gives an acceptance speech on election night, November 8, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Omar, a refugee from Somalia, is the first Somali-American Muslim woman to hold public office. / AFP / STEPHEN MATUREN (Photo credit should read STEPHEN MATUREN/AFP/Getty Images)
Ilhan Omar, a candidate for State Representative for District 60B in Minnesota, gives an acceptance speech on election night, November 8, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images

The group Women Winning has become a fixture in Minnesota politics after working to support pro-choice women running for office for the last 32 years. Among the success stories listed on its website is the story of Margaret Anderson Kelliher — “the second woman to serve as Speaker of the Minnesota House and the first woman to receive a major party’s endorsement for Governor in Minnesota.”

Kelliher lost her shot at the state’s highest office in 2010, despite securing the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota, and she has been out of politics ever since. But after a shake-up in Minnesota Democratic politics created a rare opening in the state’s 5th Congressional District in June, Kelliher decided to enter the fray once more.

Primary voters in the district tend to be mostly female, and an endorsement by Women Winning, a political action committee that is essentially the local equivalent of EMILY’s List, carries a lot of weight. Given that Women Winning already touts Kelliher on its website, one might presume that the group’s endorsement was a given. But in a sign of the changing times — at a moment when insurgent candidates are working to defeat the old guard of the Democratic Party — the group overlooked the candidate it champions as core to its success. It instead opted to endorse Ilhan Omar, a freshman state representative, in the 5th District race. Omar participated in the organization’s training program for candidates and earned its backing during her 2016 entree into politics.

The crowded primary field includes Somali-American activist and engineer Jamal Abdulahi and former Republican Frank Drake, but is largely viewed as a three-way contest between Kelliher, Omar, and Patricia Torres Ray, who has been a state senator for 12 years. The 5th District seat is highly coveted: Its current occupant, Keith Ellison, is just one of three people to hold that job in the last 55 years.

The Women Winning endorsement speaks to the dynamics of the race, where the leading candidates generally agree on the issues that have become a litmus test for progressivism in 2018: They’ve all called for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; they support “Medicare for All”; and they’re devoted to fighting climate change and making public education more accessible. The district is the bluest in the state and one of the most progressive in the country, so it’s no surprise that those issues are, more or less, not up for debate.

Whoever wins, there’s “no question” that 5th District voters will send a progressive woman to Congress, said Mike Erlandson, a former DFL chair who now works in public affairs consulting. He added that Kelliher, Omar, and Torres Ray would likely have similar voting records if elected. “It’s really more of a competition about who is the type of person who would be most effective for the district,” he said. 

Democratic Farm Labor-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher addresses supporters as they waits primary results at Jax Cafe in Minneapolis early Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010.(AP Photo/Andy King)

Democratic-Farmer-Labor-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher addresses supporters as they await primary results at Jax Cafe in Minneapolis, Aug. 11, 2010.

Photo: Andy King/AP

Countless candidates across the country have been inspired to run for national office by what they see as the regressive and detrimental policies of the Donald Trump White House. The women of the 5th District are no different.

Kelliher, who declined an interview request, emphasized the need to resist the president’s agenda in a statement to The Intercept. “As an organizer who learned from the late-Senator Paul Wellstone, I believe in the power of representing the people who have been left behind,” she wrote, citing her record of standing up to the state’s Republican governor as House speaker. “I will take my fight and leadership to Congress to make sure we stand up to Donald Trump and get our country back.”

Both Omar’s and Torres Ray’s candidacies carry symbolic weight in the age of Trump. Omar, who was elected to be state representative on the same night Trump won the presidency, made history as the first Somali-American legislator in the United States. Torres Ray’s 2006 election made her the first Latina in the Minnesota Senate. But that’s far from the only, or even primary, reason they’re running for a higher office.

Torres Ray likened her candidacy to her decision to run for the state Senate 13 years ago, when she was working on child welfare issues in the Department of Human Services under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “I was working for the state and seeing every day what was happening directly” as a result of budget cuts, she said. “It was a moment — politically, socially, economically, personally — that I felt I needed to do my part.” Now, as she observes “the horrors that are taking place,” she feels it is time to take the next step: moving to Washington.

Omar, too, said the Trump administration’s “politics of fear” was her impetus. But running for Congress, she said, is about more than just being anti-Trump. “We took this opportunity to really talk about our values and a progressive agenda,” she said of her candidacy, “and not just have Democrats running in our district who are just going to spew out the kind of washed-out rhetoric of going to Washington to fight Trump.”

But her story — of a refugee who survived war only to find success as a politician in America — in many ways makes her the ultimate anti-Trump candidate, a fact she’s well aware of. The 36-year-old mother of three frequently refers to her origin story: She fled Somalia at age 8 and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya before immigrating to the United States as a teenager.

She argues that representation in Congress is important, while maintaining that her progressive track record is what sets her apart. At its core, her message is about using her experiences to identify the issues afflicting underrepresented communities, and also pointing to those experiences as evidence of her ability to overcome obstacles and find success.

“There is space for us to really consider, in a representative democracy, [that] this reflection really matters,” she said, noting that representation extends beyond gender, into factors like faith (or lack thereof) and class. “When we have an opportunity to infuse a voice that has never been heard before, I think it is going to be vital that we take advantage of that.”

Minnesota State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis filed to run for Keith Ellison‚??s congressional seat. Candidates rushed to add their names to the races before the 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 5, 2018 deadline for filing to Minnesota's August primary ballot at the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office in St. Paul, Minn. With Lori Swanson out of AG and into governor's race, there could yet be more big last entries to some of the top races. (Photo by Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA)

Minnesota state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, left, filed to run for Keith Ellison’s congressional seat. Candidates rushed to add their names to the race before the June 5, 2018, deadline for filing to be on Minnesota’s August primary ballot, at the secretary of state’s office in St. Paul, Minn.

Photo: Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/Sipa

Political observers point out that, despite Omar’s national profile — she was featured on the cover of Time magazine last year and in a Maroon 5 music video this year — her weakness is her lack of legislative experience relative to her opponents.

One critic, Phyllis Kahn, the 44-year state representative whom Omar ousted in 2016, noted that Kelliher has an “incredible” record as House speaker. “You’re not going to have me speak without prejudice about Ilhan, but she didn’t really have the experience to be a competent legislator, and she certainly doesn’t have the experience to be a competent congressperson,” said Kahn, who is supporting Kelliher’s congressional run. “She’s a very attractive candidate in many superficial ways.”

On her campaign website, Kelliher lists some highlights from her tenure as House speaker: She made history by overriding a veto by Pawlenty, the former Republican governor, in order to pass an $8.4 billion transportation bill; she created a nation-leading renewable energy standard for the state; and she increased public school funding. These are surely signs that she has what it takes to pass legislation in an often-gridlocked Congress, her supporters say.

Kahn criticized Kelliher’s opponents for using their immigrant backgrounds as a selling point, saying that it is a sign of weakness. “The easiest campaign speech you can make is, ‘It’s time for change,’” she said of Omar. (Kelliher’s campaign website notes that she was the second woman to serve as House speaker.)

Torres Ray was careful not to criticize her opponents, but she said the political landscape has changed drastically in the time Kelliher has been out of politics. “I have been working with youth and millennials on very profound changes in policy and with exciting political movements nationwide and locally, and Margaret has not done that for eight years,” she said.  

As for Omar, Torres Ray said, “I supported Ilhan when she ran for the House, because I felt that the voice of this incredibly smart, talented woman needed to be there.” She pointed out that they have the shared experience of being the “first” to do something, but that Omar would likely benefit from a few more years as a lawmaker. “I’m just saying that, for me, kind of maturing into that role of being the first, and what you do with that, and how you use the message to empower others — and to do legislative work, in particular — is very challenging,” Torres Ray said.

Omar, who has been a legislator for less than two years, dismissed the notion that she would be less effective because she has not been in politics as long as her opponents, noting that her collective experiences make her right for the job. “I have an experience of over 10 years of working with the University of Minnesota, of working at the municipal level for a city council member, and now serving in the Minnesota legislature, and these are unique experiences that no one else has,” she said.

The candidates are running grassroots campaigns, swearing off campaign contributions from corporate PACs. Omar was the first to do so, earning the endorsement of End Citizens United, which works toward reforming campaign finance. Kelliher, though, is leading the pack in fundraising. As of July 25, she’d raised about $348,000 to Omar’s $246,000, Abdulahi’s $105,000, and Torres Ray’s $65,000.

Ellison, who is now running for attorney general, has declined to endorse any candidate running for his seat, but the major progressive and grassroots groups that have gotten involved in the race have put their weight behind Omar. Her list of endorsements includes MoveOn; Justice Democrats; the statewide and Twin Cities chapters of Our Revolution, the group that was formed from the remnants of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign; and CPD Action, an arm of the Center for Popular Democracy. MN350 Action, the lobbying arm of the climate change-focused group MN350, commended both Omar and Torres Ray for pledging to not accept fossil fuel money.

Omar also won the DFL endorsement on June 17. The legitimacy of that endorsement, however, has been questioned by prominent Minnesota Democrats. Critics, such as former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the endorsement convention — which was hurriedly scheduled for the afternoon of Father’s Day, nearly two weeks after the filing deadline — should not have happened, as delegates were not expecting that the seat would be contested this year. (Abdulahi and Kelliher both declined to appear at the convention.) Legitimate or not, Omar has gotten the benefit of appearing on party mailers and using party infrastructure for voter outreach in the weeks leading up to the election.  

State Rep. Ilhan Omar, second left, a Minneapolis Democrat running for the U.S. House, is hugged after her moving speech against the Muslim ban Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in Minneapolis. Muslim individuals and groups, as well as other religious and civil rights organizations, expressed outrage and disappointment at the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to uphold President Donald Trump's ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

State Rep. Ilhan Omar, second left, a Minneapolis Democrat running for the U.S. House, is hugged after her moving speech against the Muslim ban, June 26, 2018.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/AP

While it’s true that the three women will likely have similar voting records in Congress, Torres Ray and Omar each argue that their personal and professional backgrounds will allow them to better advocate for Minnesota communities whose voices have not traditionally been heard in Washington.

Torres Ray argued that 27 years as an activist, state employee, and public servant have prepared her for the job. She intends to take those experiences to the House to work on education, immigration, and Native American affairs. Though the progressive state is well-known for quality education, the reality is starkly different for communities of color, Torres Ray said. “Minnesota ranks 49 in terms of education of African-American, Native, and immigrant children,” she explained, adding that the state also trails behind in providing health care and access to jobs for those communities.

Omar, for her part, said she would like to join the House committees on agriculture, education, and homeland security. She said she’d bring her experiences — as someone who’s worked on the University of Minnesota’s nutrition program, as a millennial with student debt, and as a refugee — to each of those roles.

She is a founding member of the Minnesota House’s People of Color and Indigenous, or POCI, caucus. Better known as the “posse” caucus, the group is conceptually similar to a progressive sub-caucus that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic nominee in New York’s 14th District, recently suggested she’d like to form in the U.S. House, where a handful of truly progressive members would band together to demand stronger legislation.

Asked about her willingness to join that type of group, Omar pointed to the POCI caucus and said, “We were a group of people that could cultivate power and make sure that we were pushing back against detrimental policies that would have impact on our communities and the communities that we represented. I see and appreciate Alexandria’s view on that.” She added, “And I’m excited for us to be able to continue to work toward getting enough people to fuel the creation of a strong, progressive caucus.”

Omar’s time in politics has not been without controversy. She has stepped into the hot button issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing accusations of anti-Semitism by critics who falsely conflate criticism of the Israeli government with prejudice against Jews.

Though the accusations against Omar have originated on the right, her Democratic opponents are not shy about picking up on them. Kahn, in her interview with The Intercept, said without prompt that Omar was “anti-Semitic,” and that “the story about the two husbands is completely true,” referring to a 2016 controversy in which Omar was accused of being a bigamist who married her brother to commit immigration fraud. At the time, Omar said in a statement that the rumors about her personal life were “absolutely false and ridiculous.” Kahn, apparently, is not convinced. She said, “This kind of Minnesota niceness, or whatever, of not wanting to appear racist — it’s something no one’s willing to go after her for.”

In the five Minnesota primary elections of the last 10 years, voter turnout came to a statewide average of less than 11 percent. The August 14 primary may be different, though. State election officials are expecting higher-than-usual turnout, in part because there are a number of highly competitive races, including the one in the 5th District.

Research shows that competitive races tend to drive up voter turnout, said Larry Jacobs, a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota. The presence of three women in the race who have served or currently serve in the state legislature, as well as the fact of the rare opening for a safely Democratic seat, make the 5th District contest closely watched and all but guarantee that a lot of voters will show up, Jacobs added.

Each of the candidates stands to benefit from increased turnout, though, and what really matters is which group of people shows up at the polls.

Kelliher will perform better, Erlandson said, if she’s able to draw suburban voters, who don’t typically vote in primaries. “The primary voter in the 5th Congressional District is still 88 percent white and probably 65 percent women,” he said. “That group of people in the suburbs may be more inclined to support the experienced female candidate … at a time where people are really tired of our inexperienced president of the United States.”

Omar’s campaign touts the fact that in 2016, Omar increased voter turnout in her district by 37 percent, largely by appealing to younger voters and making herself accessible to people in the district. She is using the same strategies again this year, she said: knocking on doors, making phone calls, and sending text messages. The congressional district’s population, however, is nearly 18 times larger than her state legislative district. That, combined with a truncated campaign timeframe — a challenge each of the candidates face — make her task tremendously more difficult.

Torres Ray, too, is focused on getting new voters out to the polls, and she’s doing that through in-person outreach. Her campaign has nearly 150 volunteers, she told The Intercept. “I am not a person who has an infrastructure to generate money,” she said, noting that she’s more capable of building people power. “I had a ton of volunteers, a ton of people who were working on my campaign, a lot of social media that is really based on that connection to people.”

Top photo: Ilhan Omar gives an acceptance speech on election night, Nov. 8, 2016, in Minneapolis, Minn.

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