Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum Is Facing a Serious Primary Challenge From the Left

Rep. Ilhan Omar says Amane Badhasso, who just raised $300,000, “truly is one of the most impressive people I have ever met.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 27: US Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), is interviewed at her office on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 27th, 2021 in Washington, DC. The most senior member of Minnesota's delegation, McCollum chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Defense, yet her work seems under the radar. (Photo by Cheryl Diaz Meyer/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
US Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), is interviewed at her office on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 27th, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: Cheryl Diaz Meyer/Star Tribune via Getty Images

A primary challenger to Rep. Betty McCollum raised more than $300,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, marking the first major bid to unseat the Minnesota Democrat in her 21-year tenure in Congress. The challenge to McCollum comes from Amane Badhasso, a Democratic organizer and operative who arrived in Minnesota, like many others in the Twin Cities, as a refugee from Kenya, having been forced out of her home country of Ethiopia.

McCollum has been a reliable vote for House Democrats and a leader on the question of Palestinian rights, but she otherwise has largely kept a low profile and declined to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In an interview, Badhasso said she would raise few if any substantive objections to McCollum’s voting record. Badhasso said that she has long applauded McCollum’s advocacy on behalf of Palestinians but that the representative hadn’t done enough broadly. “I’m not challenging her on the basis of that,” she said. “There’s so much more that we need to do. We can’t just be a champion on one issue.”

Rather, Badhasso said, she was making the case that there is more to adequate representation than voting the right way. “Here in the progressive movement, we have to think about what ‘Democrat’ actually means beyond just who votes along a certain line,” she said. “Frankly, we need a leadership that just gives a damn about folks in the community.”

McCollum’s Middle East activism has failed to draw much national attention. A recent profile of her in HuffPost was subheadlined, “St. Paul’s Betty McCollum is radically progressive on U.S. policy toward Israel. Why don’t you ever hear about it?”

Though she aligns on many issues with Rep. Ilhan Omar, she and her fellow Twin Cities lawmaker have at times betrayed a frosty relationship. “Ilhan is on the other side of the Mississippi River, and we talk sometimes in the break room in between votes,” McCollum told HuffPost. When Omar was in the barrel over remarks in 2019 that critics deemed antisemitic, McCollum issued a statement: “Rep. Omar has the right to speak freely, and she also must take responsibility for the effect her words have on her colleagues, her constituents, and the policies Democrats seek to advance.”

McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper, went further, telling HuffPost: “My own take on it is that she really derailed a lot of our work.”

Omar has not endorsed in the race and has collaborated on legislation with McCollum, but she had warm words for Badhasso. “She truly is one of the most impressive people I have ever met. She is incredible, and I have never met anyone who disagrees in [the] decade I have known her,” she told The Intercept.

Harper said that McCollum is taking the challenge seriously and is unwilling to cede the mantle of progressivism to Badhasso. “She’s the most progressive member of the Minnesota delegation,” Harper said of McCollum. Asked if that ranking included Omar, he said that it did, citing McCollum’s vote for the major infrastructure bill in November, which Omar opposed. (Omar opposed voting on the bill until the Senate had fully committed to passing the Build Back Better Act.)

“Change just simply for change’s sake is just shuffling the deck chairs. In Congress, seniority matters. The question I have to ask is why would progressives … want to throw away 22 years of seniority,” Harper added.

Badhasso’s challenge will be a window into how Democratic voters are viewing 2022: whether as a moment to push forward with an outspoken and unapologetic brand of progressivism and continue the fight for control of the party or focus more on defending against surging Republican energy, which threatens to seize the House and Senate.

Badhasso’s challenge will be a window into how Democratic voters are viewing 2022.

McCollum’s bet is that voters are in no mood for an intraparty contest this cycle. “This campaign in 2022 is squarely focused on stopping Republicans from taking the majority and continuing progressive leadership in Congress,” Harper said. “We’re looking at the mob being invited into the Capitol and at the table.”

Minnesota’s byzantine primary system gives Badhasso at least two shots at McCollum. The first will come in February at a caucus where 400 delegates will be selected to then vote at a later convention on who will go into the primary with the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement. The officially endorsed candidate nearly always wins the primary, but ultimately voters will decide the Democratic nominee at what is likely to be a low-turnout affair in August.

Badhasso’s background is likely to resonate in the Twin Cities, which has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees, who have in turn revitalized the area’s economy. Her family fled Ethiopia in the mid-’90s as a result of conflict between the Oromo Liberation Front and the country’s ruling factions. While a refugee in Kenya, she said, she nearly died of malaria, until a collection could be taken to pay for treatment at a hospital. On another occasion, she returned home to find that the dilapidated building she lived in had collapsed. At the age of 13, she finally arrived in Minnesota, home to a large Oromo community.

Badhasso, who is Muslim, is a well-known Twin Cities activist and was previously an organizer for former Rep. Keith Ellison, whose seat is now held by Omar as he serves as the state’s attorney general. In 2020, she worked on the coordinated campaign in Minnesota aimed at electing President Joe Biden, along with down-ballot candidates. (She said she supported the primary campaign of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020.)

As a senior organizer with TakeAction Minnesota, she worked on a campaign, known as Yes 4 Minneapolis, to transform the George Floyd protests into a radical rethinking of the city’s police department. The ballot measure would have shuttered the police force and replaced it with a Department of Public Safety, but it was beaten back in a November landslide, 56-44. Two members of the City Council who backed the reform were thrown out of office.

Minnesota Democrats Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Angie Craig as well as Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey campaigned against the ballot question. Omar supported it, while McCollum took a more neutral stance. “The Minneapolis City Council is free to defund or abolish its police department or ask to have federal COPS funding terminated. That will be their decision to make,” she said in a statement in June 2020.

In her campaign for the House seat, Badhasso broke from the model that has developed recently, with candidates releasing slick, two-minute biographical ads, and instead launched quietly in October and spent the next three months working her network to raise money and demonstrate her viability. To raise the eye-popping number, she canvassed the Oromo diaspora, in which she had built up substantial contacts through years of Oromo advocacy.

After The Intercept reached out to McCollum’s campaign for comment, she shared the news with a wide circle of elected officials and power players in Minnesota. “Friends,” McCollum wrote in an email to allies. “Earlier today my campaign received a call from a reporter asking for a comment. He said my DFL opponent has raised over $300,000 in the past three months in her effort to defeat me. The reporter also said my opponent could not articulate any issues or votes in which she disagrees with me, but she’s running to bring ‘new energy’ to the district.”

“Energy is important,” she went on, “but my energy is focused on governing and chairing the largest and most powerful appropriations subcommittee in Congress.”

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