With an Attempt to Unseat Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minnesota House Race Sets Up a Contest on Policing

Don Samuels, who outraised Omar in the first quarter of the race, has long presented himself as a “public safety” advocate in Minneapolis politics.

Former City Council Member Don Samuels listens as his wife Sondra speaks during a news conference at their attorney's office to discuss where the situation stands regarding language on the future of the Minneapolis policing ballot Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Minneapolis.
Former City Council Member Don Samuels listens as his wife, Sondra, speaks during a news conference on a ballot measure to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety, on Sept. 15, 2021, in Minneapolis. Photo: David Joles/Star Tribune via AP

For the second cycle in a row, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is facing a serious primary challenger. Former Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels announced Thursday that his campaign had raised $350,000 in the month since its launch, with 75 percent in contributions under $100 and $320,000 cash on hand. Omar’s fundraising has been slower, pulling in $275,000 in the first quarter with an average donation of $13, with a total of $500,000 on hand.

The Minneapolis primary will focus heavily on the question of policing. Over the past two years, the first count in the party establishment’s indictment of its progressive wing has been the push to “defund the police,” with President Joe Biden explicitly targeting the slogan during his State of the Union address and following it up with an infusion of cash for cops. The debate entered the national spotlight again this week after a man shot 10 people on a subway train in New York City on Tuesday and police in Grand Rapids, Michigan, released video of an officer who shot and killed 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya in the back of the head during a traffic stop earlier this month. In the wake of the mass shooting in New York, Mayor Eric Adams swiftly called for more police to proliferate, while hundreds of protesters in Grand Rapids took to the streets to demand that they be kept in check.

Almost two years ago, amid calls to reform the Minneapolis Police Department after cops there killed George Floyd, Samuels, who also served on the city’s school board, and his wife, Sondra, took on a new cause: In August 2020, they sued the city to hire more than 100 additional cops. Along with six other Minneapolis residents, Samuels and his wife filed suit against Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council for having “violated their duties to fund, employ, and manage a police force as required by the City Charter.”

But the lawsuit didn’t stop Samuels from hiring Frey’s campaign manager, Joe Radinovich, who helped the embattled mayor win reelection in 2021. Now Radinovich is running Samuels’s campaign in the August 9 primary for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. Samuels is Omar’s highest-profile Democratic challenger yet.

Omar faced her first primary as an incumbent in 2020, when Antone Melton-Meaux, a mediator, attorney, and a political newcomer at the time, spent millions to unseat her with help from billionaires and pro-Israel groups. First elected in 2018 — with Frey’s endorsement — along with several other progressive newcomers, Omar has been the target of Islamophobic death threats, as well as attacks from pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and lawmakers in both parties for her criticism of human rights violations, war crimes, and U.S. imperialism.

Her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is viewed as a threat to the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. In June, Republicans pushed to remove Omar from the committee, and 12 of her Democratic colleagues issued a statement rebuking her after she acknowledged human rights atrocities committed by the U.S. and Israel in conjunction with those committed by Hamas and the Taliban. She now occupies an influential position as the whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and attempts to weaken the party’s progressive wing have been trained on Omar and Reps. Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri. A loss by any of the three would undermine recent electoral gains that have pushed the Democratic party left, even as former Austin City Council Member Greg Casar’s win in his Texas Democratic primary is poised to expand the Squad’s numbers. And in 2020, despite outraising Omar’s second-quarter haul sevenfold, with $3.2 million, and beating her two-to-one in contributions over $200, Melton-Meaux lost by nearly 20 points.

Samuels is better known in Minneapolis than Melton-Meaux, having long advocated against gun violence in the city and serving as the chair of the City Council’s public safety committee. In 2013, when Samuels ran unsuccessfully for mayor, former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan co-chaired his campaign, and Samuels took responsibility for helping hire Dolan’s predecessor, former MPD Chief Janeé Harteau. But his relationship with policing reached a new level in 2020, giving him added public exposure as national attention turned toward Minneapolis’s protester-led ballot initiative last year to replace the city’s police department with a Department of Public Safety.

That fall, Samuels and his wife were part of a group of local political and business leaders who worked with police and the mayor to persuade the City Council not to cut the police budget, the Minnesota Reformer reported. After the council voted unanimously that December to cut 4 percent of MPD’s budget, Sondra Samuels wrote an email to the group: “I read that the Mayor lauded the budget. Help?? I really don’t get how we are better off now or next year.”

“Rather than support Rep. Omar’s irresponsible call to defund the Minneapolis Police Department,” Samuels told The Intercept, “we lobbied City Council members for more resources and better training of police officers, so residents and visitors feel safe, secure, and respected in our city at all times.”

Last year, as Frey sought reelection while fighting the ballot measure, Samuels helped lead the public campaign against it — along with the police, the local chamber of commerce, and local Republicans. Several top Democrats opposed the measure but did not campaign publicly against it.

So far, Samuels has yet to release specific policy platforms of his own. In response to questions about his policy positions, Samuels told The Intercept that while he and Omar “share similar views on many issues … this moment calls for a different approach to leadership — one that seeks to build a united coalition able to achieve greater progress for everyone. Some politicians go to Washington to make a point. I want to go to D.C. to make a difference.” Samuels said he has “unwavering support for a woman’s right to choose” and would continue to support abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights in Congress. Samuels did not say whether he supported continued U.S. funding of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen but said he supports the Biden administration’s efforts to achieve a permanent cease-fire and negotiated settlement.

Sure enough, Samuels is a known and influential figure in various contexts throughout the city.

“Gone are the days where America can be the world’s sheriff,” Samuels said when asked about whether he supports increasing U.S. military funding to Israel. But he added that the U.S. should support “global partners” with both military and humanitarian relief when necessary, “including with our longtime friend and ally, Israel.”

On April 19, Samuels will hold a fundraiser in Minneapolis for his House campaign, headlined by developers, lobbyists, and business leaders, including at least one Republican operative and donor, Andy Brehm; Jonathan Weinhagen, the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce; Steve Cramer, the president and CEO of the MPLS Downtown Council, an organization of more than 450 Minneapolis businesses; a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco; and a former City Council president.

“My wife and I are lifelong Democrats,” Samuels told The Intercept. “Thankfully, our work in North Minneapolis has inspired support across the political spectrum, and we’re proud to have it.” And sure enough, Samuels is a known and influential figure in various contexts throughout the city.

In October 2014, Minneapolis police received a call from someone who asked them to investigate a “Black male wearing a black hat” selling hot dogs outside the offices of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a local nonprofit. An officer said the call came from Samuels, who had served on the Minneapolis City Council since 2003 and was at the time a candidate for the school board. While Samuels later said he had been concerned about illegal food sales, police who responded asked representatives of the nonprofit if they were selling the dogs to “elicit a vote.” (The organization was holding a get-out-the-vote drive.)

This March, when a Facebook user asked Samuels about the “hotdog incident,” the candidate wrote:

there were multiple times when barbecue grills were set up on the sidewalk on West Broadway, selling barbecued meat. It’s a fire Hazzard and a safety Hazzard. I personally intervened several times to stop this dangerous and disorderly commerce. When I drove by and saw the smoke once again, I called the police. Once I discovered the mistake, I spun my car around from St. Paul, back to Broadway, to apologize and set things straight. But since it was campaign season, and certain leaders were aligned with my opponent, my apology was rejected and the incident was used to try to discredit me. It didn’t work.

An ordained minister and nonprofit CEO, Samuels ran an unsuccessful campaign for Minneapolis mayor in 2013 and was elected the following year to the Minneapolis school board; he served one four-year term. Dark-money groups linked to charter school advocates and funded by right-wing donors — including Michael Bloomberg and the late Purdue co-owner Jonathan Sackler — spent a quarter of a million dollars to attack an incumbent and boost Samuels and another candidate in the 2014 school board race. Samuels distanced himself from the groups at the time. When asked about the incident, he told The Intercept that “unfortunately, independent groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on our elections” without the consent or involvement of candidates. “I believe it is of paramount importance that we extensively reform the role of money in our election system and safeguard the sacred right to vote as we work to preserve our democracy.” In 2013, the Star Tribune reported that Samuels said he “got an envelope … with a couple grand” at a union fundraiser in honor of City Council members who had voted for a Vikings football stadium. Asked about the comment, Samuels said he was proud of his support from labor.

In 2012, Samuels wrote a Star Tribune op-ed in which he recounted a night that “switched from a gritty urban tragedy to a story of tech magic and reclamation” when police retrieved his iPhone after a young man he had reprimanded for urinating in public stole it.

In August 2020, Samuels and his wife supervised a bike ride for a group of children in their neighborhood. When they stopped at a nearby park and the children put their feet in the water, a 6-year-old was swept away and drowned. A year later, Sondra Samuels agreed to a $301,000 wrongful death settlement, which her insurance company paid to the child’s family.

On March 14, Samuels replied to a tweet by a woman who canvasses part time for Omar’s campaign about the incident, writing, “Can’t swim but can govern.” Later that night he deleted the tweet and apologized. Samuels wrote that he “became defensive about a remark from my opponent’s staffer about the most devastating day in our lives. Twitter isn’t the medium for that conversation & I capably showed why. I’m sorry.”

In the year after Samuels and his fellow petitioners sued the city, a judge ordered Minneapolis to hire 190 more cops by the end of the coming June. An appeals court reversed the decision on March 14, and now the petitioners have a pending appeal to the state Supreme Court. Late last month, the union for the Minneapolis Police Department filed a motion to submit an amicus brief in support of Samuels, his wife, and the six other petitioners.

On March 8, less than a week before the appeals court decision, Samuels launched his House campaign under the theme of “public safety” with endorsements from Brian Melendez, a former state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chair, and Medaria Arradondo, a former MPD chief who faced ethics complaints from 18 people last year — including the City Council president — after he held a news conference criticizing the MPD replacement ballot measure. The complaint alleged that Arradondo had violated department policies by campaigning while wearing a uniform, displaying the MPD logo, and streaming the conference on the MPD Facebook page. (The ethics board dismissed the complaint after Frey reprimanded him in a letter, saying employees can’t be disciplined twice for the same thing.)

While Samuels has framed his campaign as a referendum on policing and public safety in Minneapolis, federal legislators have little direct control over local policing. And although he has positioned himself to Omar’s right, he said he supports the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Omar supported and which failed to advance last session, as well as her new bill to limit the use of no-knock warrants.

“Like last time, it’s clear that Republicans and corporate Democrats are heavily invested in removing one of the most principled, effective advocates of the working class from Congress. And like last time, they’ll spend a small fortune and fail,” Isaiah Baehr-Breen, a spokesperson for Omar, said in a statement to The Intercept. “The Congresswoman is focused on delivering real resources to her district, like the $17 million in community funding she recently secured   – not divisive rhetoric. And she’s focused on mobilizing the 5th to help re-elect statewide leaders like Keith Ellison – not on raising money from people who want to defeat them.”

At his campaign launch, Samuels criticized Omar’s support for the failed measure to replace the MPD, saying she “demonstrated she’s out of touch with the residents of Minneapolis in the last election.” He criticized Omar’s vote against Biden’s infrastructure bill and her support for calls to defund police. Samuels told MinnPost, “I find that our congresswoman is not really capable of dealing with nuanced realities.”

Update: April 15, 2022, 3:50 p.m. ET

This story has been updated to include a comment from a spokesperson for Rep. Ilhan Omar.

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