When Ilhan Omar beat a 22-term incumbent to win her primary for Minnesota state representative of District 60B, the Somali-American former refugee was suddenly primed for a trio of significant firsts: first Muslim refugee in elected office, first Somali-American Muslim woman in public office, and first Somali-American state legislator.
But those firsts were the last thing on Omar’s mind as she crafted her campaign strategy.
“One of the biggest challenges was overcoming the narrative that if you are a minority person running for office, you can only win a seat in a district that is demographically in your favor,” Omar explained. “We were making the case that the electorate is actually interested in policy. It’s interested in a vision.”
Phyllis Kahn, the first-time candidate’s primary opponent, attributed Omar’s early success to exactly the kind of identity politics that Omar was trying to dispel, telling a reporter in June that Omar was “very attractive to the kind of, what we call the young, liberal, white guilt-trip people.”
“A lot of the prejudice I faced had to do with the fact that I was a young woman running. And I think some cultural prejudice,” Omar explained, “Some people were a little off-put that I wasn’t oppressed or submissive.”
“When I was little and living in the refugee camp, and my dad and grandpa would talk to me about the possibility of coming to the United States, they would talk about the land of liberty and justice for all.”
Omar’s Republican challenger in the general election is another Somali American, Abdimalik Askar, but he suspended his campaign citing personal reasons in late August. Omar, who is running as a Democrat, is widely expected to win her liberal district’s seat on November 8.
For Omar, 33, who fled Somalia during the country’s civil war and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the U.S. as a twelve year-old, politics always had an inevitable pull.
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Her first taste of American politics was as a teenager, attending local Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucuses with her grandfather to act as his translator. Most recently she worked as a policy aide for City Council Member Andrew Johnson.
“When I was little and living in the refugee camp, and my dad and grandpa would talk to me about the possibility of coming to the United States, they would talk about the land of liberty and justice for all,” Omar said.
“We arrived in New York, and there were homeless people in the streets,” Omar recalled, “I couldn’t fathom that in the United States I would see this crazy mass incarceration. I couldn’t fathom that in the United States I would see these ridiculous, almost scary, racial disparities.”
“I remember talking to my dad and grandfather about their lie to me—‘the land of liberty and justice’—and them saying that yes, this is one of the greatest democracies, but it is a fragile democracy and it’s one that has come about through progress, and that it was also now part of my duty to advance progress toward a more equitable and just society. That really struck a chord with me.”
In an election where Muslim, woman, and refugee have been both buzzwords and invitations for insulting rhetoric, Omar represents all three.
Her platform touts a progressive commitment to LGBT rights, women’s reproductive care, and environmental protection, but the issues she is quick to prioritize are ones that particularly affect her district, like criminal justice reform, higher education reform, and closing the economic gap.
“I am greatly opposed to police presence in schools—resource officers, they call them—but its police officers in schools. They are not providing any actual resource that contributes to the well-being or the education of the child.”
Omar speaks often about equal opportunity for children when she’s discussing her platform.
“We teach to the test, and so a lot of children are expected to arrive at a school equally ready to take a test on a given morning, and you don’t take into account that one of these children lives in a homeless shelter and was up all night last night because there was something happening in that shelter,” she explained. “Sitting next to him is a child who had a regular bedtime. The house was quiet for him, and he was woken up in the morning with enough time to eat breakfast. We are expecting those two young children to have the same test results. That, to me, is what the actual injustice is in our system.”
On other issues, Omar’s own experiences bleed into her policy.
“I spent four years in a refugee camp, so I know what it means to live through the horrors of war,” Omar lamented, “For us to turn our backs on people who are just waiting for a simple opportunity at a new life, isn’t who we are and isn’t who we want to be.”
Ultimately though, Omar sees herself as a “bridge-builder,” someone who can take her own myriad identities and connect with people who share none of them by appealing to a progressive plan for the future.
“I believe, as someone who’s always having conversations with my neighbors and with the people of this district, that a lot of these differences—these things that make me an ‘other’—would get suspended. No one else throughout the campaign believed that. They would say, Ilhan, identity politics is very real. People are not going to choose you over someone that they have strong identity ties to. I was surprised, and I think everybody else was surprised, that I was right.”
“People didn’t really care very much where I came from and what faith I practiced, what gender I was or what color my skin was. They were interested in what I had done and what I was going to do,” Omar explained.
“If we believe that people are much more interested in a vision for tomorrow than they are in identity politics, then I think we form different campaigns and platforms than we do right now.”