Minneapolis organizer Ilhan Omar made history Tuesday when she won a Minnesota House seat and prepared to become the nation’s first Somali-American legislator.
Omar, 34, won House District 60B, which comprises parts of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, southeast Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. It was represented for decades by DFLer Phyllis Kahn. Omar defeated Kahn in a primary contest and ran virtually unopposed after her Republican opponent suspended his campaign for family reasons.
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While her election wasn’t a surprise in a reliably Democratic district — she was elected by almost 80 percent of the vote there — it carried huge symbolic importance in Minnesota, home to the nation’s largest Somali immigrant population. It came just days after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ripped Somali immigration as a threat to Minnesota.
Supporters congratulate Omar.
Supporters congratulate DFL candidate Ilhan Omar. She takes over the seat held since 1973 by DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn. Richard Marshall for MPR News
Following news that the Associated Press had called her victory shortly after the polls closed, Omar said the win was “icing on the cake” of a long campaign season and that she’d be a “voice for the marginalized” at the Capitol.
“I think I bring the voice of young people,” she said. “I think I bring the voice of women in the East African community. I bring the voice of Muslims. I bring the voice of young mothers looking for opportunities.”
As soon as Ilhan Omar walked into her victory party, she was crushed with hugs and kisses from anyone who could touch her. For nearly 20 minutes, photographers tried desperately to capture Omar as she moved around the room in her white headscarf.
“That’s my mom. She won!”
“That’s my mom. She won!” said 10-year-old Adnan Hirsi. Richard Marshall for MPR News
“Minneapolis said no tonight, said no to hatred, said no to the narrative of making America hate again,” Habon Abdulle, executive director of the nonprofit Women Organizing Woman, told the gathered crowd. “Minneapolis, and [the] 60B district particularly, you said Muslim women have space in the governing body of our state. Thank you.”
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Omar sat in the front row, beaming, with her husband, Ahmed Hirsi, a child on her lap, and two other kids standing next to her. When Hirsi took to the stage, the crowd cheered when he talked about strong Muslim woman.
DFL candidate Ilhan Omar thanks her supporters.
DFL candidate Ilhan Omar thanks her supporters. Richard Marshall for MPR News
“For those men — whoo — let me tell you something,” he said. “When you see a strong, African, Muslim woman, don’t be afraid… appreciate that. That’s the model, that’s the new 2016.”
Omar began her speech by honoring her grandfather, for whom she used to translate while attending political events as a teenager. And then she thanked numerous groups for helping to elect her as the first East African woman to the state legislature.
“Our campaign has been about more than just uniting a district, more than winning back the house, more than making history,” she said. “Our campaign has been about shifting narratives, restoring hope and re-establishing access in our democracy.”
She said she would work on an agenda focused on justice and the common good, zero waste and renewable energy.
Ahmed Hirsi hugs his wife.
Ahmed Hirsi hugs his wife, Ilhan Omar, after she won the District 60B seat in the House of Representatives. Richard Marshall for MPR News
“And we will never stop fighting for a democracy that works for all of us, for a prosperous and equitable Minnesota that we will all be proud of,” she said. “I will never give up fighting for you, and I hope you will never give up fighting for me.”
Omar’s mentor and friend, Minneapolis City Council member Andrew Johnson, said he knew long ago that she would make history.
Omar’s family celebrates
“She’s my aunt,” said 10-year-old Mascud Mohamed, right, who laughs with his mother Fadumo Ali as they celebrate. “She started at the botom and now she’s at the top. She showed me how to win,” said Mascud of her aunt. Richard Marshall for MPR News
“I had no doubt that Ilhan would get here. The big question is: What’s the path an individual takes?” Johnson said. “And I just think she’s just naturally a great leader.”
Mohamed Omar Giama couldn’t agree more. The former Somali diplomat, 90, said he was overjoyed.
“I never thought a Somali lady, a refugee, can get through all this hardship, and difficulties, to get elected to Minnesota parliament,” Giama said.
It’s wonderful, he said, just wonderful.
MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.