‘It feels like a brighter day’

Ilhan Omar talks with the Southwest Journal the day after her historic win

Ilhan Omar (center) pictured in her Cedar-Riverside campaign office Wednesday afternoon with (left-to-right) the campaign’s East African volunteer coordinator Khadra Nur, campaign chair David Gilbert-Pederson, and campaign manager Daniel Cox. Photo by Jim Walsh

There was a palpable hum on the West Bank of Minneapolis Wednesday, with the largely East African neighborhood bustling with smiling walkers and shopkeepers, many of whom were undoubtedly beaming about the news that Ilhan Omar was a step closer to becoming America’s first Somali-American state lawmaker after winning Tuesday’s three-way DFL primary race in House District 60B.

Did Omar feel the love?

“Yes, definitely. It feels like a brighter day,” Omar told the Journal Wednesday afternoon, sitting in her Cedar-Riverside campaign office surrounded by members of her campaign team (including communications director and this writer’s wife Jean Heyer). Secretary of State Steve Simon reports that Omar received 2,404 votes, while her opponents Mohamud Noor received 1,738 and Rep. Phyllis Kahn 1,726. Omar will be the DFL candidate on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election.

After one of the most talked-about races in recent Minnesota politics, a weary but excited Omar talked with the Journal about her historic win.

Q: You’ve been going hard for months, all coming to a head last night. How does it feel?

Last night was a very emotional night. It’s been a very long, exhausting campaign. We dealt with a lot and it’s really hard to be the candidate and to hold it all together and to be the person who continues to say that things are possible, and that we need to stay above all of this, and that we’re not going to engage in this and we’re not going to engage in that, we’re just going to keep working. So last night, to be able to feel emotions was wonderful and I think therapeutic and freeing.

Your phone died because you were getting so many texts and voicemail messages. Where have they been coming from?

All over. I did radio interviews over the phone from Somalia and the U.K. and South Africa. It was really late at night for them when the results came in, and many people I found out stayed up the whole night waiting for the results. They were ecstatic when the results came in, and there was a big celebration in Mogadishu, the capital city where I was born. There were a lot of people who followed the campaign and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be the first to know. Everybody wanted to have that memory of “Where were you when the results came in?,” so they just showed up.

When you got the news that you’d won, did you think of strong women whose footsteps you may have followed in?

It was really hard, because except for my sister, none of the women in my family who would appreciate this were able to come and witness this day with me, so that was hard. I grew up without a mother, so there were women who invested a lot of time in raising me and who enabled me to be the woman I am today, and they were not there so that was hard.

As your campaign has gone on, Donald Trump’s campaign has been marching on in polar opposite fashion. Have you drawn any extra inspiration from that as you’ve gone on, and have you ruminated on the fact that he’d hate it that you won?

I think we put hope in the people of our district and our state and the America we all came to seek refuge in. I’m not only Muslim Somali East African, but I’m visibly Muslim Somali East African and our goal has been to get people to not only tolerate that or overlook that, but to celebrate that. Everybody who has joined in and pushed us to victory has actually believed in what it could mean to elect someone who [offers] a more visible diversity at our capital that could instill hope and be an inspiration for a lot of young girls and young women who are being tormented for looking like me. I think in the era of Donald Trump, that sends a clear message that that’s not what we’re about. We are much better, and greater.

You’ve talked about unity and how you want to be a voice for everyone. That’s the immigrant story in this country when it comes to leadership. What do you want to do with your position and what are your main goals going forward?

I think with my position I want to help build power for communities that are often powerless and voiceless in our state. I want to be able to push forth our progressive agenda and I want to create a more collaborative environment where people see themselves in politics and see themselves as part of the solution.

Thanks to the example set by her mom, your daughter is going to have a completely different life and experience as an American than the one you’ve had. What do you hope for her and kids her age?

My hope is that the road and path to a future success isn’t as challenging for her as it has been for me. I think that when you’re the first, there’s a lot of pressure in regards to the way you would serve the community. For me, the pressure I’ve put myself in is to run a campaign that is not only paving the way but also contributing to shattering any challenge that could ever exist and leaving enough of a trail that can be followed.

So for my daughter and other daughters and my sisters and other young women, what I hope is that they are proud that we have run a campaign that is built with integrity and grace. It’s been about positivity. It’s been about allowing people to step into leadership positions that they didn’t think they were able to do.

When we started the campaign, it was really important for me to have young women in leadership positions within the campaign, and to be in those roles and have the pleasure of succeeding in those roles. And I think we’re all the better for that, because I think they have enriched and inspired other young women who’ve watched them step into leadership roles and take politics seriously and that it is possible to do things that people think you shouldn’t, and that there isn’t a perfect timing for being a leader.

Since last night, have you ruminated at all on how far you’ve come? You spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, and I’m wondering if you’ve had a second to step back and think about your beginnings and about where you are now?

I think of my life as chapters. I think about the chapter about pre-war [in Somalia] and the lessons I learned in that chapter, and my life in the refugee camp and the lessons I learned in that chapter, and my life as a young person growing up in this country and the lessons I learned in that chapter. And I think it sort of feels like it’s all been a training.

A training to take on politics that isn’t so kind, that isn’t so ‘Minnesota Nice’ in our district with people who are very much invested in staying the course and using dirty political tactics to continue to win and hold positions. So I feel like after last night, a lot of people feel liberated and like they don’t have to fear political backlash for believing in change and that they don’t have to be beholden to relationships and they can actually invest in progress and a better future.

I think a lot about the people who have financially invested in our campaign. My dad was our biggest fundraiser. He’s retired now, but he moved back from East Africa to help us, and because of his relationships, we were able to raise money. It’s interesting, because these are not normally people who would invest in a campaign. But they believed, and they maxed out because they believed it was a worthy cause and I think that’s especially inspiring and uplifting, especially for our community.

As a Muslim woman, do you have concerns about working in an arena and with a community that is historically and typically male-centered? And where did you first get the idea that such a thing could be possible?

I don’t think I’ve ever fit into a mold. My whole family has never fit into a mold. I come from generations of women and men who have not fit into molds. So I don’t think I myself considered a lot about my gender and what that would mean. It was more about other people having the concerns, and [how] walking through that might not be much of a concern.

Everything we imagine to be challenging about being a Muslim woman running for the first time has not been much of a challenge. The things that were foreseen to be challenging, we figured out a way to overcome before big challenges arose. Like, I knew there would be a problem with negotiating with elders because they don’t negotiate with women. So having my dad here very early on and having my male cousins coached on the need for them to step up and mediate a lot of the conflicts before they became conflicts was sort of a strategy for us. We examined the risks early on, and spent lots of time trying to come up with every scenario that was bad, everything that could go wrong, and tried to come up with a plan about who could be surrogates and influencers for us.

How does it feel to know that women and girls woke up this morning to the news that the first Somali American was about to be elected to office and are inspired by you?

Scary. And great. I feel the weight of the responsibility and of what that means. I want to work hard to make sure that I am setting a good example for them, and I will continue to do that and make sure that their first doesn’t become like a lot of other firsts, who have caused disappointments for others.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]