Somali leaders playing key role in shaping mayor’s race

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October 23, 2013 // UPDATED 9:54 pm - October 29, 2013
By: Michelle Bruch & Sarah McKenzie
Osman Ahmed (center) with supporters of Betsy Hodges' campaign for mayor. Photo by Ilyaas Maow.
Michelle Bruch & Sarah McKenzie

The city's Somali-American community has been an influential force in this year’s highly competitive mayoral race.

Leading candidates have appointed Somali leaders to campaign leadership posts and candidates with smaller field operations have also made a point of reaching out to members of the Somali community for support.

Abdi Warsame, a Somali candidate for City Council in Ward 6, said Mark Andrew met with Somalis very early in the campaign season — before the other candidates, before the DFL caucus, even before Andrew officially announced his candidacy.

“That leaves an impression,” said Warsame, who’s met with other candidates as well. “Nothing against the rest of them, but I felt Mark had the qualities to be mayor.”

Warsame and Andrew have a shared connection in Brian Rice, an attorney and lobbyist who helped raise money for Andrew and is a strategist for Warsame’s campaign. But Warsame said the connection isn’t relevant to his endorsement.

“It’s not because of any individual, Brian Rice or anybody else,” he said. “[Andrew] was frank, he had some good ideas, and good experience. He was willing to listen to us, and listen to the community as a whole.”

Warsame said he initially met with Andrew in a small group of about six people last February, and Andrew has since returned to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to speak to groups of 60 or 70 people at the Brian Coyle Center. Andrew told the crowd that he once worked as a taxi driver, Warsame said, which went over well.

“Most of our community fathers are taxi drivers. ... He is the only choice who knows our background,” said Mohamed Jama. “Taxi drivers had a hard time with the city.” Jama works as general director of the Cedar Riverside Youth Council, and campaign finance records indicate that he’s been paid by Andrew’s campaign. Jama did not return calls to confirm any campaign work.

Jama said other candidates have also campaigned at mosques and local shops, but Andrew came first. Andrew hasn’t made any promises, Jama said, but he thinks Andrew would come through if elected. Andrew has already helped the Somali community while Hennepin County Commissioner, Jama said, by supporting housing assistance and other programs.

“We don’t need lip service, we need resources,” he said.

Mohamud Noor is also an adviser for Andrew's campaign. Noor previously served as campaign co-chair for candidate Gary Schiff, and he currently works as executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, which provides immigrants with resettlement services. Noor said he met with Andrew several times one-on-one, eventually becoming Andrew’s campaign co-chair for outreach several months ago.

“When somebody invites you to the table and says let’s talk, what are the main issues that are problematic for the city, and how would you solve them ... that’s something that moved me,” Noor said.

Noor also said he likes Andrew’s approach to economic development, education, and diversification of city staff.

Somali Public Radio, an outlet that broadcasts to 5,000 listeners in Somalia and the Twin Cities, endorsed Andrew in a statement on Oct. 5. The Editorial Board praised Andrew’s “bold understanding of East African issues, his support for rigorous police conduct review and his emphasis on sustainability, equity and economic development.”

The Board noted Andrew’s early outreach to the Somali community, creating an “unprecedented level of excitement” and driving high turnout in the DFL caucuses and convention. More than 80 East African delegates turned out for the DFL convention, the statement said, a majority of them voting for Andrew. The Board also said Andrew supports a variety of education options like charter schools, which many East Africans prefer. Andrew addressed Somali concerns about dense development by saying growth should accompany amenities like parks and parking, according to the statement. Andrew also promised to include East Africans in his administration, the Board said.

“A lot of people are catching up,” Warsame said. “He took the initiative.”

While many Somali leaders and activists have thrown their support behind Andrew, Osman Ahmed, a member of mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges’ campaign staff, disputes the notion that Andrew is the leading candidate among Somali voters.

“If you ask the average person in the Somali community, they support Betsy,” he said.

Osman said he met with Andrew, Hodges and then-mayoral candidate Schiff early last year and decided to back Hodges because he said she had the most “specific” ideas for helping the Somali community.

Osman was the second person Hodges hired for her campaign. He helped organize delegates for the DFL City Convention in June.

“I’m really proud of where we are,” he said in a recent interview at Hodges’ campaign headquarters on East Hennepin.

He said Hodges engages with the Somali community every week and is a regular at Somali malls in the city.

Hodges also secured the endorsement of Omar Jamal, first secretary for the Permanent Mission of the Somali Republic to the United Nations, on Oct. 18.

“Betsy Hodges has always been a leading voice for the city of Minneapolis across the board and committed in reaching out to the immigrant population,” he said. “I call [on] everyone to support Betsy Hodges because she is dedicated to make the city successful.”

Mayoral candidate Dan Cohen, an independent in the race who serves on the city’s Planning and Charter commissions, said he has been very impressed by how engaged and organized the Somali community has been in local politics and issues at City Hall.

He has formed friendships with leaders who have been active in issues before the city’s Planning Commission.

“They are very mindful and responsive to the opinions of their elders, and hey, if I’m anything, I’m an elder. Let’s face it,” Cohen said.

He said he and his wife have contributed $600 to Warsame’s campaign for the City Council’s 6th Ward.

“[Warsame] has given me useful advice on establishing relations between the Jewish community and Somali community,” Cohen said. “In Canada there is a program where Jewish businessmen coach young Somalis on business.”

Mayoral candidate and former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes said she has reached out to members of the East African community from the start of her campaign.

“Part of my commitment to the citizens of Minneapolis has been to campaign from a big tent. Our campaign staff reflect that ideal,” she said. “I have people from the East African community on my campaign committee, and we have worked directly with community leaders to build relationships that will transfer to my administration.”

If elected she said relationships built during her campaign would be reflected at City Hall  — from entry-level positions to department heads. She would also create a position for an East African Community liaison in the mayor’s office.

Mayoral candidate Cam Winton, a wind power attorney, said he’s spoken at a wide variety of Somali-American community events, attended several festivals and appeared on Somali-community radio programs, met with community leaders and strolled the streets of Somali neighborhoods.

“I’ve made the same promises to members of the Somali-American community that I’ve made across the city — that I’ll restore the balance between property taxes paid in and services received,” Winton said. “[I will] cut red tape to enable job growth and implement common sense education reform so that all children can thrive.”

Mayoral candidate and Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine has also sought out leaders of the Somali community to talk about their concerns and ideas for how the mayor can work more effectively with the community.

“Through my conversations with local Somali leaders, there is obvious interest for more support and resources for Somali youth,” Fine said. “As mayor, I would work closely with members of the Somali community to identify possible locations for a community center and explore options for securing funding for increased programming for youth.”