Ilhan Omar’s constituents reject Donald Trump’s dog-whistle attacks: ‘He’s not in line with Minnesota’s values’

Congresswoman’s supporters say immigrants enrich communities 

Andrew Buncombe
Saturday 26 October 2019 16:55
Ilhan Omar's constituents reject dog whistle attacks from Donald Trump as he makes push for Minnesota in 2020

Abdi Hassan has a quick response to Donald Trump’s race-baiting claim that Minneapolis had accepted too many Somali immigrants: immigrants, he insists, enrich a community.

Two years ago, the the 22-year-old hit upon an idea to help restaurants boost lunchtime trade by developing an app to turn around diners in just 30 minutes. Two months ago the app, Tavola, went live, and 1,000 customers, along with 20 restaurants, are already using it. He and his small team hope to double those numbers by the end of the year.

Hassan is modest about his success. He says after his family, which is originally from Somalia, moved to the US when he was aged nine, he was determined to make it, despite not speaking English upon arrival.

“Being an immigrant was a major motivation for me because [in Egypt, where his family lived] there were not the opportunities,” he says, speaking in a sleek, shared workspace his start-up rents in the north of Minneapolis. “It made me want work harder, and give back to others.”

In both word and deed, the young man rebuts the accusations of the president, who said the city had admitted too many migrants. “As you know, for many years, leaders in Washington brought large numbers of refugees to your state from Somalia without considering the impact on schools and communities and taxpayers,” he said at a rally for supporters, who roared and cheered.

It was no coincidence Trump decided to focus on Somalis, among the city’s several migrant communities. He also launched a blistering attack on congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose family moved to the US when she was a teenager, from a refugee camp for Somalis in Kenya. Today, Minnesota’s Somali-American population is around 70,000, mostly made up of people whose families fled civil war, and is the largest in the US.

“Congresswoman Omar is an American-hating socialist. How do you have such a person representing you in Minnesota?” the president asked. “She is a disgrace to our country.”

Experts believe the decision to focus on Omar, 38, who last year won Minnesota’s 5th congressional district and in doing so became one of the first two Muslim woman elected to congress, is deliberate. By demonising the progressive Omar, a member of the so-called “Squad” of Democratic congresswomen, the president hopes to portray the entire Democratic Party as extreme.

Omar’s supporters have rallied around her. In the first six months after taking office, she upset many with comments that were seen as ill-judged or taken out of context, about the attacks of 9/11, and the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the US. As a result, there was talk of her being challenged in the party’s primary.

(The 5th has long been heavily Democratic, and it is the primary contest, rather than general election, that decides the winner here.)

Yet as Trump has intensified his attacks, those potential primary challenges appear to have largely receded.

“He has almost ensured her nomination being renewed,” says Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota and who publishes the Smart Politics blog. “There were many people thinking about challenging her, but the optics now make such a challenge impossible.”

In interviews with constituents, people invariably voice support for her and reject Trump’s attacks, even if some say she started off “running too fast”. They say they have chosen her to represent them, and the president should respect that.

“I think it’s just really sad to see my president slandering my congresswoman,” says 20-year-old Kiran Baum, emerging from the Hard Times Cafe in the Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood, that has a large Somali-American population. “She’s very progressive and in line with Minnesota’s values. She was elected because she represents the people here ... He’s not in line with Minnesota’s values. He’s got a long track record of ignoring facts and only supporting things that benefit his view of white supremacism.”

Like many Somali Americans, Samjam Jummah, a mother-of-three who is hurrying to catch the commuter train, is mystified by the president’s apparent obsession with the young congresswoman.

“He should not be saying that about her,” she says. “She is a good person. She likes everyone – black and white.”

Another recent migrant to the city, who asks to be identified only as Abdul, says he found the president’s comments “despicable”. He says migrants who were successful in entering the US’s visa lottery, or diversity, programme, considered themselves incredibly lucky. “I have an MBA from California, after coming to the US. People come because they have a chance to to better themselves,” he says.

Asha Mohammad, a 35-year-old woman who was working at a store selling perfume and household goods, says she thought Trump was “crazy”. “Ilhan – I like her a lot. She supports a lot of people.”

David Fettig has a regular show, called Write on Radio, on the area’s largely-volunteer KFAI radio station network, that is dedicated to books, readers and writers.

He says he took part in the protests against Mr Trump’s rally and found it cathartic. “I went down there to be with people and celebrate those in opposition,” he says. “I wanted to be positive. I wanted to be with people who were for something, rather than against something.”

Trump and his re-election campaign have placed Minnesota at the top of the list of states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 they hope to flip.

Trump launches blistering attack on Ilhan Omar by repeating conspiracy theories from right-wing blog

Democrats here are proud that it has the longest-winning streak of any state in the country. Even amid Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide when he bagged 49 of 50 states, local senator Walter Mondale, the party’s presidential candidate, clung on to Minnesota.

But in 2016, Trump came within two points of defeating Clinton, whose campaign here, as in many parts of the upper northwest, was rather haphazard. And he did that without major investment.

Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager has vowed that in 2020 they will spend millions of dollars to target Minnesota and its 10 electoral college votes.

“In 2016 we spent less than $30,000 here. In 2020, we’ll have a tens-of-million-dollar campaign. I think Minnesota is winnable,” says Parscale, as he waits for Trump’s arrival at the Target Centre, the location of the rally.

“I think it was probably winnable in 2016, but it’s more winnable now, because millions of people in this state have been successful under a Trump government.”

Local Democrats are aware of the challenge and are determined to see off Trump’s bid to pick up new states, as his path to re-election appears to narrow.

Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labour Party, an affiliate of the Democratic Party, says people are ready to confront him head on.

“I think there is a personal element about his interest in Minnesota,” he says. “Donald Trump is a trophy hunter. There could not be be a bigger feather in his cap [than flipping Minnesota].”

Omar declined The Independent’s request for an interview, and her office failed to respond to written questions. When Trump made his attacks, she said his “hate is no match for our movement”.

Abdi Hassan, the entrepreneur whose family hails from Somalia and who expresses gratitude every day to be living in the United States, says he found the president’s comment deeply offensive.

At the same time, he says he has little time for negativity, as he works on his project to connect customers and restaurants by having people order and pay online in advance. This helps speed up the process and gives restaurant staff an idea of how many people they might expect.

He pitched the idea two years ago at a tech start-up competition, where he came in second, allowing him to attract some early investors even as he finished studying at the University of St Thomas.

“Never wait in line again,” says Tavola’s website. “Reserve your table at a restaurant and pre-order your food directly from the app.”

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He says the media should consider stopping giving Trump the constant attention he receives when he makes negative comments, thereby starving him of oxygen.

“The president should have a much higher standard. Those things he said were just really rude and unfair,” he says. “She’s been getting hate since she went to DC. But she’s been focused really well. She’s been working.”

He adds: “She’s been growing on social media. Her ticket price has gone up. She’s made the best of the situation. She’s trying to be positive and trying to ignore the hate and still work, which is really hard to do.”

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