From Refugee Camps To The Statehouse: Two Groundbreaking Primary Victories In Minnesota

Fue Lee (left) and Ilhan Omar. CREDIT: SCREENCAPS
Fue Lee (left) and Ilhan Omar. CREDIT: SCREENCAPS

Fue Lee and Ilhan Omar both spent time in refugee camps.

Amid an election cycle where fearmongering about refugees has become part of the Republican brand, Minnesota voters took a different approach this week. The state’s primary elections on Tuesday featured victories by two Democratic candidates who spent portions of their childhooods in refugee camps.

As detailed by Voice of America, Ilhan Omar, 33, was born in Somalia and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years before her family arrived in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, home to North America’s largest Somali population. Following her primary victory over incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn (D), Omar is now poised to represent Cedar-Riverside and become the first Somali-American legislator in the country.

In a speech to her supporters Tuesday night, Omar said, “Tonight we made history and it marks the beginning of the future of our district, a new era of representation. Tonight is about the power of you.”

Fue Lee, 24, moved with his family from a Thai refugee camp to north Minneapolis in 1992. His victory over veteran incumbent Rep. Joe Mullery (D) was considered something of an upset. In an interview with the Hmong Times, Lee said that part of what motivated his decision to run is his desire to “help marginalized communities to engage in democracy. We need to make it easier not harder.”

“As a young Hmong American I am passionate about public service,” Lee continued, adding that he feels it’s important for elected officials to “embody the communities that we live in.”

“The change in Minnesota has been much more rapid, and you can trace the rapid shifts in new American populations to specific policies.”

Omar and Lee still need to win general election contests in November, but neither is expected to have much trouble in their progressive districts.

Larry Jacobs, chair for political studies at the Humphrey School for Public Affairs and a longtime observer of Minnesota politics, attributed the victories of Omar and Lee to demographic changes.

“Minnesota has changed enormously,” Jacobs told ThinkProgress. “There’s been a pretty significant demographic shift from almost entirely white and protestant to pretty rapid growth of new Americans, both from Africa and Asia in particular, and also Latin America.”

Minnesota remains very white — more than 80 percent of the population identifies as “Non-Hispanic White.” But influxes of Hmong and Somali people has increased the diversity of the state, particularly in the Twin Cities area.

Jacobs characterized those changes as “the demographic shift we’re seeing throughout America, but on steroids.”

“The change in Minnesota has been much more rapid, and you can trace the rapid shifts in new American populations to specific policies,” he said. “The Hmong came as part of the resettlement of so-called ‘boat people’ in the 1970s. Somali population resettlement decisions were deliberate decisions by the State Department and the NGOs to place new immigrants in states where there were strong social services, both in government and also in churches.”

Jacobs also pointed out that redistricting after the 2010 census concentrated Minneapolis’ Somali community into a single House district.

“That population has become very well organized,” he said. “They have elected a member of the City Council in Minneapolis [Abdi Warsame], and were very important in the election of Keith Ellison as the first Muslim American in Congress. I think the Somali political mobilization is something we’ve been tracking for six, seven, eight years.”

But Jacobs also noted that Omar “quite explicitly did not run as the Somali candidate, she ran as the candidate who would be more responsive to the district and built a broad coalition.” Omar was able to win despite the presence of a second Somali in the race, Mohamud Noor, who actually won more votes than Kahn.

Kahn was first elected to the legislature back in 1972, a time when there was just one woman serving. Forty-four years later, she’s now the longest-serving member.

As she conceded defeat on Tuesday night, Kahn reflected on how things had come full circle.

“I was elected in ’72. It was an historic event. This is a new historic event,” she said, according to Minnesota Public Radio. “Obviously our district is the home of historic events.”

Kahn also praised Omar for her campaign.

“Ilhan obviously ran a very good campaign and mobilized a lot of people that we didn’t see before in previous elections,” Kahn said, according to the Star Tribune.