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For Democrats, Ilhan Omar is a complicated figure to defend

Wednesday April 17, 2019
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.CreditCreditJenn Ackerman for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — When President Trump tweeted an edited video portraying Representative Ilhan Omar as playing down the 9/11 attacks, it took less than three hours for Senator Bernie Sanders to rush to her defense and declare her “a leader with strength and courage.” But when a Fox News anchor described Mr. Sanders on Monday night as “a staunch supporter” of Ms. Omar, the senator balked.

“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Mr. Sanders insisted. “I’ve talked to Ilhan about twice in my life.”

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His reaction reflects the broader Democratic Party’s conflicted embrace of Ms. Omar. That struggle has especially been apparent in the House, where Jewish Democrats have tangled with Ms. Omar and Democratic leaders have grappled with how to handle the freshman Democrat from Minnesota, who is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

When Ms. Omar, 36, pushed for a House rules change to permit her to wear her hijab on the House floor, she was heralded as a powerful symbol of the Democratic Party’s inclusiveness. But her support of the boycott Israel movement and her attacks on supporters of Israel have made her a complicated figure to defend. Democratic leaders, as well as many in the rank and file, are choosing their words with caution.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced the president for invoking the “painful images of 9/11 for a political attack” without mentioning Ms. Omar, and waited until Sunday — two days after Mr. Trump’s tweet — to issue a statement saying she had asked the Capitol Police to assess the congresswoman’s safety. Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the House Democratic leader, waited three days before calling on the president to apologize to Ms. Omar.

“They put us in photos when they want to show our party is diverse,” Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the only other Muslim woman in Congress, wrote on Twitter, responding to someone who complained about Ms. Omar’s “lack of support” from the Democratic leadership. “However, when we ask to be at the table, or speak up about issues that impact who we are, what we fight for & why we ran in the first place, we are ignored. To truly honor our diversity is to never silence us.”

In many respects, Ms. Omar, a Somali refugee whose family received asylum in the United States when she was a teenager, represents a new direction for the Democratic Party. Her allies on the left argue that Mr. Trump’s war with Ms. Omar is a defining issue for the party.

“This is a proxy for who counts as an American and who doesn’t, and that is a fight that the Democratic Party needs to be leading on,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, a liberal advocacy group that helped elect Ms. Omar. “The Democratic Party can’t run away from the fight regarding Ilhan Omar, because she represents the country. In the story between Make America Great Again or the new America we are becoming, she is a pivotal character.”

Mr. Trump appears to agree. Using Ms. Omar as his foil, he and his team are deploying the same anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim messaging for the 2020 re-election campaign that they used to ride to the White House in 2016. The congresswoman has said she has “experienced an increase in direct threats on my life” since the president’s tweet on Friday.

“This is endangering lives,” she said in a statement on Sunday night. “It has to stop.”

But centrist Democrats have a more complex relationship with Ms. Omar. Her leftist brand of politics does not go over well in the swing districts that delivered Democrats the House majority. Her views on Israel make many Jews — an important component of the Democratic base — deeply uneasy. And her insinuations that American policy toward the Jewish state is driven by money — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote on Twitter — have drawn charges of anti-Semitism, prompting her to apologize.

So while Ms. Omar’s more moderate colleagues have denounced the threats against her, they have been tepid in their remarks. Representative Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat from New Jersey and strong supporter of Israel, spoke carefully when asked about Ms. Omar.

“The response to different points of view in our country must never be threats of physical harm or violence,” he said.

But if the party is conflicted about Ms. Omar, it is not reflected in the fund-raising report she filed this week with the Federal Election Commission.

During the first quarter of 2019, she raised $832,000, roughly half of which was from donors giving under $200. Over all, Ms. Omar took in nearly twice the median amount raised by incumbents who are in races rated a tossup by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, according to Michael Beckel, who analyzes money in politics for Issue One, a bipartisan group that advocates election overhaul.

The current controversy around Ms. Omar stems from remarks she made to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, describing how the group was founded after the Sept. 11 attacks “because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” (The group was actually founded in 1994.)

Last Tuesday, Representative Daniel Crenshaw, a freshman Republican from Texas, seized on the “some people did something” phrase, and posted a tweet suggesting Ms. Omar was minimizing the attacks. Conservative news outlets — including The New York Post and Fox’s “Fox & Friends,” Mr. Trump’s favorite television program — picked up on it. On Friday, Mr. Trump tweeted the edited video, which interspersed graphic images of the burning World Trade Center towers with a clip from Ms. Omar’s speech.

In an interview on Tuesday with CNN, Ms. Pelosi rejected the notion that Ms. Omar was anti-Semitic, and expressed concern for her well being, but she said she had not spoken to the congresswoman about the CAIR speech. “I don’t even know what was said,” Ms. Pelosi said. “But I do know what the president did was not right.”

Democratic presidential candidates have had their own complicated reactions. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has cast herself as a progressive on the campaign trail. But she qualified her support for Ms. Omar, by saying, “As a senator who represents 9/11 victims, I can’t accept any minimizing of that pain.”

Even Mr. Sanders, who hails from the same liberal wing of the party as Ms. Omar — and would be the country’s first Jewish president if elected — offered a mixed response. Speaking at a town hall-style meeting televised by the Fox News Channel on Monday night, he said he respected Ms. Omar. And while he said he does not believe she is anti-Semitic, he added, “I think Ilhan has got to do a better job in speaking to the Jewish community.”

Ms. Omar’s supporters say there is a danger to the Democratic split.

“Some of these institutional Democratic leaders can’t find, frankly, the spine to speak up quickly and strongly in defense of one of their colleagues,” said Zahra Billoo, a spokeswoman for CAIR. “If we don’t find alignment soon, knowing that Donald Trump is already passing Democratic candidates in his own fund-raising, I worry that we are looking at a second term because the leaders of our party did not do the right thing.”

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