By Brooke Anderson
Thursday November 19, 2020
Somali Americans are among the country's most engaged voters. [Getty]
Donald Trump was determined to win Minnesota, a state he'd narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
His plan was simple: visit the state multiple times and make xenophobic remarks about Ilhan Omar, who came to the US as a refugee from Somalia and who is only one of two Muslim women in the US House of Representatives.
"She hates our country," he would say repeatedly at his campaign rallies (not just in Minnesota), a not-so-subtle jab at her national origin, and an attempt to fuel a perception of her otherness.
This was combined with months of TV campaign advertisements featuring images of Omar and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with cities burning from riots and looting.
A force to be reckoned with
"Trump worked hard to build that movement hoping he'd win Minnesota. He came several times, and his children were also here. We were getting Trump every few weeks," recalls Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Minnesota.
What the Trump campaign wasn't prepared for was a large-scale grassroots coordination to get the state's Somali community out to the polls, which helped Joe Biden win the state by a much more comfortable margin than Clinton did in 2016 - 1.5 percent, compared with 0.5 percent.
As a group, Somali Americans buck the conventional wisdom of voting expectations. They are among America's most engaged voters, despite being among the poorest. Many also live in rural areas, a relatively unusual trend for a minority community in the upper Midwest. They also generally have good relationships with other communities in the state, possibly making Trump's divisive rhetoric counterproductive. All of this meant that the community itself was equipped with knowledge that a simplistic fly-in campaign did not have.
"What Trump didn't realise was he thought he had an easy target. He didn't. Ilhan Omar's district loves her. She's been a progressive champion for her district," says JaNae' Bates, communications director for Faith in Minnesota, a multifaith group that works with the Somali community.
"Even people who voted for Trump voted for progressive policies. Pretty soon, people across the political spectrum will recognise the need to take care of each other."
A progressive history
Minnesota, situated between the deeply conservative western states and the politically mixed industrial rustbelt to the east, has a long history of progressive politics, despite being historically substantially white and rural.
Largely settled in the 1800s by Scandinavians, these immigrants brought with them a culture of community engagement that would translate to progressive politics, uniting farmers and blue-collar factory workers.
These communities, through their churches and charities, would later help Somali refugees make Minnesota their home. The more left-wing Farmer-Labor Party, founded in 1918, created the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), which in 1944 merged with the Democratic Party, resulting in a solid united liberal voting bloc.
This united front has repeatedly produced Democratic wins at all levels of government. The last time the state chose a Republican in a general election was when Richard Nixon won in 1972, making Minnesota among the most consistently Democratic voting states in the US - even more so than California.
"Minnesota has always been more liberal. Wisconsin used to be that way. Democrats just kind of took the state for granted," says Michael Minta, associate professor of political science at University of Minnesota, referring to the tilt toward conservatism in the neighbouring rustbelt region, particularly Wisconsin, which Clinton did not visit during her general election campaign four years ago, but where Trump went to campaign six times.
A highly contested state
Minnesota is still generally regarded as a swing state because the Democratic wins tend to come with small margins, a sign that the state always has the potential to swing to the other side. Indeed, in this past election, one of the house seats that flipped from a moderate Democrat to a Republican is in an area that is increasingly becoming more conservative.
"The Western part of Minnesota has become more Trump country. It wasn't always this way. The labor party used to have a strong link with farming, but that's been eroding over time," says Minta, noting that Collin Peterson, a Democratic US House member and chair of the House Agricultural Committee, lost to a Republican.
"He's one of the few remaining moderate or conservative Democrats left. That district - House District 7 - has been increasingly trending Republican. As congressional elections have become more nationalised, outside groups are giving more money. Republicans had Peterson's district as a target," says Minta.
This area of Minnesota has seen losses in its population size, while the Minneapolis area has been gaining residents, largely due to immigration trends from Somalia.
"Minnesota is really white demographically. We're becoming more multiracial. As we do, we have to deal with targeted dog whistles," says Bates.
Making a home in Minnesota
The resettlement of tens of thousands of Somalis in Minnesota - mainly during the height of the east African country's civil war in the 1990s - was in large part thanks to voluntary agencies (also called VOLAGS), such as Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and World Relief Minnesota. These agencies helped the refugees get settled, learn English, and find housing and work.
While the community was largely welcomed, many were also subject to harassment, and in some cases hate crimes. For Salah Mohamed, a Rochester-based activist, the 2017 bombing of the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis, was a turning point at which the community accelerated its political involvement. While the White House's reaction to the attack was silence, Minnesota's was not.
Days later, hundreds of Minnesotans of all faiths, including then-US Senator Al Franken, gathered in a nearby soccer field to show solidarity with America's Muslim community. Two members of a militia group from Illinois called the White Rabbits admitted to the attack and were charged a year later.
"We developed partnerships to build leadership and power. We chose not to be victims. We decided to take action. We decided to make our voices heard," says Mohamed. "We needed to make sure we protected each other. Volunteers helped us in getting to know our neighbours." He added, "We're as Minnesotan as anyone else. We're not foreigners. We're at home."
The incident occurred around the time that the US president issued the Muslim ban. The following year, he reportedly referred to African nations as "shithole countries." The year after that, he told Omar and other minority congresswomen to "go back to where you came from." For the Somali community, such attacks made them a triple target - because they are black, Muslim and refugees.
But by the mid-2010s, those that had arrived two decades earlier had acclimated to the area, established themselves in business and had new generations of American-raised children. They had made America, more specifically Minnesota, their home.
A rising star and a role model
One of them, of course, was Ilhan Omar. Like many other Somalis in Minnesota, she arrived in the US as a refugee. Like many others, she also became civically engaged. What made her stand apart was her charisma, says Abdirizak Bihi, who mentored her when she participated in community dialogue sessions between Somalis and African Americans at a local church.
"She'd light up a room, she'd engage with people, she wasn't afraid of any issue. She'd sit down with anyone," recalls Bihi, emphasising that her biggest mentor was her grandfather, who took her with him to vote when he became an American citizen.
She started her career working with political campaigns, then became a Minnesota state representative in 2017. The following year, she ran for US Congress, winning 78 percent of the vote, breaking the state's records for a female and for a non-incumbent.
It has been not just Omar's political rise that has made her an icon in her community, but also her outspokenness. This, says Bihi, has helped many newcomers, who themselves fled authoritarianism, break the fear barrier of political participation.
"There were generations that had never voted in their lives. They were afraid of the government. It took extreme investment to turn the community around," says Bihi.
"They've come a long way since arriving in the country. They've achieved so much in 20 years," he says. "There was a lot of fear of the Trump administration. A lot of people said it reminded them of what they fled from."
A community's passion for politics
Now, he says, elections are a passion. In a state with a high voter turnout, around 75 percent, compared with the national average of 55 percent, the Somali community votes at an even higher rate than Minnesotans on average - often as high as 90 percent. "We're here to stay. We should have a say in who is impacting our lives," says Mohamed.
Organisers say they don't have to push the community to vote, but instead just facilitate the process. "We focused on voter turnout. The community just needed a reminder," says Hussein from CAIR.
For these voters, much of what is on the ballot impacts their lives directly. An estimated 70 percent of the Somali community lives in poverty. This has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many factory and meat-packing workers to continue doing their jobs under unsafe conditions. At Pilgrim's Pride meatpacking plant in Cold Spring, the community was able to speak up about their unsanitary working environment, but that was only after many got sick.
Many others have not been as vocal for fear of repercussions. These workers are often recent refugees who are still getting their bearings while sending money back home. Even before the pandemic, many in the community were disproportionately affected by unemployment and inadequate healthcare.
To help facilitate their voting, community leaders visited their large apartment complexes in rural areas, often catching them in their parking lots on their way to their cars. They also went to malls, important gathering spots in Minnesota's notoriously cold winters. Once the pandemic broke out, they hit their phones with calls and text messages, reaching at least 100,000 people. On election day, they had dozens of volunteers helping people get to the polls.
On top of what was already a high voter turnout, organisers learned they could have gotten out more votes if more people had completed their citizenship applications.
"The biggest thing we found this year is the sheer number of people that could have made an impact because of the cost of citizenship. In Minnesota, there are around 60,000 eligible citizens who are yet to be citizens. If we can support them to become citizens, their votes will have a huge impact on the policies being driven against them. These people are just too poor to apply for citizenship," says Hussein.
"We're also noticing that as soon as they become citizens, they're likely to vote at a very high rate. If you get these people in and help them with the process, they will be voting in rural communities that have historically voted against their interests. That's why we've focused on rural Minnesota."
Aside from focusing on high voter turnout, community leaders are also encouraged by the strong showing of Somalis running and winning public office. In this latest election, Omar Fateh ousted a nine-year incumbent in the primary, making promises of much more progressive policies. "One reason for high voter turnout is people are voting for people who look like them," says Hussein.
Making their voices heard beyond the ballots
This mobilisation has not been lost on Minnesota's politicians, who now see the Somali community as an important voting bloc that can't be ignored.
Bihi, who hosts a weekly radio show, did an interview with the governor shortly before the election, what he sees as a sign that his community is firmly on the political radar.
"I had the governor on my radio show. That's how much the community is important for voting. That's how big the Somali vote is," says Bihi. Now that the election frenzy is winding down, Mohamed can finally take a breath - but not for long.
"We're at the end of a marathon, but it feels like the beginning of a marathon. We need to hold the elected officials accountable," he says. "Our eyes are open. We are watching and we are listening. We'll keep our communities and our neighbourhoods well informed about what they need to do."
Brooke Anderson is a freelance journalist covering international politics, business and culture