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Transcript: Cape Up Live: Rep. Ilhan Omar with Jonathan Capehart

Tuesday November 24, 2020

MR. CAPEHART: Good morning. I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. And welcome to Washington Post Live. It is also a live recording of my Post Opinions podcast Cape Up. My guest today was just reelected to her second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. Congresswoman, thanks for coming on the podcast.

REP. OMAR: It's so great to be with you, Jonathan.

So, last we talked, which was yesterday on MSNBC, I asked you for your reaction to being able to say the words President-elect Biden. And your response to me was really interesting. You said--and correct me, and I would love for you to expand on this--you said that it would be--it'll be great for you to not have to explain to your daughter why the president of the United States was saying mean things about you.

: Yeah. I mean, so I don't know if you remember this, Jonathan, but the president, when he was running for president, came to Minnesota two days before the 2016 elections and basically went on attack against Somali immigrants, Somali refugees. And for me and the community that I represent for my children, it's been a four-year assault on everything that we believe in, and everything that we stand for, down to our basic identity as American refugees in this country. And so, you know, I've had many long days, many nights having to explain to my youngest children, who is now eight, my two older ones, you know, sort of absorb and can contextualize what is taking place in the political discourse in this country--but for her, it's been really challenging for this to actually happen.

You know, I think for a lot of our kids they hear about a president and they hear about someone they're supposed to look up to, see as a leader, and there's a lot of respect for the presidency that we try to instill in them. And to have someone who has denigrated that as a president in her very formative years has been really challenging.

I mean, it's one thing to be--to have someone attack your community writ large. It's another thing when that someone is the president of the United States and he is directly attacking you, by name, personally. How has that--how has that felt?

REP. OMAR: I mean, on a personal level, you know, I have gotten accustomed to standing up to bullies in my life, and so on a personal level it hasn't really impacted me besides having, you know, my children be exposed to it and, you know, for the last two months of this election cycle waking up every single morning to text messages from my siblings asking if I was safe because he chose to speak about me at every single rally--didn't really matter where he was, sometimes multiple times in a day as he had held his Klan rallies throughout the country.

And you know--and I thought a lot about in the last two years what that attack on me has meant for the people who see themselves in me, whether it is, you know, Muslims, whether it is Black women, whether it is immigrants, refugees, people who are aspiring to be leaders in our country, many firsts who want to live in an inclusive society and want to be part of creating progress for our country. And it's really something to analyze and to understand and to reckon with. Because as I said, you know, when I first came to the United States, in middle school I remember getting a letter of recognition from then President Clinton, and I remember, you know, reading this letter. And you know, I wrote about it in my book, my father sort of was really proud of this letter. At the time, I didn't really care much about, you know, who was president or politics. But to my father, it was an acceptance of our existence in this country. It was sort of, you know, another welcoming letter, because you get a welcoming letter when you arrive here as a refugee.

And you know, that is what a president is supposed to be a representative of. They are a leader of the nation. They are supposed to make everybody feel as if they are their president. And to have now had four years of a president who has occupied the White House who has not seen himself as a leader of all of the people in this country, who has not extended a welcoming hand to every single person, is, you know, really sad and depressing and disheartening.

And the day that it was announced that he lost his reelection, I tweeted to my now deceased father, who passed away of COVID complications, that the president did not really even acknowledge that--you know, that we did it, that he will no longer be president of the United States. And the country that he loved will hopefully come back to being a beacon of hope and an inclusive country that understands that there's strengthen in our diversity and that there are better days ahead of us.

Well, Congresswoman, my condolences on the--on the loss of your--the passing of your--of your father. You know, the attacks from the president on you directly and personally and specifically also had to do with his reelection strategy, not only just ginning up the base around the country, but part of his plan to try to win Minnesota, which he very narrowly lost in 2016. It didn't work. One could say that it didn't work because Minnesota is, you know, traditionally a Democratic state. But do you think that the attacks on you backfired?

It did. And not just attacks on me. I mean, attacks on every single person in this country backfired. Black women who have been subject to his vitriol, have shown up in mass numbers to repute his presidency and to change course in this country. Young people have shown up in mass numbers to say we want a future that is brighter than the darkness that you have brought. Immigrants, people who just got their citizenship, showed up and said, you know, this is going to be an inclusive country and a place for all of us, and we're going to be part of the process of creating that. And Minnesotans, by and large, showed up in numbers that they had not for a presidency in a long time to say you are not going to use our state to spread your message of hate and division in this country. We are not only going to not elect you but we are going to show the country what it means to stand up to a bully like you.

: So, Congresswoman, so President Trump lost Minnesota. But when it comes to the House of Representatives, Republicans--well, Democrats didn't win the seats that they thought they were going to win. And in fact, Republicans ended up gaining seats and still we will find out next month whether Republicans retain control of the Senate. But why do you think that is, that even though President-elect Joe Biden won the popular vote, won more than--at last count more than 5 million votes than President Trump, why don't you think President-elect Biden and the Democrats had coattails to go from, you know, winning the White House to expanding the Democratic majority in the House?

REP. OMAR: I mean, elections are nuanced. You know, in Minnesota we have a tradition of people splitting their ballots, and we've seen that happen not just in Minnesota but throughout the country. And I also think, you know, in many cases there was so much focus, especially for me--I mean, I didn't--I didn't even talk to a single person during my general election about voting for me. You know, I was so much focused in defeating Trump and making sure Biden won, we made, you know, 1.4 million attempts in reaching our constituents, and that's why we ended up having one of the highest turnouts in our district. And I think for a lot of my colleagues who've lost, they've expressed how, you know, there was a lot of concentration, whether it was the volunteers, the nation's attention was on sending Trump packing and for, you know, a lot of us, that win in itself was the victory that we were after.

I will say, campaigning during a pandemic really wasn't something that a lot of people were prepared for. I had to fight to establish a ground game, hire a canvasing team and go out and door nocking in Minnesota. I know a lot of my colleagues did not do that. And so, there are a lot of challenges that happen when you are not having that one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with constituents. When Republicans continued to expand their ground game, Democrats did not.

You know, one of the things that came up--I mean, one, there's the infamous, you know, caucus phone call after the election where it apparently got very heated. But one of the things that your congressional colleague, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said in The New York Times and other places that, you know, hammering home the fact that, you know, Democrats are way behind when it comes to digital campaigns and having an online presence. And I'm just wondering, one, your take on that; and two, sort of the rejoinder that came from Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin of Michigan in a Politico profile that I read where she says--and I'm going to read you this quote--"I think that she's better informed speaking about her own district. Maybe more than 9 percent of her district is on Twitter, but that's about how much of mine is on Twitter." And then she goes on to say that she had a robust digital vote program, she said, "but I'd like to see her gas pump video screen ads. Did she have those? Those were a big part of what we invested in because my voters, especially during COVID, were still going to get gas."

I'm bringing all of this up because I'm wondering, this rift that appears to be there, that is there between the progressive wing, which you are strongly identified, and the so-called moderate wing of the party are in conflict, are at loggerheads. Are we making too much of this, or is the Democratic Caucus really in danger of--you know, leave aside the Senate--possibly in 2022 losing the majority in the House?

REP. OMAR: I mean, so, you know, I think it's important for people to have fluency--right?--in the people that they seek to represent, whether it is their challenges or the best ways to engage with them. You know, some people will say focus on constituent services is important, which we all understand how valuable that is to serving your constituents. But when you're running for reelection or running for the first time, utilizing every mode of communication is essential to winning your election. And you know, the thing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Alex, myself and Rashida understood while we ran our primaries--because we were all challenged in the primary--is that during COVID you have to utilize digital strategy, an aggressive digital strategy in order to get your message out to your constituents. And that needs to also be, you know, part of the work that you do going forward while you serve as well.

And I think, you know, what Slotkin is saying is something that we've been saying, right? We understand that the Democratic Caucus is a big tent. We understand that there is differences in the different constituents that we serve. Our party is unique in that regard. We are not monolithic in the constituents that we have and the demographics of those constituents. But we are also a party that says we are the party of the people. And so, prioritizing the needs of people is something that we need to be unified in, whether it is talking about how to address the social and economic neglect that people have dealt with for decades, or whether it is figuring out how to have a cohesive message that speaks to who we are as a caucus. What we are asking our colleagues to do is to continue to have that conversation, because when we are not having conversations with the people and we are having conversations about our divisions, the Republicans win.

: And I was going to ask, you know, I'm wondering is it the message, the mode of the message that is the problem for the Democrats or the Democratic Party, or is it the message itself? Do you think that the reason why Democrats did not gain the seats that it wanted to and some Democratic members of Congress were not reelected was because their constituents, the voters, didn't like the message, didn't like the policies that they were running on?

Yes, I mean, the responsibility is on the candidate themselves to figure out what messages work as they communicate with the people they are seeking to represent. You know, obviously we have a message as Democrats about what it means to address the needs of the American people, but tailoring that message to the constituents that you serve in the way that it is best suitable is something that you only understand as a candidate who's running in that district. And when you fall short of that, that falls on you. It doesn't fall on, you know, the candidate that's running across the country for a seat and messaging to a different constituency than the one that you serve.

And so, you know, our challenge is figuring out how do we run a 21st century campaign. And that is not only about message. It's about also figuring out--right?--like how are you going to be in front of people getting your message to them, whether it is door knocking, using, you know, digital ads, or being on TV. Different things work. I never imagined that I would run TV ads, but in my primary race I had to run TV ads. And that's about adapting. That's about understanding what is it going to take for you to win. And for someone who had $17 million to spend against them, you know, by Democrats and Republicans to unseat me, I'm here because I figured out how to have proper ways in engaging my constituents so that I could win both of my elections, the primary and the general.

: Are there areas--and I'm sorry to keep harping on the rift between the progressive wing and the moderate wing but, well, welcome to Washington--are there areas--

: Jonathan, this rift is basically from, you know, the media and the pundits and the Republicans. I think, you know, internally, you know, as a big family we might have our debates and discussions. But, you know, the rift isn't as strong as it's being made out to be.

: And I take your point because as I was listening as you talked about the nuance that candidates, depending on their district, need to--need to--need to employ while running for reelection, that sounded eminently reasonable. And I'm sitting here trying to understand, well, wait, am I making a thing of the rift? So, let's just leave--let's just leave that aside. When it comes to--

REP. OMAR: I mean, I will say this as a last point to that rift.


: You know, I think oftentimes when people lose or feel challenged--right?--I remember getting a primary challenger--I could blame every single person on the Democratic side who has attacked me since getting to Congress and say this is why I have a Democratic primary challenger. I could blame, you know, the colleagues whose spouses donated to my primary opponent. I could blame the governor, the Democratic governors who donated to my primary opponent. Or I could say this is a challenge and I need to overcome, because that blame game doesn't serve me. It's not good for my psyche. I'm better at thinking about how to provide a positive message to my constituents so that I can bring them back and I can win this election.

And you know, I think about the different ads that I've seen for either, you know, Slotkin or Abigail Spanberger or even, you know, Conor Lamb, and I think these ads had a lot to do about your history prior to coming to Congress. They had a lot to do with the fact that you chose to go take pictures with people who had defund the police signs. They had a lot to do with the way in which you've conducted yourself and the shortcomings that you have.

And so, you can--right?--continue to blame people across the country for serving their constituents, or you can say I've overcome all of these challenges and I won my election. Now let's figure out how everybody can overcome their challenges and win their elections, because that's a more hopeful place to work from. And as the optimist in the room, I'm always looking at, you know, how do we positively move forward instead of looking back and thinking about, you know, what we can try to get stuck on and not allow for ourselves to be in positions to better serve our constituents.

So, then, since you invoked her name, Congresswoman Spanberger, you know, as reported on The Call, was angry, very angry about the impact of quote "defund the police" but also the use of the word socialism within the party. Does she not have a point on that, the negative impacts that those two things had on Democratic races around the country?

MS. OMAR: I have not seen a single analysis to point to a research data point that that is actually something that had impact. If you look at the ads that were run against her, it had to do with, you know, a school she was teaching in Saudi Arabia that's supposed to be, like a terror hot spot or something like that. You look at ads across the country where, you know, they were using their votes with Pelosi against them. You think about the two Senate races right now in Georgia. It's about Schumer and something that he said about us changing our country and changing the world. I mean, there are so many lies and smears that the Republicans engage in that have had impact on races. And you know, to blame a movement that has shown up for us in the most aggressive way to deliver a decisive victory for President-elect Biden is really shameful and something that I can't even believe my Democratic colleagues are doing.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, let's talk about your district. What are--what are your priorities for your constituents in Minnesota's 5th District in your next term?

REP. OMAR: Our priorities are, one, trying to figure out how do we help President Biden, the Biden and Harris administration to curb the spread of virus. Minnesota is experiencing a surge and is currently dealing with, you know, the impact of this pandemic in a serious, personal way. Figuring out how do we bring our country back from the brink of financial crisis, dealing with the looming eviction crisis that we have and the housing crisis that preceded this pandemic, canceling student debt, you know, dealing with the climate crisis that we have, and figuring out, you know, as someone who recognizes healthcare as a human right, how do we make sure every American has access to healthcare.

This conversation's so great, and we are actually running out of time. But I have two questions I need to ask you before we go. You're on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I'm wondering how do you balance the desire to talk about Israel and Palestine and open debate in this country about our support for Israel with the very real sensitivities of Jewish people in mind?

REP. OMAR: I mean, as we deal with the country Israel and, you know, its continued place in the Middle East and impact on our foreign policy, it needs to be a conversation that we have, you know, on a policy level in trying to really adjust how we talk about a conflict that doesn't really include two parties that are operating on an equal footing. We don't have a full recognition for statehood for Palestinians. What does it mean for us to advocate for human rights, to advocate for rights of people, and how do we continue to have a conversation on statehood for people who have experienced injustice for so long?

MR. CAPEHART: You know, Vice President-elect Harris is--you know, she' broken through a ton of barriers, a ton of glass ceilings just by being elected vice president-elect of the United States. She's the first woman. She is the first person of color to be vice president. She's the first Black woman, first South Asian--first South Asian woman. And I'm just wondering if you could take a step back and just talk about what it means to have the incoming vice president of the United States be a person of color, be someone who you can look at and see your reflection.

REP. OMAR: Yeah. I mean, she's also the first daughter of immigrants to ascend to the vice presidency. You know, when we watched her come on stage, my daughter, who's 8, her first thoughts were, "She looks like me, Mama." And you know, there's this famous quote that my sister constantly repeats: You can't be what you can't see. And for so many of our daughters, they're going to get an opportunity to see themselves in that position and to know that there is no limitation on their ability to ascend to a powerful position like that is something that is beautiful. You know, I've always said representation matters in a representative democracy, and the kind of representation that her visibility in itself provides is something that we can't really quantify.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from the great state of Minnesota, thank you very much for coming on the podcast.

: Thank you.

: And also, for coming on Washington Post Live. Have a great day.

REP. OMAR: You too.

MR. CAPEHART: And thank you for tuning in to Washington Post Live. Guests coming up this week include former national security advisor, John Bolton; co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Opal Tometi; and the Colorado--and Colorado Governor Jared Polis. You can register to watch these interviews and more at WashingtonPostLive.com. Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Thanks for watching Washington Post Live.


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