Rep. Ilhan Omar Faces Primary Challenge In Minnesota

Aug 10, 2020
Originally published on August 10, 2020 3:50 pm
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Democrats in the Minneapolis area will decide tomorrow whether they want first-term Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to represent them for another two years. Omar is facing several primary challengers. She's been on the defense against allegations that she is more interested in her political celebrity than her constituents. Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

MARK ZDECHLIK, BYLINE: Even though Ilhan Omar has only been in Congress for a little more than a year and a half, she's a household name to anyone who follows politics thanks in no small part to President Trump, who's repeatedly singled out Omar for criticism.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Congresswoman Omar is an America-hating socialist.

ZDECHLIK: That was Trump at a campaign rally in Minneapolis last fall in the heart of Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. Omar entered Congress last year as a vocal member of the squad. That's the group of four progressive women of color elected to Congress in 2018. They have been pressing for socio-economic transformation and environmental change in the country. Omar says she thinks her Democratic constituents in Minnesota appreciate her using her national voice to push for change.

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ILHAN OMAR: It's been really the honor of my life to represent my district, to be a voice for those that have been told they are too loud, their ideas are too broad and that their, you know, presence isn't supposed to be in the halls of power.

ZDECHLIK: But critics say Omar has demonstrated she's more interested in getting in front of microphones and engaging in Twitter wars than doing the work of the 5th District. One of those challengers, Antone Melton-Meaux, recently worked 5th District voters at a suburban farmer's market outside of Minneapolis.

ANTONE MELTON-MEAUX: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi. How are you?

MELTON-MEAUX: I'm good - yourself?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good.

MELTON-MEAUX: So I'm Antone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

ZDECHLIK: Melton-Meaux has raised millions of dollars for his primary campaign against Omar. He works as a mediator. He says Omar is too divisive and too focused on herself and that area Democrats have had enough.

MELTON-MEAUX: The residents feel deeply that Congresswoman Omar is out of touch and has been focused on her own personal pursuits.

ZDECHLIK: There's a Melton-Meaux focused on the 5th campaign sign in Phoebe Ruona's south Minneapolis yard. She agrees that Omar is not suited to represent her.

PHOEBE RUONA: It was like she wanted the spotlight all the time. And what I said to my friends was she reminds me of a little Trump.

ZDECHLIK: Ruona is not Jewish but says she was troubled by Omar's comments suggesting U.S. support for Israel was all about money and invoking what even Democrats said were anti-Semitic tropes. Party leaders admonished Omar. She apologized early last year.

Melton-Meaux has raised more than $4 million for his campaign. So has Omar, and the overwhelming majority of the money has come from outside of Minnesota. Omar supporters think many of the people backing Melton-Meaux are simply trying to silence Omar by knocking her off the national political stage. Minneapolis resident Joe Watters says outside attacks against Omar encouraged him to support her.

JOE WATTERS: When he was coming in to oppose her, I have received more campaign literature opposing her, negative attacks than I have ever seen.

ZDECHLIK: Watters applauds Omar for leveraging her standing to push for change.

WATTERS: She has brought international attention to herself, but I feel it's for all the right reasons.

ZDECHLIK: Whoever wins the Democratic primary in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District has a good chance of winning the November general election as well. Democrats have held the seat for more than a half century.

For NPR News, I'm Mark Zdechlik in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.