In tight race, Somalis turn out for Mohamud Noor, possibly Rep. Phyllis Kahn’s toughest challenger in 42 years


The surge in political activism from Somali-Americans in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is putting pressure on longstanding Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, to prove that she deserves another term in the state Legislature.

Somali-born Mohamud Noor, a fellow DFLer, is challenging the 22-term legislator for the seat representing the West Bank, the University of Minnesota and other east Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Because of deadlock in early stages of the election process, the outcome of the race won’t be decided for months. Until then, the longstanding incumbent and newcomer will vie for support.

The highly contested battle is highlighting how voters identify with candidates, either culturally or politically.

Simultaneously, the idea that the district’s seat should mirror its demographic makeup is surfacing more than ever.

“Noor is more descriptively representative, but Phyllis Kahn may be more effective in representing the interests and the substantive needs of the district,” said Humphrey School of Public Affairs professor Larry Jacobs.

Often, voters elect leaders who share their background and cultural experiences, he said.

Nearly a quarter of the district’s residents are Somali, and Noor supporters are making a loud mark on the campaign trail.

Events like February’s chaotic precinct neighborhood caucus, which ended in fights, exemplify the new gush of political energy from the Somali community. At the second precinct caucus, which was rescheduled when the first was canceled, Noor received most of the support, allowing him to send more delegates from the area to last month’s DFL convention.

“Nobody else can engage [Somalis] other than somebody who can speak to them directly,” Noor said.

Because neither candidate won 60 percent support at the party’s convention, they left without an endorsement — a rare occasion in the election process.

Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, works at ground level in Cedar-Riverside and serves as a neighborhood leader.

Besides being interested in a candidate who mirrors their cultural identity, Jacobs said, people sometimes support representatives based on the candidates’ knowledge of the area’s needs and interests.

With nearly a half-century at the Capitol under her belt, Kahn led the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act into law and has served as an advocate for gender equality. She now chairs the House’s Legacy Committee.

Among other plans this session, she hopes to pass legislation to renovate and expand the Brian Coyle Center, which houses community organizations on the West Bank.

“I haven’t stopped being a leader, particularly on progressive issues in the Legislature,” Kahn said.

In addition to her successful track record, Kahn has garnered praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, said Larry Pogemiller, a former state senator and current director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. 

Pogemiller, a longtime friend of Kahn, said she knows how to move the district forward.

“She’s a valuable ally and a difficult opponent,” he said.

Explaining the Somali surge

It often takes time for immigrant communities to feel comfortable enough to start getting involved in political processes.

Jamal Abdulahi, chair of Minnesota’s DFL Somali American Caucus, said the longer people live in an area, the deeper their roots become. Over time, they’ll naturally ask for more influence and political power.

In Cedar-Riverside, more than 65 percent of foreign-born residents are of African descent. But because the neighborhood sits in the middle of Minneapolis — a progressive and DFL stronghold — new immigrants find a unique sense of comfort in voicing their political preferences, Abdulahi said.

Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the U.S. In 2010, there were nearly 50,000 Somalis living in Minnesota, with 18,000 living in Minneapolis.

Abdulahi said both Noor and Kahn would fit the contested role well. But the question of who best mirrors constituents depends on how accurately that person meets community needs.

For some in the Somali community, he said, Noor may offer a clearer reflection — which is why Cedar-Riverside is showing such a strong presence in the election.

“They want to see one of their own elected,” Abdulahi said.

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