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Facing primary challenge, Ilhan Omar talks 'incredibly busy' first term

Frequently dubbed a "lightning rod," DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's asking primary voters to look past her polarizing image.

Frequently dubbed a "lightning rod," DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's asking primary voters to look past her polarizing image. Associated Press

For the past year and a half, the catch-all phrase used by the media to describe Rep. Ilhan Omar – one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress – has been “lightning rod.”

Right-wing Twitter hounds her routinely. She and President Donald Trump have become mutual favorite punching bags. (Of the two, Omar has a better grasp of the truth.) The Democratic establishment has occasionally flinched at Omar's language, as it did in the wake of her comments about the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, which included anti-Semitic tropes.

Her outspoken progressive ideals are what got her into office in 2018, and they are what sustain her.

But now, as she bids for reelection, these very same qualities – her boldness, her unflinching progressivism, and the notoriety that's generated – are being levied against her by her strongest detractors.

On August 11, Omar faces a handful of primary challengers, with the clear frontrunner being attorney and mediator Antone Melton-Meaux, whose campaign endorsements include activist Nekima Levy-Armstrong and two past presidents of the University of Minnesota. 

Though a first-time candidate, Melton-Meaux is well-funded and, because of his large campaign account, increasingly well-known. Melton-Meaux's barrage of campaign mailers and ads paint Omar as an out-of-touch celebrity more invested in her public image than the welfare of her district or negotiating for favorable solutions in Washington. (Attack ads funded by Melton-Meaux's supporters also raise questions about connections between Omar's campaign and her husband's political consulting firm.) 

Just like everything involving Omar, the race has achieved a national profile, with more than $10 million in campaign contributions, according to the Star Tribune. Most of that money is flowing in from out of state.

Nonetheless, she says her strategy hasn’t changed.

“Our campaigns are grassroots efforts, not just to have people vote for us, but to energize people around a vision and a collective,” she says. Minnesota’s deep blue Fifth Congressional District’s progressivism sets it apart; she wants to continue to harness that energy.

That means showing her constituents that her work extends beyond headlines and viral tweets. She characterizes the past year and a half as an “incredibly busy time,” serving on multiple committees. That includes Foreign Affairs’ African sub-committee – an important place for her to be, she feels, as “the only African-born to ever serve in Congress.”

The tricky part of navigating where Omar’s charisma ends and her policies begin is that her policies are often an extension of herself – her perspective as a refugee, a Muslim, and a Black woman.

Before she could wear her hijab on the House floor, she had to propose a rule change doing away with a head covering ban implemented in 1837. 

Since then, she’s pushed to expand protected status for Liberians living in the United States, who faced a looming deadline imposed by the Trump Administration. She brought Linda Clark, a Liberian woman from her own district facing deportation, as her plus-one to the State of the Union address in 2019. Permanent resident status was granted to the massively relieved community as a small part of a massive defense spending bill passed at the end of that year.

She’s also championed a No Ban Act – a piece of legislation she describes as “personal” – to end President Trump’s various shifting travel bans on several Muslim-majority countries, including her homeland of Somalia.

Other recent endeavors revolve around mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s the main sponsor of the MEALS Act, part of the fed’s coronavirus stimulus package, which provides more federal assistance to feed kids who rely on school lunch to get regular meals. Omar’s son, as it happens, works for Afro Deli, which has been assisting in meal distribution during the pandemic.

“We’re pretty proud of the fact that his first job is helping feed people on a piece of legislation his mom worked on,” she says.

She’s also been focusing on the Minneapolis Uprising – and “reimagining policing” – in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. She’s a cosponsor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a law that makes it easier to investigate and convict police officers of wrongdoing and discriminatory practices. It was introduced and passed the House within a month of Floyd’s killing.

How that fares in the Senate is another matter. Melton-Meaux has criticized Omar for putting forward legislation that's too progressive to gain support from the other side of the aisle. She’s been a champion of universal healthcare, the Green New Deal, student debt cancellation, among other progressive proposals, and acknowledges making progress on these issues may take Democrats regaining control of the Senate.

But Omar says the thrust of her politics always comes from her constituents. She’s listening to the things they tell her they want to see done, she says, and she’s “translating” them into legislation.

The Fifth District is “where progressive ideas are generated,” Omar says. It’s the home of “pace-setters.” And she’s got no plans to slow down.

“I have been excited to have had the privilege of representing them,” she says.