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Ilhan Omar wins DFL primary in historic legislative campaign

Ilhan Omar, 33, is poised to become a new face in American politics.

Ilhan Omar, 33, is poised to become a new face in American politics.

The future revealed itself Tuesday night at a Seward neighborhood restaurant under renovation as the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis looked on from the west.

Her name is Ilhan Omar.

"Pardon the mess," said Abdi Adeed, the 36-year-old owner of Kalsan Restaurant, who immigrated from Somalia in 1995, "I'm in the middle of getting my place looking nice."

Around eight o'clock Tuesday, Adeed hustled to prep the restaurant's banquet hall as a few dozen people looked on. Polls were just closing in the DFL primary between Omar, former Minneapolis School Board Member Mohamud Noor, and DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who has represented the House district the University of Minnesota and Cedar Riverside and Marcy-Holmes neighborhoods for more than four decades.

This was no small evening. If Omar were to win the Democratic primary, she'd be poised to become the country's first Somali-American legislator. 

Adeed admitted he was nervous for Omar. Kahn campaigned hard to keep the seat she's held for 44 years, he said. And the fact that the DFL race involved two Somalis presented a mixed bag.

"You see more Somalis getting involved politically," Adeed said. "That's good. But it's also divided the community in some ways too because we've had to pick only one candidate, Ilhan or Noor." 

The significance of the gender issue was not lost on Adeed. Omar's potential ascent to political prominence — and likely becoming the face of growing Somali-American political might not only locally, but in the nation — would be a line of demarcation in the history books.

"This would be a big difference in Somali culture," Adeed said. "It's like 'Wow!" a woman now is getting to be a politician, who makes the law. Some people are going to be surprised, but I think it's a good thing for our community." 

Within hours, Adeed's restaurant buzzed with antsy anticipation. The mass of Omar supporters filled the hall, spilling out into the hallway and front patio. They roared just past 10 o'clock when it was first reported that Omar triumphed.

Omar received a rock star's welcome when she arrived at the restaurant minutes later. The 33-year-old political organizer, who fled Somalia with her family at age 8, and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before landing stateside, stood Tuesday as a new face in American politics.   

Hugs from supporters drenched the married mother of three and nonprofit policy director who'd previously worked as an aid for Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson. Johnson was among the first to receive the victor on the curb. Nearby, young women looking on, crying.

"Tonight is about the power of you!" Omar told supporters. 

And of her. The floor now belongs to Omar, who's expected to easily vanquish Republican Abdimalik Askar in the November general election.

Tuesday's crowd included Sofia Hassen, a first-generation American born to Somali parents.   

"[Omar] has gotten to this place she's worked so hard for," said Hassen. "She shows us all people matter and should be represented."