Tea Partier Tom Emmer and urban liberal Keith Ellison are Minnesota's newest political odd couple. Last week the congressmen from opposite sides of the cable news spin joined forces to launch the U.S. House's Somalia Caucus. The mission: press for peace and stability in the East African country, while helping democracy “and prosperity prevail over terrorism.”
Ellison, a Democrat and Muslim who maintains close ties with his district's sizable Somali community in Minneapolis, is a likely founder. While Emmer's 6th Congressional District includes St. Cloud, which has a growing Somali population, the firebrand Republican and onetime foreign aid critic seems a less obvious partner. Among St. Cloud's Somali leaders, his involvement and first six months on the job have sparked reactions as diverse as the caucus co-founders's platforms.
“I had a couple of reactions,” says Ahmed Ali, lead organizer with the Greater Minnesota Worker Center. “One, it was good and a step in the right direction. The other reaction I had was we also needed that in St. Cloud, you know? We haven't had much engagement from the office of the congressman with the community here.”
In the past seven months, St. Cloud's Muslim community has been shaken by mosque vandals and student harassment, which sparked a March protest at Tech High School. Beyond a handshake and swapping business cards with a staffer, Ali has had no contact with Emmer's office.
Ali is also still sour over Emmer's no-show to a forum focused on immigrant issues while he was on the campaign trail.
“That shows that the immigrant community or the minority community in central Minnesota is not much of a focus of his,” Ali says.
Community organizer Abdul Kulane applauds the Somalia Caucus's formation, but says he's surprised Emmer is behind it.
“I have never seen him engage in the community,” Kulane, who was out of the country, wrote in an email. “There are more pressing local issues for Somalis in the 6th Congressional District than what's happening back in Somalia.”
Those issues include access to jobs and housing, discrimination, and regulations on Hawalas —money transfer services that help Somali-Americans send money back home — he says.
Despite the criticisms from Ali and Kulane, Emmer's earned rave reviews from other St. Cloud Somali leaders.
Mahamoud Mahamed, executive director of St. Cloud Area Somali Salvation Organization, has met Emmer several times and said the rookie House rep has been supportive of issues facing St. Cloud immigrants. Mahamed's organization, which helps integrate Somali immigrants into the St. Cloud community, has primarily contacted Emmer's office for help with family reunification issues. Mahamed says his staff has assisted with multiple cases that were hung up in foreign embassies.
“There are other issues, youth crime prevention, things like that, that we are working on and his office is supporting or advocating for those programs for the youth,” Mahamed says.
An Emmer spokeswoman wouldn't comment on casework specifics, but provided a meeting list showing the congressman or his staff have met with several local Somali leaders and attended numerous events — including a Coon Rapids mosque opening and a Somali Independence Day celebration — since taking office in January.
Farhan Abdi might be among the most fervent Emmer fans. Abdi runs the St. Cloud Somali Youth Organization and gives the freshman congressman high marks thus far, as Emmer's team has been receptive whenever he's reached out to them, he says.
After this spring's student protest was sparked by a Snapchat picture suggesting a disabled Somali student was an ISIS member, Abdi contacted Emmer's office, which lent an ear and insight, he says.
“We were running to solve the problem, but they were behind us to give us an idea and to solve the problem on both sides,” Abdi recalls.
Though the bill has since passed, as a member of the state Legislature Emmer voted against an anti-bullying measure aimed at protecting LGBT students from harassment. The bill also targeted bullying based on race or ethnicity.
While Mahamed acknowledges it's still early in Emmer's first term, both he and Abdi agree the former talk radio host has been an upgrade from his controversial predecessor.
“We never had somebody that we can go [to], a congressman, before. We had a Michele Bachmann,” Abdi says. “But we never had that relationship that we do have with Tom Emmer and his staff.”
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