Ilhan Omar made history Tuesday night as the nation’s first Somali-American legislator, with a commanding win in a state House race.
Omar, who faced only nominal Republican opposition in a heavily DFL Minneapolis district, continues an unlikely political journey that began amid the Somali civil war and a Kenyan refugee camp.
“It’s the beginning of something new,” Omar said. “This district has a legacy of making history. I am excited for our progressive values and to be able to be on the ground at the Capitol representing the diverse people of my district and being a champion with them and for them.”
Omar, a 34-year-old Muslim-American woman who proudly wears the hijab, is suddenly thrust into leadership of a rapidly emerging DFL coalition that is younger, more urban and more racially and ethnically diverse than at any time in its history.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said Omar’s victory is a statement about the state’s future: “It says something important about the future of Minnesota, and what it means to be a Minnesotan.”
Omar, who is also director of policy at Women Organizing Women Network — a group dedicated to pushing East African women into civic leadership — is credited with being a talented organizer and leader of a multiracial coalition that includes Minneapolis progressives. That in turn helped her defeat Rep. Phyllis Kahn — the House’s longest serving member — in a three-way DFL primary that included another formidable Somali-American opponent.
Omar’s nascent political career hit an almost immediate snag, however, just days after the primary victory, when questions arose about her marital status. She lives with Ahmed Hirsi, the father of her three children, but is legally married to another man, with whom she says she is in divorce proceedings.
Conservative websites have speculated that the legal marriage was to her brother for the purpose of committing immigration fraud. Omar declined interviews during the media maelstrom this summer, instead releasing a statement saying there was no immigration fraud, but a more conventional story about trouble in her relationship with Hirsi, which has since resolved itself.
Omar said the district has rallied around her in the face of the scrutiny.
She said her family has remained steadfastly with her, and alleged the marriage story was a “political con” meant to derail the progress of the kinds of people she will represent, including the Somali-American community.
“I feel like I have answered all of the questions — mostly rumors — in the statements that I have put out,” she said.
DFL leaders have stood by her, and local supporters remain committed as ever.
Hodan Adan, a mom who lives in the district and an Omar supporter, said an East African Muslim woman at the Capitol will inspire other women in the Somali émigré community, who are working hard to find their niche in Minnesota.
“We’re a minority in this country,” Adan said. “I am glad we see a role model for many women and students. I want a woman and someone from our community to win.”
Omar’s story is just the latest in a long line of oppressed people coming to the United States, grabbing hold of the country’s democratic levers and demanding equality and opportunity — mirroring the journey of Irish, Jewish and other immigrant groups.
She immigrated to the United States as a preteen, knowing only a few words of English, living with her family in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside area. They escaped the Somali civil war when she was 8 and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp.
She will face significant challenges in St. Paul, where a closely divided House filled with long-serving members will require coalitions with suburban and rural members, including Republicans, if she is to move legislation. Omar said she wants to help women entrepreneurs, pursue criminal justice reform and ensure clean air and water.
Omar said her victory is evidence that she can break barriers: “Throughout this campaign those divisions have started to melt away. People are starting to see themselves as part of a community.”