Somali activist, school board member will try to unseat 41-year veteran of Minnesota House
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, thinks Mohamud Noor needs to make up his mind.
Kahn, one of the longest-tenured legislators in state history — having first been elected in 1972 — said she is not surprised to have a Democratic opponent for the party endorsement. She has frequently faced ambitious DFL challengers for the right to run in what is now House District 60B, a deep-blue Minneapolis district that virtually guarantees a long string of electoral victories for any Democrat.
What confuses Kahn is the trajectory of Noor’s career. Once a viable state Senate candidate for an open Minneapolis seat, Noor then shifted his attention to the Minneapolis School Board. Late last year, board members elected Noor to fill the seat left vacant by the sudden death of Hussein Samatar.
Just months after that appointment, Noor announced that he would challenge Kahn for the DFL endorsement in her district.
“I don’t understand how one runs one’s life like that,” said Kahn, who added that she had received an email from a constituent complaining about Noor’s disservice to the school board position.
By way of explanation, Noor said a seat in the Legislature would give him a platform to address a number of issues, including education, while the school board seat permits only a limited agenda. Noor said that he has always had his sights set on a position at the Capitol.
Perhaps just as important as Noor’s own ambitions are those of Somali-Americans who live in Kahn’s district. Following the election of Minneapolis City Council member Abdi Warsame, some activists in that politically engaged community are sensing a groundswell that could make Noor the first Somali-American legislator in the country.
“I think it’s the right moment,” Noor said of his candidacy. “The momentum from the community — sometimes you have to be pushed by the community to do the right thing.”
Ward 6 vs. House District 60B
As evidence of the force propelling Noor into the race, he pointed to his campaign announcement event, which saw hundreds of energetic supporters pack the gymnasium at the Brian Coyle Center.
Kahn, meanwhile, is comfortable with her established rapport with the Somali community, citing relationships that go back two decades. Last year, she endorsed Warsame’s bid for the City Council, and she said he plans to return the favor in her re-election campaign.
Veteran DFL politico Brian Rice, who has assisted Kahn on campaigns in the past, points out that Warsame’s Ward 6 seems specifically carved out to provide for East African representation at the city level. There is no such legislative district currently in existence. In fact, Ward 6 is made up of pieces of four different House districts.
Rice said he met with Noor prior to his announcement and tried to warn him about this reality, saying only 80 of the district’s 281 endorsement delegates would hail from areas with “significant” East African populations.
Jamal Abdulahi echoed Rice’s analysis. As chair of the Minnesota DFL Somali-American Caucus, Abdulahi has been thinking for some time about how that constituency might achieve representation in the Legislature. Abdulahi’s initial reaction to news of Noor’s announcement was to question whether the candidate had done proper research on the district.
“Some of the political reporting class may be confusing things,” Abdulahi said. “In light of what happened in Ward 6, there’s a narrative that there’s this ‘Somali electoral juggernaut.’ That may be true in Ward 6, but I don’t know how much it’s true in this House district.”
Noor should expect the overwhelming support of the Somali community in that district, said Abdulahi, who estimates that population could number as high as 4,000. But the newcomer would also need to win the support of some other constituency in that district, which Kahn summarizes as consisting of “seniors, students and Somalis.”
2012 also brought Kahn challenger
In 2012, DFL organizer Mike Griffin spent more than six months pounding the pavement trying to win the party endorsement in Kahn’s district. Griffin, a recent University of Minnesota graduate, focused his efforts on the University campus area, working to convince students to participate in the party endorsement process. Griffin said the student population, often considered transient and unmotivated, is still available to be stirred in 2014.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Young people or students are activated by one of two things — candidates who go out and talk with them, and also by the issues candidates bring.”
Though it took three ballots, Kahn survived Griffin’s challenge. Looking back on that contest, Kahn said many supporters met her door-knocking with dismissive laughter, saying the incumbent was a “shoo-in,” and telling her not to worry about Griffin.
“I hope this time people understand,” Kahn said, “that the caucuses are important, that the endorsing convention is important.”
To this point, Noor has only stated that he plans to seek the party endorsement, and has not explicitly addressed whether he might decide to force Kahn to a primary. There, the consistently high turnout from the Somali community could be a boon to Noor. But Abdulahi emphasized the reality that, with primaries taking place in summer months, the potentially winnable student population is largely absent at the time of the vote.
Referring to past attempts to unseat Kahn, Abdulahi said, “If she gets challenged in a primary, she cruises through that.”
Noor’s previous Senate campaign — which he eventually lost in a primary to Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis — got off to an impressive start, as he won the endorsements of TakeAction Minnesota, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Stonewall DFL, the LGBT caucus for the state’s Democrats. Observers of Noor’s newest quest point out that it’s easier to gain that support in an open field, as opposed to convincing a group to switch allegiances: Kahn already has the endorsement of each of the groups that backed Noor in 2011.
For his part, Noor said he plans to pursue the same organizational strategy as in the past, though he admitted it would be more complicated. If the support of key organizations does not materialize, he is confident that his work ethic and personal connections will see him to victory.
Reached Thursday evening, Noor said he had barely slept the night before, explaining that he had been spending time with people affected by the Cedar-Riverside apartment fire that killed at least two people and injured more than a dozen.
“I’ll do my best to get the endorsements,” Noor said. “Other than that, I have the people’s support, and the people’s endorsement is most important.”