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Convention deadlocks as contentious Kahn-Noor race heads to primary

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks with delegates during the convention.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks with delegates during the convention.

Minneapolis School Board Member Mohamud Noor and longtime incumbent DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn must now campaign toward August.

Noor, a Somali activist, blocked an endorsement at the DFL Senate District 60 convention on Saturday in a competitive state House race that’s pitted the growing political power of Minneapolis’ East African community against Kahn’s more than 40 years of experience winning her way back to the Legislature. The two candidates must now campaign to an August primary in order to settle the party’s nomination for the November general elections.

What first looked like an impending win for Kahn – who was just six votes from securing the DFL endorsement for House District 60B on the first ballot of the convention  – ground out into five ballots of almost no vote movement between the opposing camps, though Kahn’s support slowly diminished slightly. Either candidate would have had to reach a 60 percent threshold to secure the nod.

A jubilant Noor, who was lifted into the air by his supporters, took a run around DeLaSalle High School on Nicollet Island hugging activists and delegates who helped him stymie the endorsement, which he had pledged to abide by earlier in the day. He took the deadlock as a success.

“We have the students ready to support me, we have the immigrants ready to support me, we have the progressives in this district ready to support me, so this was a big win for all of them,” Noor told reporters after the convention ended Saturday evening.  “This is what we’re looking for, to unite the voices of the district.”

Kahn, who has served in the Legislature since 1972, said she’d obviously hoped to secure the endorsement, but appeared confident. Roughly 300 DFL activists from the district, which includes the University of Minnesota, Cedar Riverside and Prospect Park, showed up on Saturday to back their candidates. That process will now be opened up to a much larger swath of voters across the district.

“I’m going to win it,” Kahn said, referring to the primary. “I don’t want to say easily — it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Noor said that nobody could know what was going to happen for sure going into the convention. Shortly before the first ballot, Noor supporters in bright blue shirts crowded into a second-floor room in the high school eating lunch and talking. With almost no room to move, the delegates and campaign activists were energized. With just minutes to spare before the floor was frozen and delegates would be barred from re-entering, Hashim Yonis, a Noor ally, burst into the room shouting “Three minutes!” The repurposed classroom quickly emptied.

Hashim Yonis, a Noor ally, made sure delegates got to the floor to vote before it was closed off.

Hashim Yonis, a Noor ally, made sure delegates got to the floor to vote before it was closed off.

But the first ballot’s results weren’t good news for Noor. Kahn received 58.1 percent of the vote, while Noor trailed at 41.5 percent. Roughly four hours and five ballots later, Kahn had been reduced to 56.3 percent while Noor had jumped up to 43.3 percent. After the five ballots, more than half the attendees voted to adjourn the meeting, thus ensuring a primary election.

Observers commented that they were surprised that Noor was able to hold out over five ballots with such a small margin of votes necessary to knock him out of the race.

“That to me was the shock of the night, because everybody was thinking that at the second ballot he would need to make a concession speech,” Ilhan Omar, vice chairwoman of the Senate District 60 DFL, said in an interview after the convention.

The contest between Noor and Kahn has been contentious – and marred by violence. During the Feb. 4 precinct caucuses in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Omar, a Minneapolis City Council  aide, was attacked and later treated for a concussion.

The state DFL and St. Paul Police – Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges outsourced the investigation to ensure it was impartial – are still investigating the matter. Omar was at Saturday’s convention performing her final duties as outgoing vice chairwoman of the Senate District party.

The race appeared competitive going into the convention.

Noor secured the endorsements of former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, the DFL Feminist Caucus, Stonewall DFL and Minnesota Young DFL. Kahn enjoys the backing of Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, former City Councilwoman Diane Hofstede and a number of labor unions.

The candidates must now pivot into a more formal campaign — and separate themselves both through organizing and on issues. During a candidate question and answer session, Kahn said the first bill she would put in next session would be aimed at aggressively addressing climate change. Noor said he would try to implement universal pre-kindergarten education in the state.

Kahn faced a primary challenge in 2000 from Brian Biele, with a turnout of 3,425 voters. She got 68 percent of the vote to Biele’s 32 percent.

“Now we’re moving to give each and every voter an opportunity to decide who’s going to be their next legislator,” Noor said. “They’re getting an opportunity to decide for themselves.”

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