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Kahn, Noor gird for House 60B primary

A DFL volunteer distributes ballots at the House District 60B endorsing convention on Saturday. On the first ballot, incumbent Phyllis Kahn was six votes short of the 60 percent threshold required to secure the endorsement. Over the next four ballots, challenger Mohamud Noor’s backers gained votes, until the Kahn delegates moved to adjourn. (Staff photo: James Nord)

A DFL volunteer distributes ballots at the House District 60B endorsing convention on Saturday. On the first ballot, incumbent Phyllis Kahn was six votes short of the 60 percent threshold required to secure the endorsement. Over the next four ballots, challenger Mohamud Noor’s backers gained votes, until the Kahn delegates moved to adjourn. (Staff photo: James Nord)

Mohamud Noor knows that his base in Minneapolis’ energetic and increasingly engaged East African community will be the key to his chances in an August primary against longtime incumbent DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn.

But Noor claims a broader ambition — to unite the diverging factions of House District 60B, which includes the University of Minnesota, and sections of the Cedar-Riverside, Seward and Prospect Park neighborhoods of Minneapolis. Kahn, who has served 42 years in the state Legislature and survived more than 20 elections, is used to beating back candidates counting on strong support from one group in the district.

Noor’s base appears different. In 2013, the East African community helped Abdi Warsame crush sitting Council Member Robert Lilligren and become the first Somali City Council member in the country. Warsame, who supports Kahn, topped Lilligren’s votes two-to-one on Election Day.

Noor’s campaign has already shown how staunch its supporters can be. The Minneapolis School Board member deadlocked Kahn at an endorsing convention last Saturday, which opened the race up to the Aug. 12 primary.

“My group held, and that was a success,” Noor said in an interview. Looking forward, he said, “I think we feel we have the momentum, and I think we will prevail.”

Kahn came out of the first ballot of the convention just six votes short of the 60 percent threshold required to secure the DFL endorsement. Over the next four ballots, Noor voters slowly inched up, until the Kahn delegates moved to adjourn the meeting with no endorsement.

“Noor … really put on an astounding show there. I wouldn’t have thought he could have blocked an endorsement,” said John Derus, a longtime observer of local politics and former Hennepin County Board chairman. “That was really an impressive showing.”

But supporters and foes alike know that Kahn is never to be underestimated. News reports highlighting a new candidate who is uniquely poised to unseat Kahn have littered the landscape after some past election cycles.

“I’m going to win — there’s no question,” Kahn said.

What it takes to win

Bill Morris, a Minneapolis pollster, said Kahn needs to hold on to her older liberal labor constituency and neutralize Noor support among students to come out victorious in August.

Noor needs to ensure strong turnout among Somali voters, to secure student support and to win over some of Kahn’s backers in the Prospect Park neighborhood to win, Morris said.

Margaret Zadra, who manages Noor’s campaign, said bringing together those factions is going to be critical.

According to analysis from the Noor campaign, there are 22,000 eligible voters in the district, and roughly 5,700 likely voters. Susan Brower, the state demographer, said there are an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 Somalis living in Minneapolis — though she said some estimates put the number much higher.

It’s unclear how many Somalis live squarely in the district, though the Riverside Plaza complex houses thousands of people, many of them East African immigrants. Noor also saw strong support in the Seward neighborhood in the precinct caucuses.

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.

“It will be key. Just to be honest, they will play a major role,” Noor said of his Somali supporters, while noting that he wants to be inclusive toward other groups.

Morris said volunteers and organizing are more important than money in primary elections, but added that funding for direct mailing is vital. Kahn raised $10,230 in 2013. Noor, who registered his candidacy in January, doesn’t have a report on file with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

Establishment-upstart schism

Morris said the race illustrates a schism between new progressives and the old-school DFL establishment.

Kahn secured the backing of a swath of labor unions, the House DFL caucus, Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and other groups. Noor managed to get the backing of the DFL Feminist Caucus, Stonewall DFL and Minnesota Young DFL, as well as former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

“It’s time to hand this movement off to the next generation,” Laura Nevitt, president of the DFL Feminist Caucus, said of her group’s decision to support Noor. “It was mostly a looking forward, not so much a looking back.”

The process has been marred by controversy and even violence since the February precinct caucuses to select delegates to last Saturday’s convention. Ilhan Omar, a Minneapolis City Council aide, was beaten at the caucus after it erupted into chaos. Omar, outgoing vice chairwoman of the Senate District 60 DFL and widely believed to be a Noor supporter, was later treated for a concussion.

Kahn initially dismissed Omar’s injuries in news reports and subsequently issued an apology. Stonewall DFL Chairman Gerald Strauss said Kahn’s response to the violence was part of the reason the group endorsed Noor.

Dayton, in a letter outlining his support for Kahn, said that he hasn’t always agreed with the experienced lawmaker  but that she deserves ongoing support.

“I believe that politicians should be replaced if they abandon the causes for which they were elected; if their dedication to achieving social and economic justice slackens; or if they lose touch with their constituents,” Dayton wrote. “If, however, they keep working hard, standing strong and caring deeply, I believe they have earned re-endorsement and re-election.”

Handicapping primary race

On Tuesday, Noor traveled to St. Cloud to appear on a panel discussing how new immigrants are shaping local elections before heading back to Minneapolis for a School Board meeting.

Kahn doesn’t have time to campaign since the 2014 legislative session is in full swing, she said.

“This guy has nothing to do. He has nothing to do,” Kahn said. “He’s got amounts of freedom that I don’t have. I’m a sitting legislator with serious work to be done.”

Kahn also criticized Noor for making promises he can’t keep in order to get votes. Noor has made education a priority and said at the convention that the first bill he would introduce would be a universal pre-kindergarten measure. Kahn said she would propose a bill aggressively targeting climate change.

Being a new face helps Noor drum up excitement, Derus said. Noor also has a relatively clean slate, though his decision to make the immediate jump from the Minneapolis School Board into a legislative race raised eyebrows.

“She has made a lot of enemies over the years,” Derus said. “She has. Phyllis is all bristles and points. It’s hard to get to be friends with her, and I think that over the years she’s significantly ticked off enough people that she may have a problem.”

Kahn said as much at the convention, but said it’s simply the cost of getting things done. She added later that she can’t make unrealistic promises to woo voters and that she has a strong record to run on.

“This guy is terminally nice, and he says yes to everybody,” Kahn said.

Noor, in a separate interview, countered: “Being nice to people who you are going to represent — that’s what it takes.”

Past the dueling words, the state DFL is disappointed the convention on Saturday didn’t yield an endorsement. Chairman Ken Martin said the party would prefer to be working to mobilize a wider swath of voters in the key DFL stronghold as it labors to drum up support for Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s re-election bids.

But, Martin said, the race doesn’t rise to the top of his list of priorities.

“We’re not going to lose the House majority because of what happens in 60B,” he said. “I will make a very bold prediction that a DFLer will win that seat on Nov. 4,” he added with a laugh.

Derus said he expects Noor to win the primary battle, comparing the race to Jacob Frey’s ouster of Diane Hofstede from the Minneapolis City Council last year. “He just outhustled her,” Derus said. “He just worked his rear off.”

Morris said flipping a coin would be about as effective as trying to forecast the outcome.

But by way of reading the contest, Morris recalled a sign hanging on Rep. Thomas Huntley’s door. Huntley, DFL-Duluth, is retiring after more than 20 years in the Legislature. The sign, Morris noted, quotes an old adage: “Age and treachery will triumph over youth and skill.”

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