This year’s race for Minneapolis’ House District 60B gives a new dimension to the hoary old image of the political “brawl.”
The tooth-and-nail contest between 42-year incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn and Somali newcomer Mohamud Noor continues to draw allegations of violence, intimidation and voter suppression from both sides of the race. It has also spawned at least two legal disputes.
The complicated relationships that cut across both campaigns can’t be jammed into neat cultural or generational boxes. Kahn, with the help of longtime Minneapolis DFL power broker Brian Rice, has carved out a small but impressive bloc of Somali activist supporters. They include City Council Member Abdi Warsame, who was part of a new guard elected to city government in 2013. Whether that will be enough to blunt the strength of Noor’s support among Somali voters in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is difficult to tell.
Noor did manage to keep Kahn from securing the DFL’s endorsement at the Senate District 60 convention in April, thereby punching his ticket to their primary face-off on August 12.
“That’s why it’s so intense, and that’s why it’s such a mess: because both sides perceive that this is such a critical race,” political expert David Schultz said. “For Phyllis Kahn, this is it… she’s fighting because this is the first time she’s had a serious fight.”
But Rice and Kahn’s efforts to curry support among Somalis have revealed schisms in the tight-knit community, where two alleged instances of high-profile violence against Noor supporters have marred the campaign so far. One, just last week, has prompted a few Noor volunteers to begin carrying pepper spray, and some volunteers say they are afraid for their safety.
The other incident, in February, ultimately ended in the police-enforced dispersal of a precinct caucus. A local DFL Party official who was thought to support Noor came away from that night with a concussion.
A defense attorney for three parties accused in those cases denies all alleged wrongdoing.
Add to the mix the Kahn campaign’s two recent legal petitions — alleging illegal voter registration and improper influence over at least two voters’ ballots by a Noor-backing election judge — and you have the nastiest race in Minneapolis in recent memory.
At a hearing on Thursday, Hennepin County officials largely dispensed with the improper voter registration complaint — Rice had complained that the Noor campaign was engaged in a coordinated effort to illegally register supporters through a mailbox facility in the district — but a separate legal petition to the state Supreme Court still looms. In it, the Kahn campaign alleges that an election judge failed to remain impartial in her dealings with voters.
“All of us are equal when it comes to Election Day, and if you don’t make sure we all voted equally… then you’ve got chaos, and you can’t have chaos,” Rice said after the hearing.
But a growing number of observers would probably argue that chaos is exactly what they’ve got in House District 60B.
The Kahn-Noor race has caused or exposed a rift in Minneapolis’ Somali community that’s led to allegations of violence unprecedented in recent Minnesota campaigns.
Most recently, an active and visible Noor campaign volunteer named Marian Hersi alleged that two Kahn supporters attacked and threatened her on July 5.
Hersi is a resident of Riverside Plaza in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. The iconic building complex, which houses about 3,500 people, towers over the West Bank neighborhood. Noor must mobilize Somali voters there to prevail.
At roughly 7 p.m. on July 5, according to the Minneapolis police report, Hersi alleges that another resident of the facility walked out of an elevator and briefly attacked her in an altercation. The fight was quickly broken up. Shortly afterward, claimed Hersi, a second woman on the scene threatened Hersi’s life.
“[The second woman] said, ‘You can call all the police you want. They’re not going to save you from anything. I’m going to throw you out of the balcony. I’m going to make sure this is the end of you,’” Hersi said, speaking animatedly on Monday through an interpreter. In summing up the incident, she said, “Everything was well until I announced my support for Mohamud Noor.”
Police were called to the scene, and according to their subsequent report, the two women who allegedly attacked Hersi were cited for fifth-degree assault and released.
Hersi, clearly agitated, sat on a couch in her fifth-floor apartment as she discussed the details of her alleged harassment. “I am afraid to take the stairs. I’m afraid to take the elevator. I’m afraid to function,” Hersi said.
The July 5 incident is outlined in sparse detail in a Minneapolis Police Department incident report, but a spokesman declined to offer more information because the case was still under investigation as of Thursday.
The Noor campaign said that Hersi filed an ethics complaint against Warsame after the incident. A city spokesman confirmed there is a pending complaint against Warsame, but declined to provide further details.
“I shouldn’t be bullied and forced into supporting Phyllis Kahn,” Hersi said. “I voted for [Warsame], and I’m going to vote for Noor, but I’m not going to give my voice to Phyllis Kahn, and no amount of threats are going to make me give my voice to Phyllis Kahn.”
In a statement, the Noor campaign said it is leaving its options open regarding any legal action until the police and ethics investigations have been concluded.
The campaign will also hold conflict-resolution training with OutFront Minnesota.
“Our volunteers and supporters have expressed their fears for their own safety following the alleged assault of Marian Hersi,” according to the statement. “They have also expressed their concern that Rep. Kahn’s [supporters] are above the law because of their connections to Council Member Warsame.”
Approached by Capitol Report for comment outside a City Council meeting on Wednesday, Warsame said, “Write whatever you want. You’re going to write whatever you want anyway.”
A lawyer for one of the women cited in Hersi’s alleged assault vehemently objected to Hersi’s account of the July 5 incident. Kevin Short, a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney, claimed that his client was actually the victim of Hersi’s aggression. He said the second woman cited for assault wasn’t involved in the situation at all.
This isn’t the first time Warsame has been swept up in controversy regarding the contentious race. Last winter, City Council Member Andrew Johnson alleged that Warsame told him to keep his aide, Ilhan Omar, from attending the precinct caucuses at the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis on Feb. 4.
At the time, Omar served as vice chair of the Senate District DFL and hadn’t yet publicly declared her support for Noor, though that preference appears to have been widely assumed.
Johnson said in an interview this week that Warsame told him Omar should stay home and take care of her children, and that she wasn’t welcome at the proceedings. If Omar attended the caucus, Warsame allegedly said, there could be trouble for her.
After the caucus erupted in chaos that February night, Omar was allegedly beaten and later treated for a concussion. She has shown hospital paperwork detailing her injuries to multiple reporters.
Johnson said Warsame called him after the chaos on caucus night and said, “I told you this was going to happen.”
The councilman filed an internal city complaint against Warsame that apparently sputtered out eventually. Warsame has previously denied he made those statements.
Omar’s police case, which Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges arranged to transfer to the St. Paul Police Department to avoid a conflict of interest, is also still open. A police spokesman said this week the investigation should be completed soon.
In addition to the allegations of physical violence, the campaign has been marked by legal actions originating in the Kahn camp claiming unlawful voter registration as well as improper influence over voting by an election judge.
Hennepin County officials on Thursday outlined findings from an investigation that Rice instigated with a petition alleging a coordinated effort by the Noor campaign to illegally register voters at a mailbox facility in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
Rice filed the petition with the county on June 27, as Minnesota’s new early voting law was drawing hundreds of voters to the polls. He pointed to roughly 140 voter registrations that listed their address as 419 Cedar Ave. S., which the county investigation determined was not a residence. That means voters can’t be registered there, the officials said on Thursday.
But the investigation also found that many of the registrations to the address were the result of automated government data processing and subsequent voter inaction. They also said the inquiry found no coordinated effort by the Noor campaign to improperly register voters.
The hearing’s outcome buoyed Noor supporters. Omar Jamal, a well-known community activist, stood up in the hearing and called Rice’s legal petition an effort at voter intimidation. “This is a very political game to scare off the community, and this has to stop,” Jamal said after the hearing. “Phyllis Kahn’s campaign office owes an apology to Mr. Noor.”
Kahn said in an interview on Thursday that no apology would be forthcoming. She said Rice’s oral changes to the petition at the hearing — backing off allegations against the Noor campaign and simply calling for the mailbox location to be disallowed as an eligible address for voters — were enough.
Rice also denied that it was his intention to dampen Somali voter turnout. “Absolutely not true. Absolutely not true,” he said. “I think that the petition was vindicated.”
Pending Supreme Court petition
With one legal challenge behind them, both campaigns must now look toward the Supreme Court petition that’s still in its developmental phases.
The Kahn campaign’s petition alleges that Fadumo Yusuf, an election judge at Minneapolis City Hall, abused her position to sway voters toward Noor. According to the Supreme Court filing, Yusuf asked a woman and her son if the woman was voting for “our Somali brother” or “the old Jewish lady.”
Election judges are supposed to remain impartial while assisting others with voting.
Mohamed Jama, an activist who worked on Warsame’s campaign and who supports Kahn, also said he heard Yusuf referring to the candidates in those terms, according to the petition.
The document also includes reference to another alleged incident in which Ilhan Omar was said to be communicating with Yusuf and interfering with an elderly man who was attempting to vote.
Rice said after the Thursday hearing that he’s never heard of that kind of allegation against an election judge in his three decades of practicing election law.
Jamal, the prominent Somali activist, is representing Yusuf.
“She’s categorically denying that,” Jamal said after the hearing. “She didn’t say that. It’s the same thing that’s happening here: lies and lies and lies. That’s what’s going on. Nothing else but lies.”
Shifting alliances in Kahn-Noor race
This year’s House District 60B race represents a shuffle in allegiances in Minneapolis politics.
The relationships between the candidates, activists and staffers in the race have been intertwined at least as far back as 2011. Until Mohamud Noor’s decision to take on Rep. Phyllis Kahn in the 2014 election, those ties remained relatively uniform. In view of the shifting alliances, an overview is in order:
Abdi Warsame, Kahn’s highest-profile Somali supporter, started his political career working on Noor’s unsuccessful 2011 state Senate bid, where he finished second to Kari Dziedzic with 26.6 percent of the vote to Dziedzic’s 32.1 percent.
Both Kahn and Brian Rice, though they supported Dziedzic, donated to Noor’s bid in December 2011, according to campaign finance documents.
A longtime powerbroker in city politics, Rice is also Kahn’s campaign attorney.
Shortly after the race, Rice encouraged Warsame to lobby for a Somali-heavy City Council ward during city-level redistricting. The new contours of Minneapolis City Council Ward 6 helped Warsame win the 2013 race, and both Kahn and Rice supported him.
Also during the 2013 election, Rice worked as a fundraiser to mayoral runner-up Mark Andrew and an adviser to Warsame. Both Noor and Warsame likewise advised Andrew, while Ilhan Omar, the Noor supporter who was beaten in this year’s precinct caucuses, worked on the campaign.
Mohamed Jama, an activist working for Kahn’s campaign this cycle and an ally of Warsame, also worked on Warsame’s 2013 city council bid.