Ilhan Omar Makes Her Way to Congress

Candidate Spotlight on Minnesota's 5th Congressional District's Democratic Primary Winner

August 23, 2018

Amid an increasingly turbulent and polarized political landscape, a brave number of American Muslims challenged the status quo to fight against Trump’s “politics of fear” by running for office. In what has been dubbed a political renaissance, American Muslims, and specifically, American Muslim women, appear to thrive in this political climate. In a continuation of our series to highlight these pioneers as November’s midterm election approaches, we go to Minnesota’s 5th congressional district to highlight democratic primary winner, Ilhan Omar!

On August 14, 2018, Ilhan made history as she triumphed in the Minnesota primary in a packed race, winning a whopping 48% against 6 other candidates. If she continues on to win the general election in November, as expected, she will make history as not only the first Somali-American Muslim woman in Congress but as the first refugee as well.

Ilhan, 36, the youngest of seven children, was born in Somalia. In the wake of the Somali Civil War, her family fled to Kenya, where she and her family lived in a refugee camp for four years. In 1995, she emigrated to the United States--12 years old, with absolutely no knowledge of the English language. That didn’t stop her; 3 months later, she was fluent. By age 14, not only was she well-versed in the English language, but in the political sphere, too. She attended a caucus for the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party to translate for her grandfather. And it stuck. She immediately became a student organizer at Edison High School.

She graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in business, political science, and international studies. Soon after graduating, she commenced what has become a decade-long political career. She made her break in politics working on a number of campaigns and then continuing on her candidate’s staff after the election, holding positions in the Minnesota Department of Education in 2012 and becoming a senior policy aide in 2013.

It was in 2015 that she branched out on her own, winning a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives with 80% of the vote, becoming the first Somali-American ever elected to that office. Within her capacity as a state house member, she advocated for immigrants, prioritized rehabilitation of offenders in the criminal justice system, and created initiatives to serve the American Muslim community, such as working with restaurants to stay open late for fast-breaking Ramadan suppers. She was also voted assistant minority leader for her party, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, where she served diligently.

In addition to her political work, she served in leadership roles in a number of civil society organizations. She worked as the Director of Policy and Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, a group that advocates for East African women to assume civic and political leadership roles. She also worked as Vice President of the Minneapolis NAACP, which garnered her the Governor’s MLK Service Award.

With endorsements from Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and Congressional Candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she is on track to be the first Somali-American Muslim woman in Congress. She ran on a comprehensive progressive platform, advocating for issues such as renewable energy, a $15 minimum wage, and Medicare for all. It is not hard to understand why she advocates for so many, as such an integral member of her intersectional communities.

She has pledged to close the opportunity gap, making economic justice and education reform key issues. She proposes free tuition for college students from low-income families, greater accessibility to student loan forgiveness, and greater access to affordable housing for all. Additionally, she fights earnestly for immigrant communities, the LGBTQ community, and the refugee community. She brings all of this and more with her as she continues on the road to Congress.

Ilhan reflects on her victory with great deference. "This really was a victory for that 8-year-old in that refugee camp," Ilhan said. “This was a victory for every person that's been told they have limits on their dreams."

MPAC is a 501c4 organization and does not endorse political candidates. However, as a national policy organization focused on substantive advocacy, leadership development, and building the political power of American Muslims, we highlight outstanding examples of public service from within our community and across the nation. Ilhan Omar’s career as a passionate advocate for all communities, a courageous trailblazer, and a dedicated public servant, deserves great recognition from us all.


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