AJ Awed makes his campaign pitch to Linden Hills resident Julie Madden. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Abdisamed “AJ” Awed approaches a home in the affluent neighborhood of Linden Hills and makes a verbal note of the lawn sign in the front yard.

The sign urges a yes vote on a strong-mayor proposal and no vote on a public safety overhaul proposal in the upcoming Minneapolis city election. A teenage boy approaches from inside the home, and after it becomes clear he is not old enough to vote and no one else is home, AJ makes his quick pitch anyway. 

“Let your mom know that I have the exact same stances when it comes to the amendments,”  AJ says. 

The teenager is a near miss. But as a 30-year-old attorney running a longshot candidacy for mayor of Minneapolis, AJ feels like he’s been connecting with younger voters. As he knocks on doors, AJ wears business casual attire and comes armed with a satchel and campaign flyers. He is a democratic socialist running under the Democratic Farmer-Labor banner. But his stances on these two city charter amendments put him at odds with Sheila Nezhad and Kate Knuth, the two more visible progressive challengers to Mayor Jacob Frey.

While lacking much name recognition and major endorsements, AJ’s campaign has gained more traction than Nezhad and Knuth’s in at least one major area: He’s raised more money than either of them. Between January and July, AJ hauled in nearly $238,000, beating Knuth’s $137,000 and Nezhad’s $119,000. This came second to Frey, who collected close to $384,000 during the same period. 

The fundraising arguably put AJ in the top tier of candidates for mayor, 17 of whom will appear on the ballot for this fall’s election. Whether that translates to voter support remains to be seen. But AJ and his team of 35 paid canvassers are attempting to do so, one door knock at a time. 

AJ has found himself at odds with more than just his fellow progressive mayoral contenders. Last month, he clashed with the Minnesota DFL Lawyers Committee, a group of party insiders, which declined to invite him to a mayoral candidate forum because of his weak DFL delegate support during the party’s endorsement. (The party ultimately did not endorse a candidate, although Nezhad got the most delegates, followed by Frey). 

AJ views party operatives as the “DFL machine”; and he labels liberal interest groups like TakeAction Minnesota as “progressive elitists.” Organizations like these are “cliquey,” he says, and speak for their own interests rather than those of the broader electorate.

“I’m not matriculated into their clan,” he says. “I’m a person of color who happens to be East African and who has been able to be intellectually independent to make his own policy decisions. And they’re not used to that.”

AJ’s policy proposals are unique. He proposes to create more affordable housing and to pay for it with a new tax on upscale apartment renters like himself. This tax increase of 1-2 percent would apply to renters who earn 100 percent or more of the state’s area median income. (This year, that income would be close to $105,000.) This tax would exclude renters who use any type of affordable housing programs like Section 8, AJ says, and would translate to an extra $10-$20 per renter each month. 

AJ and his family—he is married with two sons—fall under this proposal. They live in a luxury apartment in the Marcy–Holmes neighborhood. 

On immigration, he supports creating a new deputy mayor position that would focus on advocating for immigrant rights on the state level. 

Not all door-knocks on this day go smoothly. At one point, a middle-aged man, who calls himself a Frey supporter, tells AJ he isn’t going to argue with him about the election—and then slams the door. Afterward, AJ says the incident is an example of how “tribalism” has infected city politics, which he contends is “very, very dangerous.” East Africans, he says, understand this dynamic better than most people. 

At the same time, he credits the connected aspects of East African culture for the success of his fundraising. Most of AJ’s financial support has come from fellow immigrants who are listed in his campaign finance report as Uber drivers, commercial truck drivers, and Amazon warehouse workers. 

“That’s how our society functions,” he says. “It gives us a lot of benefits by being able to be very community-oriented, to be very supportive of each other, and especially very active in politics.”

Transforming public safety through a ‘citizens assembly’ 

AJ was born in Somalia just as civil war was tearing the country apart. His parents fled to northern Virginia in the 1990s. Growing up, AJ and his family bounced back and forth between the Washington, D.C., suburbs and Minneapolis.

In high school, AJ was placed in classes for students learning English and special education courses, neither of which he felt he needed. The process demoralized him. 

In high school, AJ was placed in classes for students learning English and special education courses. “You know the only reason you’re in there is because you’re Black, your parents are immigrants and can’t really speak up for you, and the white teacher is saying, ‘Your son needs extra help.’”

“You know the only reason you’re in there is because you’re Black, your parents are immigrants and can’t really speak up for you, and the white teacher is saying, ‘Your son needs extra help,’” AJ says. 

In the middle of 10th grade, he dropped out altogether. But a flurry of developments led him back to education. AJ credits positive influences in his life, like his mother and a middle school teacher, for encouraging him to change course. So did the advent of the Great Recession and a dead-end job at a movie theater.

AJ soon took a placement test at Normandale Community College. The results were clear: Though he dropped out of high school, AJ had the skills to take college courses. He didn’t even need a GED.

From law school to City Council candidate

AJ soon found his way to the University of Minnesota. He got his law degree in 2019 at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and now works in mediation as a fellow at the American Arbitration Association. He is also co-executive director of the Cedar-Riverside Community Council, which is the neighborhood organization for that area. 

AJ said his path forward in law lies in alternative dispute resolutions, working on things like commercial transactions and international investment disputes. He said he has no plans to litigate in the courtroom.

Mayoral candidate AJ Awed and his campaign team door knock in the Linden Hills neighborhood of south Minneapolis on September 28, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

This isn’t AJ’s first time running for public office. Last year, AJ came in second in a crowded race for city council for Ward 6. One of his major takeaways from that experience? How many people didn’t seem invested in the race. Sometimes, AJ recalls, he’d hear white progressives in the district tell him that they didn’t plan on voting because their vote didn’t matter. 

The sentiment disappointed AJ. And it’s a bigger problem than just Ward 6, he says. The desire to address that issue fueled his run for higher office.

“The city is divided,” AJ says. “It’s divided because there are performative progressives who are completely co-opting a moment that should be transformative for communities of color. And rather than actually execute that faithfully and be a strong ally, they are really more focused on giving themselves cover to not be called racist.”

Opposing the public safety ballot amendment

As a chief example of this, AJ cites the charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety. 

AJ’s opposition to the public safety charter amendment makes him an attractive candidate to Ali Ali, an accountant who facilitates international remittance payments at Kaah Express. Ali first met AJ when they were both in college at the University of Minnesota. Now, both Ali and his uncle hand out campaign fliers every week at Karmel Mall, where their business is located. 

Ali, 25, said he believes that Frey “has a disconnect with the community.” But he also disagrees with the public safety platforms in the other challengers’ campaigns. 

Building a new public safety department from scratch would be “a lot harder” than injecting new blood into city government to reform the existing Minneapolis Police Department, Ali said. 

“Reforming sounds hard to do, especially with the systemic racism in MPD,” Ali said. “But I think it’s better for the long run.” 

During last year’s City Council campaign, AJ actually called himself an “abolitionist” and voiced support to “defund, disarm, and abolish MPD.” Frey’s campaign has openly criticized AJ for these past statements. 

Today, AJ said he still stands by what he said last year. But he contends that the process that resulted in the current public safety charter amendment didn’t adequately involve the community. 

“We need to get racism out of the system, and we need to obviously have a new department of public safety,” he said. “This is not the way forward, though. It has to be done through a very thoughtful approach where communities of color are leading on the issue.”

AJ proposes establishing a “citizens assembly” to come up with the process of transforming public safety. The citizens assembly would include representatives from each of the city’s neighborhoods and could number “as much as 50 to 100 members.” Working class people and people of color “would be very much represented” in such an assembly, AJ says. 

How would members of the assembly be selected? How often would they meet? AJ says this all would have to be decided down the line. 

An alternative candidate for disenchanted progressives 

Some of AJ’s support comes from voters like Valerie Martinez, who says she’s become disillusioned by the Yes 4 Minneapolis movement. Martinez says she previously worked as an organizer for the coalition backing the public safety amendment but later left her job there.

“When organizers like myself were pushing to get the voice of the BIPOC community into the process, they didn’t want to hear it,” says Martinez, who now works as a canvasser for AJ’s campaign. 

JaNae’ Bates, a minister and spokesperson for Yes 4 Minneapolis, counters that the public safety charter amendment is the result of countless community meetings and engagements over the past year within communities of color. Initiatives from the faith group ISAIAH, one of 70 coalition partners, led to 30 different community meetings on the topic, Bates said.

“In its many iterations, this campaign has always been connected to the BIPOC community,” Bates says. 

She adds that AJ’s citizens assembly initiative “sounds very similar to the many different citizens boards that have no teeth and no power.” Over the years, Bates says, these efforts have “proven to not be effective” in reforming police. 

Name recognition comes first 

One of the main goals when AJ’s goes door-knocking is to introduce his campaign to voters who otherwise have not heard of him. With ranked-choice voting—voters select not just their favorite candidate, but two others—that name recognition could lead to success.

In that spirit, he greets Julie Madden in Linden Hills, and the two engage in a brief conversation about the public safety amendment. 

Madden says she favors the amendment, and adds that she’s helping ISAIAH to make phone calls in support. After she explains this, AJ gently explains that he doesn’t support the amendment because he believes communities of color were left out of the discussion. 

As the conversation wraps up, Madden says she needs to do more research before deciding to support AJ. He gives her a flyer and points to his campaign website.

“Take a look at it,” he concludes. “And if I can’t get your first choice, second or third is still an option.” 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...