Abdirizak Bihi, left, is challenging Jamal Osman, right, for the Ward 6 City Council seat. Credit: Courtesy Abdirizak Bihi | Caroline Yang (Jamal Osman image)

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With one week to go before the Minneapolis city election, some voters in Ward 6—the heart of Minneapolis’ Somali community—have received some unsettling messages.

One email, blind carbon copied to voters, contained documentation of challenger Abdirizak Bihi’s criminal record. Another voter received a series of text messages from someone supporting incumbent Jamal Osman that included a pornographic photo.

Both sets of messages were sent through unofficial channels, not claiming affiliation with any candidate or political committee. And both appeared to support Jamal, while casting doubt on Abdirizak. The messages escalated tensions in a high-stakes municipal election that will determine the future of the city’s public safety system and government structure, as well as the political fates of the mayor and all 13 city council seats.

“It’s not something that we’re involved in at all,” Jamal said in an interview. “And we only have seven days left, so hopefully things will end well.”

A mysterious email

On Saturday morning, Anthony Maki, who lives in Ward 6’s West Bank neighborhood, received a message from someone identifying himself as Ali Dahir. The subject line read: “Is this who you’re giving your vote? Ward 6 candidate Bihi has hefty criminal record.” The message contained five attachments detailing Abdirizak’s history, including mugshot photos. (He has two convictions over a ten-year period for driving while intoxicated. The message overstated the number of convictions and also cited a separate case that was dismissed.)

Maki had voted early, ranking Abdirizak first and Jamal second. He responded to the message asking what candidate or committee had paid for the outreach, and received no response. He found the message alarming. He wanted to know how the sender had access to his voter information. And he found it suspicious that this email came out just as Representative Ilhan Omar announced her endorsement of Abdirizak.

“If any of those allegations against Bihi are true, I think it’s a little unfair to bring up someone’s criminal history, especially with the state of our criminal justice system,” he said. 

Sahan Journal reached out to the email address listed for Ali Dahir on Maki’s message and did not receive a response.

Less than two hours after Maki received that email, Jamal put out a statement. “My campaign had nothing to do with this,” he wrote. “I personally do not approve of the release of these documents. Mental health and substance abuse are complex and personal issues and I hope my brother Bihi is getting the help he needs to stay healthy.”

In an interview, Jamal said he put out the statement after receiving a few emails from constituents wondering if this person was affiliated with his campaign. He does not know Ali Dahir, he said. It’s not clear how many people received the same email as Maki, and the number could be small, he pointed out. 

Abdirizak Bihi learned about the emails through Jamal’s statement, which he found insulting. Through the statement, Jamal distanced himself from the emails while also shaming Abdirizak, he said.

“I am shocked that he’s shaming the mental health community by using this as a negative thing on me,” Abdirizak said. “Instead of instructing people about not having a stigma and helping people, he’s using it as a weapon to shame my campaign.”

Abdirizak accused his opponent of a history of “dirty” campaign tactics, including associating with people who are spreading similar rumors in the community. “All he does is promote negative propaganda about my campaign or me,” he said.

An unsolicited photo

On Monday night, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a University of Minnesota sociologist who lives in the Seward neighborhood, was walking her dog and preparing for her anniversary dinner when she received a text message asking her to support the police by voting for Jamal Osman. The sender did not identify with a candidate or political committee.

Wrigley-Field responded that the message made her more likely to vote for Abdirizak. (In reality, she told Sahan Journal, she will vote for neither candidate.) The sender dug in, pointing to the same talking points about Abdirizak’s history that Maki had received in his email. The sender then said that he was Jamal Osman, which Wrigley-Field found laughable.

“I don’t think this is how candidates are spending their time, doing the campaign texting,” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

The texter pressed on, telling her Ilhan had endorsed Jamal (though she endorsed Abdirizak), and sent her a photo of Jamal with Attorney General Keith Ellison. Then he sent her a lewd photo of male genitalia.

The texter quickly apologized, and said he was a volunteer, not Jamal Osman.

“When I got the picture I was just shocked,” Wrigley-Field said. “We’d just sat down. I was about to put my phone away to enjoy this special occasion dinner, and then I have this extremely gross picture in my phone.”

Sahan Journal called the texter’s number and got a “not in service” message. A text message to the number was not immediately returned.

Wrigley-Field isn’t sure who the messages came from. Her current best guess, she said, is that they originated from an “independent dark money outfit campaigning for Osman but not directly run by the campaign.” And last night’s volunteer was likely either drunk or high, she added.

Early Tuesday morning, Wrigley-Field tweeted about the texts. Sean Broom, a representative of Jamal’s campaign, demanded proof and vigorously denied that Jamal had anything to do with it. The campaign does not have Wrigley-Field’s number in its voter database, he said.

In an interview Tuesday morning, Jamal noted that Wrigley-Field had been critical of him on social media in the past.

“She’s not a big fan of me,” he said. “This accusation is baseless.”

“I’m not even sure if she’s legitimate about this complaint,” he added. “If not, it’s kind of sad. If it is, she shouldn’t be treated that way.”

Wrigley-Field called the campaign’s response to her tweets “appalling.”

“It doesn’t suggest anything good about how they’re thinking about issues of harassment and women’s participation in politics, and I’m angry about it,” she said.

Jamal issued an additional statement Tuesday afternoon condemning sexual harassment. He said his campaign had investigated the incident and found that no employee or volunteer was responsible.

After publication, Jamal contacted Sahan Journal to take back his comments casting doubt on Wrigley-Field’s experience.

“The comments do not accurately reflect how I feel or how seriously I understand this situation to be,” he wrote in an email to Sahan Journal. “I know that sexual harassment is unacceptable. The impacts of sexual harassment on Elizabeth should have been foremost on my mind when I responded. I was in error not to do so.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Wrigley-Field tweeted that Jamal had called her to apologize for his campaign’s response to her complaint and agreed to a series of action steps. 

Henry Järvinen, Jamal’s campaign manager, confirmed that both Jamal and Broom called Wrigley-Field to apologize; that the campaign staff will hold a sexual harassment training; and that Broom will be taking a week of unpaid leave from his job as a policy aide in Jamal’s city hall office.

Who has voter data?

The pair of messages fueled suspicions on social media that someone was misusing the DFL’s voter database, called the VAN.

Voter registration data is public, but the DFL Party maintains an enhanced version of the database with additional information called the VAN, which it provides to endorsed candidates and party leaders, said Ken Martin, the party chair. (In Ward 6, neither candidate earned the DFL endorsement.) That data, however, is heavily restricted: candidates must sign a detailed agreement to use voter information only for allowable uses. If a candidate violated that agreement, Martin said, their access to the data would be revoked immediately.

Maki and Abdirizak speculated that someone with VAN access distributed the messages.

“The only explanation I can come up with is somebody with some kind of access to a voter file or VAN could be able to get a list of emails of Ward 6 residents,” Maki said.

“Whoever he is, he used the VAN,” Abdirizak said of Ali Dahir.

But Jamal Osman insisted the information could not have come from the VAN. “I know for a fact that it did not come from the VAN,” he said. “The VAN has strict policies that individuals follow.”

Martin agreed that it was unlikely the VAN played a role. “We have very strict controls over who accesses it from each campaign, and we are able to monitor all the data moving out,” he said.

The VAN has a built-in tool for email blasts, he explained. Not only would it be against DFL policy to download a list of email addresses for someone to blind carbon copy from a personal account, it would not be possible with the given software.

The DFL can also track text messages sent and received using its database. With Wrigley-Field’s permission, Sahan Journal sent the DFL information about the text messages she received so that the party could confirm whether they were sent using VAN platforms. Brian Evans, the DFL’s communications director, said that Wrigley-Field’s phone number was marked as a bad number last year, which meant it had been removed from the party’s lists. “This makes it highly unlikely that this particular message came from any texting tool with VAN integration,” he wrote in an email.  

But the VAN isn’t the only option for voter contact information; the data could come from anywhere, Martin said. “Anyone can walk into the Secretary of State’s office and buy a voter file,” he said. Commercial vendors sell voter information, too, he added.

‘Lay off the negative attacks’

For some voters, the messages were an unfortunate detour from what they hoped would be a positive campaign.

“I hope that we go with the rest of the campaign toward ranked choice voting’s ideal, which is to lay off the negative attacks—especially the ones that we don’t even know who’s behind the scenes supporting them,” Maki said. “I think it’s not good for anybody in Ward 6 to have this coming out as we all come together to vote for our next city council member.”

Minneapolis residents can vote early through November 1 or at their polling place on Election Day, Tuesday, November 2.

This story has been updated with additional comments from Jamal Osman’s campaign and Elizabeth Wrigley-Field.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.