Amane Badhasso spent years campaigning for other politicians until a 45-day trip to her native Ethiopia two years ago changed the direction of her life.
She returned from that trip with a new world and political view that inspired her run for U.S. Congress this year against longtime incumbent U.S. Representative Betty McCollum. She drew hope from Ethiopians who had survived an ethnic conflict in their country that left more than 1 million dead and many others, including Amane, refugees in search of a new home.
“What was powerful for me was to see the many people who, regardless of the war, were still empowered, still hoping to see a democracy,” Amane said in a recent interview with Sahan Journal. “It gave me an understanding of the privilege I have right here.”
There was also a volatile mix of social and political change brewing in her own backyard: Minneapolis police had killed George Floyd, who is Black, in May 2020 by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes, sparking days of protests. The nation was in turmoil as a defeated President Donald Trump perpetuated lies about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
“There was a mass uprising with the murder of George Floyd. We just defeated one of the most dangerous presidents in modern history in America,” she said. “There was still so much work to be done.”
Amane faces a challenging campaign against fellow DFLer McCollum to represent Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District, which stretches from St. Paul east to the Wisconsin border. As a progressive favorite, McCollum has largely been popular in the district. They will face off in the August 9 primary election, where the DFL candidate with the most votes will proceed to the November 8 general election to run against their Republican challenger.
Amane said McCollum has exhausted her 22-year tenure and failed to connect with people in the district.
“We need leaders who are more empathetic, who aren’t beholden to special interests, who will fight for folks here and folks abroad,” Amane said. “We need a dramatic change in leadership across the board.”
Amane sat down for an hour-long interview with Sahan Journal on June 13. She wore a gray t-shirt and red lipstick. Amane said she had been excited to talk at our original meeting place, Bole Ethiopian Cuisine, but the restaurant was closed that day. Instead, she met Sahan Journal at Brunson’s Pub on St. Paul’s East Side, where she ordered a plate of fries and a chocolate cream dessert.
The Fourth District, comprising almost all of Ramsey County—including the city of St. Paul—and parts of Washington County, is home to the largest Hmong population in the country. Amane said her campaign aims to turn out new immigrant voters, including a sizable East African population in the district.
Amane is running on a platform to bring change and a grassroots-led generation of progressives to Congress. Her run drew attention in March after DFL caucus delegates who signed up through the campaign encountered questions from local DFL leaders. The delegates, who were mostly East African, Muslim, and first-time participants, received unusual calls and texts from the Fourth Congressional District DFL office asking about the validity of their registration.
Tashita Tufa, a well-known transportation business owner in the Twin Cities Oromo community, served as Amane’s fundraising mentor. Tashita has known Amane, an Oromo refugee, since she was a child, and saw the early signs of Amane’s activist talents when she spoke at an Oromo community meeting in 2015.
“I saw this young, brilliant woman and I admired her. I pulled her over after the meeting and I asked, ‘How did you get these skills?’” Tashita said. “She laughed and said, ‘I have a long ways to go.’”
For the next six years, Amane, 32, racked up experience in political activism that served as the blueprint for her own campaign.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Amane has raised more than $800,000 compared to McCollum’s nearly $1.3 million. Amane’s progressive platform includes a broad range of issues: Medicare for all, addressing the climate crisis, fostering economic stability, challenging the current tax system, targeting white nationalism, and improving immigration policy. As a refugee, she’s particularly concerned about the militarization of police at home as well as funding the U.S. military abroad.
Amane said she fears U.S. foreign policy has indirectly supported wars abroad. Her recent trip to Ethiopia, she said, laid bare the lasting implications of that support. Amane said that, as a child, the conflict in Ethiopia separated her from her mother.
The United States government is the single largest donor of aid to address the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. The 2018 election win for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spilled into a conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the former ruling party. The conflict has displaced millions and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. McCollum has supported bills providing humanitarian assistance and condemning human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
Amane said she’s seen how American support gets misdirected.
“I almost consider myself a product of Betty funding,” Amane said. “Money is sent to the dictators and corrupt leaders abroad, and they end up having lasting implications. I grew up without my mom as a result of that.”
McCollum’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Tapping into an immigrant voter base
Census data report that the Fourth Congressional District includes about 14 percent foreign-born residents, more than half of whom come from Asia. The African immigrant population makes up the second largest foreign-born population in the district with more than 6,000 Black immigrants living in the district.
The Census does not track the district’s Oromo population—Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group—but it shows that more than 8,000 immigrants from Ethiopia live in the district.
Engaging all immigrant communities in the district has been crucial for Amane, who grew up in St. Paul with Oromo and Hmong immigrants. In her campaign, she’s leaning on relationships she’s made with those communities.
“I’ve been able to have conversations with them, from one immigrant to another, letting them know that I won’t be this politician that only shows up during convention times or during election cycles,” Amane said. “But one that’s interested in empowering our communities together.”
Professor T. Anansi Wilson of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law is an expert in politics from a critical race and Black feminist perspective. She describes two ways a candidate could win this race: They could support more moderate policies to gain support from a greater number of people, or they could turn out new voters.
“Amane’s best case is to really look to that deep community that she has through organizing and her other work to really have that new turnout model—to reach new voters that have never voted in the primary, because there’s so many,” Wilson said.
Debating for mangoes
Amane was born into a family of farmers in an Ethiopian village. She recalls that they never saw more than a few thousand dollars in their lifetime. As a baby, Amane moved to the nearest city, Asallah. Her extended family—aunts and uncles—raised her there, until she came to the United States.
“I come from a family that was politically very resistant to the state. As a result of that, there was no stability or safety,” Amane said. “Many family members of mine were arrested. Many of them were forced into displacement because the Oromo were the largest, most marginalized members of the Ethiopian community.”
The conflict facing the Oromo people has spanned generations. Under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the dominant party that held power from 1991 to 2019, Oromo people have historically suffered oppression and displacement in Ethiopia—despite the fact that they make up the largest ethnic group in the country. The emergence in 2018 of a new political party promised a more hopeful future for the Oromo people. Yet, a record 5.1 million people became displaced in 2021, and thousands have died during the country’s most recent conflict. In recent decades, a sizeable Oromo community has settled in Minnesota.
Amane said her earliest memory is of soldiers breaking down the door to her house and looking for her uncle, who was a judge at the time. The soldiers yelled at the family, and put a gun to her grandmother’s head. Amane screamed as she watched it unfold.
“That was my introduction to the world, as far as I can remember,” Amane said.
“I grew up very much in a state of resistance. I knew that my identity was marginalized. It is really hard as a child to grow up that way.”
At about age five, Amane, her 13 siblings, and their father moved to a refugee camp in Kenya to escape persecution. Her extended family also lived in the camps, as well as its surrounding neighborhoods.
Amane learned about the power of advocacy in the refugee camps in Kenya, where neighbors, some of whom were aunts or cousins, took care of her like family. She could always ask them for school supplies, clothes, or simply a place to sleep. She also got her earliest taste of advocacy in the camps.
“I used to debate people,” Amane said “That’s how I would get mangoes and chips, which is why I’m obsessed with fries.” She pointed to the plate of fries she was picking at during an interview with Sahan Journal. “They would give me money if I won a debate, so that was my entire life.”
Amane met her best friend, Barite Badasso, in the camp. Barite describes Amane as an older sister figure.
“She always dreamed bigger than anyone around, even as a kid in Nairobi,” said Barite, who lives in St. Paul. “I remember her talking about how one day she would go to America and change the world.”
Amane lived in the camp for less than a year. She said she had to move out of the camp when the United States originally denied her refugee resettlement case. Her family relocated to “the slums,” she said, adding that these places were more dangerous than the refugee camp. Amane lived there for about eight years before moving to Minnesota at age 13 with her father and siblings.
‘This is the moment’
Amane first entered the Twin Cities political scene in 2011 as an intern for the DFL party. She described her advocacy work as twofold: advocating for human rights for the Oromo people, and working to get Oromo voters involved in Minnesota politics.
She also served as president of the International Oromo Youth Association, and graduated from Hamline University with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2015.
Drawn to progressive campaigns, Amane worked as an organizer on Nelsie Yang’s 2019 run for St. Paul City Council. Yang became the first Hmong American woman elected to the council and now serves as Amane’s campaign chair.
From 2013 to 2015, Amane also worked on Keith Ellison’s campaigns for Congress, where she learned how to get immigrant voters involved. Amane also worked on DFL state Representative Athena Hollins’s campaign in 2020 when Hollins challenged longtime incumbent John Lesch.
When she wasn’t working on campaigns, Amane was a researcher for a compliance firm in Washington D.C., working on cases such as money laundering investigations. She often worked as an independent contractor or temporary employee, and said she’s lived a majority of her life paycheck to paycheck, oftentimes without benefits.
Amane was particularly energized by Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign for U.S. president in 2020.
“He’s somebody that long questioned the fact that we live in a democracy, but it’s also a rigged capitalist system where workers are exploited,” Amane said. “To have somebody who was on the ballot that spoke to those issues for a lifetime—I got engaged.”
She volunteered for Sanders’s campaign every day and had planned to join as a staffer until he dropped out of the race. She instead worked in campaign coordination for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, she said—mostly to assure representation for her community.
Depleted by the campaigns, Amane made that fateful trip to Ethiopia. She visited the capital city, Addis Ababa, and the surrounding Oromia region where her family has lived. She left with the faces of starving Ethiopians etched in her mind; nearly a million don’t have enough food due to civil conflict.
“That dramatically had a huge impact on me, personally and politically,” Amane said. “I was able to see the impact of war, conflict, U.S. imperialism around the world.”
Amane had visited the country two years prior during mass protests by the Oromo people that paved the way for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power. She left in 2018 hoping the country would find peace, but returned in 2020 to a “blown-out war.” The lack of progress made her realize how long change takes, and how much work democracy requires. Yet, it also energized her to take action.
In 2020, she spoke over coffee with her cousins in Ethiopia. They told her they couldn’t speak up about the war without fearing retaliation, detention, or even death. She saw the privilege of democratic freedom she enjoyed in the United States, and she returned to Minnesota fueled by the need to represent immigrant voters.
“I was seeing a large portion of folks within our district not participating, because why should they? The politics isn’t inviting,” Amane said. “There wasn’t a large, progressive infrastructure that allowed them to come in. I wanted to see a completely different leadership.”
She saw that fear in her own family in Minnesota. Still reeling from the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency, Amane’s grandmother told her she felt like an outsider in the United States, as a Muslim woman who wears hijab. Amane’s grandmother, who lives in Blaine, sometimes feels unsafe going for a walk in her neighborhood.
“This is the moment where you have to get involved,” Amanxe’s grandmother told her.
Those words, from the woman who raised Amane in the absence of her mother, resonated deeply. She would run for office, she decided, for her people, and for anyone else who has ever felt unheard and unseen.