MINNEAPOLIS — A special election for a Minnesota House of Representatives seat in northeast Minneapolis is drawing attention for its crowded field of a dozen candidates.
Perhaps more remarkable, though, is that half of the candidates entering the race in the last few weeks are first- or second-generation immigrants — part of a growing trend of people with new-immigrant roots seeking political power in Minnesota and the United States.
The District 60A House seat came open after longtime DFL state Rep. Diane Loeffler died in November following a battle with cancer.
Whites still make up 69 percent of the more than 40,000 people who live in the district. But its foreign-born population totals 15 percent, more than 6,000 people, many of them East African immigrants living in the multiple apartment complexes along University Avenue.
The district lies north of Hennepin Avenue, east of the Mississippi River and south of 37th Avenue NE.
Aswar Rahman, one of the candidates running for the open seat, came to the area from Bangladesh with his mother and sister in 2001 when he was 6 years old. Shortly after arriving, Rahman recalled his neighborhood growing increasingly more diverse as more affordable housing projects went up.
He emphasized how northeast Minneapolis has been home to immigrants historically, citing the neighborhood’s Polish and Ukrainian roots.
“The immigrants look different now,” said Rahman, who went on a leave from his job as a content director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign to run for the seat.
“We look more distinct from the Lutheran European population than maybe an Eastern European immigrant did, but it is a natural byproduct of what northeast Minneapolis has always been,” he said.
Many of the open seat’s candidates explained to Sahan Journal that their identity is central to why they’re running for office.
“As an immigrant, as a Muslim, as someone considered African, my intention is to show that we are simply another family in the neighborhood,” said Mohamed Barre, another candidate. “We immigrants work hard, harder than anyone, not to prove anything to anyone, but simply because it’s the nature of ourselves.”
Mohamed, 55, works for Hennepin County and came to the United States in 1995. He’s one of three Somali-Americans running for the open seat, including Saciido Shaie and Amal Ibrahim.
Mohamed has lived in Northeast since 2003. In explaining his candidacy, he stressed that winning the seat would send another message to President Trump that “we are part of the community.”
Saciido, who came to the U.S. in 1992 at age 7, is president and executive director of the Ummah Project, a nonprofit that works to help the local Somali community. She’s been living in the district since 2007.
“I left my country without a choice,” Saciido said. “But I could have ended up anywhere else. America housed me and gave me an opportunity — a second chance at life.”
Saciido first entered politics by volunteering for Paul Wellstone’s last campaign for U.S. Senate in 2002. She went on to volunteer for Keith Ellison’s first campaign for Congress in 2006 and later served on the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee and the Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council.
Through these experiences, Saciido said she “fell in love with how the system works,” especially how “when you don’t like something, you don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. You go ahead and be part of the change-makers.”
“You go ahead and be part of the changemakers,” she said.
Amal said she’s running for the seat partly to “be a voice for the immigrant community.” The aftermath of the 2016 presidential election helped inspire her to run, she said.
“With Trump’s attacks against immigrants, I felt it’s more important than ever to engage our immigrant communities in the [DFL] party,” she said.
Amal, 34, came to the U.S. in 1999, first settling in Culver City, California, and then Minneapolis in 2012. She works as an interpreter in the federal court and private sector and has worked on campaigns for DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis.
Also running for the seat are Sonia Neculescu, the daughter of Romanian immigrants, and Piyali Nath Dalal, the daughter of Indian immigrants. Five more candidates include Sydney Jordan, Zachary Wefel, Susan Whitaker, Aaron Neumann and Jessica Intermill.
All eleven will face off in a Jan. 21 DFL Party primary. That winner will then be on the ballot against Legal Marijuana Now party candidate Marty Super for the Feb. 4 special election. No candidates are running with the Republican Party for the seat, which is a DFL-heavy district.
The DFL will not endorse a candidate before the Jan. 21 primary, according to DFL spokesperson Brian Evans.
The diverse slate of candidates in the 60A special election is part of a larger trend of more immigrants and people of color “claiming their political power” across the country by running for office, said Hoang Murphy, who’s pursuing the District 67A seat on St. Paul’s east side where incumbent Rep. Tim Mahoney has announced his retirement.
Murphy’s own run for office comes three years after a training from New American Leaders, a national organization that promotes electing first- and second-generation immigrants, helped inspire him to do so.
Diverse candidates are seeing success across the country: New American Leaders tracked 264 first- and second-generation candidates in state and local elections in 2019 and found that 70 percent of them won office.
New Americans are the best people to serve office, Murphy explained, “because we know what’s at stake … We don’t take anything for granted here.”
Editor’s note (Dec. 24, 2019): An earlier version of this story was unclear on whether state Rep. Tim Mahoney would seek reelection. He recently announced he would retire from the House.