Don Samuels speaks at a Minneapolis City Council debate in 2009. Credit: Tony Webster | CC BY 2.0

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Don Samuels, a longtime public-safety advocate in Minneapolis, is considering running for Congress against U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar in the 2022 election cycle.

Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member, confirmed to Sahan Journal that he has registered a website under the domain name donsamuelsforcongress.com. The domain name was registered February 8, 2022.

“I’m considering several options,” Samuels told Sahan Journal. “I just want to make sure I have things in place just in case I decide to do it.”

Samuels, 72, added that he has been “meeting with people” to discuss a possible run, and described the conversations as “casual.” He has not decided whether he would run as a DFL primary challenger against Ilhan or under a different party affiliation.

Samuels declined to comment on why he’s thinking about seeking the 5th Congressional district seat, which represents Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs like Richfield, St. Louis Park, Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Center, and Columbia Heights. (Those borders may change somewhat following state redistricting later this month.)

Samuels, a longtime public-safety advocate, currently serves as the CEO of MicroGrants, a nonprofit that provides $1,000 grants to Minneapolis residents to nurture small business development and stable employment. The nonprofit also administers the “Lights On!” program, which provides police with vouchers for free car-lightbulb repair, to be distributed at traffic stops in place of tickets.

Last year, Don Samuels and his wife, Sondra Samuels, became the most prominent opponents of a charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety. The Samuelses made headlines as they called for more police in frequent media appearances, and challenged the proposed public safety amendment through a series of lawsuits against the city.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ilhan declined to comment directly on a possible challenge from Samuels.

“This weekend she’ll be attending a rally with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and will visit the Starbucks on Cedar Avenue to support workers who are organizing to form a union,” said Ilhan spokesperson Isi Baehr-Breen. “And she looks forward to introducing her bill to limit no-knock warrants on the federal level next week. That’s what she’s focused on.”

Ilhan was first elected to Congress in 2018, and is currently serving her second term. Ilhan joined a wave of progressive political newcomers that year. She is the first Somali elected to Congress and the first woman of color to represent the state.

From business, to public safety, to politics

An immigrant from Jamaica, Samuels came to the United States at age 20 to study commercial art, and later worked as a toy designer. He became known as an advocate against gun violence in 2000, when he spoke out in news reports after a child was shot and killed near his home. In 2002, he became an ordained minister.

Samuels also co-founded the PEACE Foundation, which later became the Northside Achievement Zone, where his wife, Sondra Samuels, is the CEO. The Northside Achievement Zone partners with schools and community organizations to provide comprehensive social services for north Minneapolis children and families, in an effort to improve educational outcomes and reduce violence.

Samuels won his first political race in 2003, when he ran in a special election for a city council seat representing parts of north Minneapolis. He served on the City Council for more than a decade, becoming chair of the public safety committee.

In 2013, he ran unsuccessfully for Minneapolis mayor rather than seek reelection to the City Council. The following year, he won a seat on the Minneapolis school board, where he served one term.

Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, thousands of protesters took to the streets demanding fundamental change to the Minneapolis Police Department. Samuels became one of the most prominent opponents of a ballot measure to replace MPD with a Department of Public Safety. He and his wife, Sondra, sued the city three times in 2020 and 2021, accusing the city of not meeting its minimum police staffing requirement, and challenging ballot language for the proposed public safety amendment.

In all three cases, a district judge ruled for the Samuelses; the state Supreme Court overturned the last decision, and allowed revised ballot language to stand. Voters rejected the public safety amendment in November.

Samuels stumped for a charter change, which voters approved, that gave more power to the mayor. He also endorsed a pro-police set of City Council candidates through the advocacy group Operation Safety Now.

In a December 29 Facebook post, Operation Safety Now advised its followers to join a new group focused on the 2022 elections, including the 5th Congressional District race. “Time for Omar to go!” the post read.

Samuels opposed Ilhan in the 2020 DFL primary

Samuels supported Ilhan’s previous challenger in August 2020. Mediation lawyer and first-time candidate Antone Melton-Meaux lost against Ilhan by roughly 20 percentage points. Melton-Meaux also received endorsements from former U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and civil rights activist Nekima Levy-Armstrong. 

Support for Melton-Meaux’s campaign revealed divisions between liberal and progressive Democrats in Minnesota. Combined, Melton-Meaux and Ilhan spent nearly $10 million on the primary contest. 

Cicely Davis has also joined the race as a Republican candidate. Davis is the state director for the BLEXIT Foundation, a nonprofit started by conservative political commentator Candace Owens advocating for Black Democrats to leave the party.*

U.S. Army veteran Shukri Abdirahman also announced her plans in September to run against Ilhan as a Republican challenger. Shukri’s platform so far has focused on increasing border security, reducing taxes, and funding law enforcement. 

*UPDATE: This story has been updated to include an additional Republican challenger in the 5th Congressional District race.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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