Ilhan Omar at a campaign event on Broadway St and Central Ave, Northeast Minneapolis. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar narrowly won Tuesday’s primary race for U.S. Congress against former Minneapolis City Council Member and public safety advocate Don Samuels.

Omar received 51 percent of the vote. Samuels received 48 percent of the vote, and conceded with 98 percent of precincts reporting.

“Tonight’s victory is a testament to how much our district believes in the collective values we are fighting for,” Omar said in a statement Tuesday night. “This win is for them and everyone who still believes that hate, division and regression will not be the legacy of the Fifth.”

Omar, 39, will go on to face Republican challenger Cicely Davis in the November 8 general election. As a two-term incumbent running in a safely Democratic district, Omar was favored to win the DFL race to represent Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District. 

“This is a really important and critical midterm,” Omar told Sahan Journal ahead of the election. “We will be out in the 5th [district] trying to mobilize as many voters. The 5th is the voting engine of our state. We’ll certainly be out across the state, as well, trying to motivate first-time and reluctant voters to come out and vote.”

Samuels, who quickly gained fundraising traction during the race, said he will be turning his support to Omar ahead of the general election. His campaign hosted an election party on Tuesday night at The Canopy by Hilton where he announced his concession.

“America wants change. And we know that we were offering that change. We know that the majority of the voters in the district, if they had a chance, would have embraced that change,” Samuels said at his campaign’s election party. “My only hope is that my opponent will have learned a lesson from this.”

Omar, who is running for a third term, became the first Somali and refugee elected to the U.S. Congress in 2018. She joined a group of fellow progressive freshman congresswomen of color—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—to form “the Squad,” a group that has since grown with the election of Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman in 2020. 

Omar ramped up campaign events and door-knocking ahead of Tuesday’s elections. Her campaign hosted a rally Saturday night at the Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis with Congresswoman Pressley, Tlaib, and Bush. A visit from members of the Squad energized the Minneapolis residents attending the rally, as they cheered, danced to Somali music, and listened to other Minneapolis leaders who also spoke at the event.

“It is critically important that when we are thinking about electing ‘firsts,’ that we are not electing them as a vanity project, because all of us are first in many ways,” Omar said gesturing to Pressley, Tlaib, and Bush who sat on stage next to her. “A lot of people would like to just celebrate us as the ‘first’ and not celebrate the perspective, the passion.”

Looking back at her last term, Omar said she’s especially proud of the passage of the MEALS Act in March 2020 which provided free school meals to an estimated 30 million children across the country. Omar also highlighted securing $500 million in childcare support for the state of Minnesota in July 2021. She also noted passing a bill in December that creates an international envoy to combat Islamophobia. 

If she’s elected for another term in November, Omar said she will prioritize addressing healthcare, education, and the climate crisis.

‘Power pushes back’

The Fifth Congressional District is the most populous in the state, with over 700,000 residents. The district includes the city of Minneapolis and its outer suburbs. 

Omar’s campaign brought in nearly $2.4 million in campaign finances. Samuels raised just over $1 million. It has not been uncommon for Omar to face a financially competitive candidate. Omar’s challenger in 2020, Antone Melton-Meaux, raised $4 million, making it the most expensive race in the state’s history.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey endorsed Samuels five days ahead of Tuesday’s election. But Omar entered the primary with the DFL party’s endorsement, and concerns about the source of her opponents’ funding.

“When you push power, power pushes back,” Omar said. “It’s not shocking that Republican donors, developers, and corporations pour so much money into our [challengers’] campaigns because they want to have people that will bow down to special interest.”

In response to claims that his campaign is funded by Republican interests, Samuels said his supporters represent the district’s diversity.

“My campaign is being funded by Minnesotans of all stripes,” he said. “When folks with the resources fund my campaign, they’re funding it on behalf of the folks who are hurting the most and need support.”

Samuels’ campaign spokesperson Lee Hayes added that if elected, Samuels would be representing not only Democrats, but Republicans and Independents in the Fifth Congressional District.

“It must be a collaborative effort among all of them,” Hayes said. “That’s what, unfortunately, Congresswoman Omar fails to remember time and time again.”

Challenges in the race—and in the House

Sahan Journal first reported Samuels’ interests in running for Congress in February. He currently serves as the CEO of MicroGrants, a nonprofit that provides grants to small businesses in Minneapolis. He said he will continue to run MicroGrants after the primaries.

Samuels came to the United States from Jamaica at age 20 to study commercial art. He later became a well-known advocate against gun violence. Samuels co-founded the Northside Achievement Zone with his wife, Sondra Samuels. The group partners with schools and community organizations to provide social services for northsiders to reduce violence.

Samuels won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council in 2003 representing parts of north Minneapolis. He served for more than a decade, and became the chair of the public safety committee during his tenure.

Samuels became a prominent opponent of a ballot measure in 2021 to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. 

Samuels and his wife, Sondra, sued the city three times accusing the city of not meeting its police staffing requirements and challenging the ballot amendment language. Voters ultimately rejected the ballot measure.

“People are demanding that we move from a place of idealistic fantasy that puts us in danger, to a realistic appraisal of the political realities of our lives, and a respectful and respectable reaction that listens to constituents,” Samuels said. 

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar hosted a rally on August 6 with members of “the Squad,” Congresswomen Ayana Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

At Omar’s campaign rally Saturday night, Bush recalled an upsetting experience she and Omar endured on the House floor, and how it highlighted Omar’s character. 

“The Republicans were saying all types of demeaning, horrible things about Ilhan. They had signs. And not only were they saying it over the microphone on the floor, they were making comments and being loud and disruptive,” Bush said. “She didn’t waver, tremble, change.”

The squad members all recalled Omar saying in similar situations: “Don’t give them your tears.”

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