Zaynab Mohamed stands for a photo in her downtown Minneapolis campaign offices on December 1, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Zaynab Mohamed, a community advocate with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is running to replace retiring state Senator Patricia Torres Ray.

Zaynab, 24, made the announcement official on social media Wednesday morning.

Zaynab, a DFLer, is the first person to declare her candidacy for the seat, representing parts of south Minneapolis and Richfield, since Torres Ray announced last month that she wouldn’t run for reelection. Torres Ray, who served five terms in Senate District 63, made history in 2006 by becoming the first Latina to serve in the Minnesota Senate. If elected, Zaynab could become the first Black woman to join the state Senate. 

At 24, Zaynab is younger than any lawmaker currently serving in the state Senate. She would be the youngest woman elected to the Minnesota Senate.

“I’ve walked the halls of the Senate for the past year-and-a-half lobbying for bills, and I never saw myself in there. There’s not a single Black woman,” Zaynab told Sahan Journal ahead of her campaign announcement. “We don’t have representation in the Senate.”

Several other Black women have also announced their candidacies for state Senate seats, including Erin Maye Quade, a former state representative, and Zuki Ellis, a member of the St. Paul school board.

Zaynab received her first endorsement from an elected official Wednesday morning from Robin Wonsley Worlobah, a Democratic Socialist and incoming Minneapolis City Council representative in Ward 2.

“I’m so excited to support her in becoming Minnesota’s first Black woman, Muslim, and Socialist State Senator,” Wonsley Worlobah said in a tweet.

Zaynab grew up in south Minneapolis after her family immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia. She said she helped her family pay essential bills by working jobs at a young age, and helped her family navigate public services, while providing care for her younger sister and grandfather. Zaynab graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. 

Zaynab described the decision to run for office as a difficult one. But after having many conversations with friends, family, Torres Ray, and other people in the organizing community, she said she felt like it was a need.

“People were calling and saying ‘I think you should run for this seat,’” Zaynab said. “I had somebody who I had never met message me on Twitter and say: ‘I’ve lived in Senate District 63 for over 26 years and I think you should run.’”

The district includes south Minneapolis neighborhoods like Longfellow, Howe, Minnehaha, and parts of Nokomis. It also includes the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport and a northeast section of Richfield. 

White populations make up three-quarters of the district; roughly 10 percent of the district is Black and 9 percent Latino. The district is wealthier than the state average, with roughly 6 percent of families living below the federal poverty level compared to 9 percent statewide.

Running to replace another pioneering legislator

Torres Ray immigrated to the United States from Colombia. She has served 15 years in the state Senate. She currently is the chair of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, and is the minority leader of the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.

Zaynab has already entered the public eye as a vocal advocate for progressive politics in Minnesota. With that experience, she anticipates that running for office as a Black Muslim woman who wears the hijab may lead to difficult moments-–and possibly hateful incidents—on the campaign trail.

“Already in the last two years,” she said, “I’ve gotten tweets, people messaging me, nasty calls, being called all kinds of things.”

“I have absolute full faith in my community,” Zaynab added. “The Somali and the Black community have struggled over the years, but one thing we do know is how to come out of it when things get hard and how to support each other.”

Campaign will highlight accessible healthcare and fair distribution of public benefits

Zaynab said she will be campaigning to ensure accessible healthcare at the state level. She said COVID-19 has revealed ways the state government can expand public benefits to address barriers that existed before the pandemic, such as unemployment, evictions, and troublesome working conditions. 

“We were able to get resources, but resources were not equitably given to everybody,” Zaynab said. “How do we make sure that our community is able to get those things? Seeing what the government is capable of delivering, I’m starting to question why some of us are forced to live in difficult conditions while others are able to live their lives and pursue their dreams just fine.”

Zaynab is hoping to see Democrats at the state level start pushing for a more progressive agenda by not putting “politics above people.” The Senate is currently controlled by a slim Republican majority. 

“One of the things that’s missing is ensuring that people like myself—community organizers and activists—know that you don’t have to sit on the sidelines, lobby constantly, and wait for something to happen,” she said. “You can actually get in and push for things yourself.”

Zaynab added that her presence in the Senate as a Black immigrant Muslim woman will push her colleagues to consider how issues impact a wide variety of people. She credits Torres Ray for widening perspectives at the state level.

“Look at the amount of young Latino and young people of color who are running for office because of her, including myself. She opened a door,” Zaynab said. 

She added, “If I get in, there are going to be hundreds of doors opened.”

Additional reporting by Becky Z. Dernbach, Andrew Hazzard, and Joey Peters.

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