Yusra Arab was in her bedroom getting ready to go out with her cousin last Wednesday, May 26, when her phone rang. The Minneapolis Ward 2 City Council candidate had been running hard as the campaign approached a major milestone: the June 5 DFL endorsement convention. It was her cousin’s birthday, and the night offered a respite from the political bustle.
The caller, Yusra said, was a family friend who had signed up as a convention delegate. A month earlier, DFL voters in Minneapolis had signed up to serve as delegates. Under a new procedure instituted in response to COVID-19, eligible voters in the ward could simply register themselves as delegates using an online form. Later, in an online “convention,” these delegates would cast their votes for candidates seeking official party backing in November’s city election.
At this point, Yusra realized the birthday celebration would have to wait. She had a hunch about the news the call was about to deliver—and it wasn’t good.
For days, she had been hearing from some of her supporters about an alarming email they had received, seemingly from the DFL, explaining that there were mistakes on the delegate list. The delegates receiving these emails, Yusra had observed, all seemed to share an East African background.
Other delegates had been confused. Was there a problem with the paperwork? Would they be removed as a delegate? To them, Yusra explained that the email had not come from the Minneapolis DFL but from one of her opponents, Tom Anderson.
But the family friend on the phone that day was not confused.
“He was pissed,” Yusra said.
The accusations have ignited an ugly dispute at a key moment in a competitive city council race. Yusra alleges that the email, sent by Tom Anderson’s campaign manager, Saul Eugene, represents an attempt to discourage East African voters from taking part in the endorsement process. Furthermore, Yusra says that the claims about potentially fraudulent delegates fit into a pattern of voter intimidation, in which candidates of color, especially East Africans, see the legitimacy of their voters called into question.
The Anderson campaign told Sahan Journal that their email did not target East Africans, but instead highlighted irregularities they claim to have found in data provided by the DFL about convention delegates. Anderson alleges that Yusra’s campaign fraudulently registered delegates, perhaps without their knowledge.
COVID creates new DFL endorsement protocol
During one of the liveliest city elections in recent years, with questions of racial equity and public safety at the foreground, Yusra Arab and Tom Anderson are both running for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 2. The ward includes the easternmost parts of Minneapolis including areas of Longfellow, Seward, University, Riverside, Prospect Park, and Como.
On her campaign page, Yusra identifies herself as a former refugee who has worked as an elementary school teacher. She was a policy aide to Minneapolis City Council member Abdi Warsame before he resigned in 2020 to head the city’s public housing agency. She continued to advise the City Council on affordable housing, economic inclusion, and community-police relations. She cites her experience battling lupus as the reason she got involved in public policy.
Anderson’s campaign cites his own experience as a middle school teacher and coach, and a lobbyist for state university students in Minnesota. He also cites his leadership roles in neighborhood development groups and his work doing outreach and inclusion on the district level for the DFL.
The November general election will also include Robin Wonsley Worlobah, an independent*, and incumbent Green Party council member Cam Gordon, who has represented Ward 2 since 2006. (Both Wonsley Worlobah and the Gordon campaigns declined to comment on the DFL conflict.)
On Tuesday, June 2, several hundred delegates will vote in a virtual endorsing convention. (If neither candidate secures 60 percent of the roughly 400 delegates, no one will be endorsed.) Both DFL candidates in Ward 2 will likely run in the November general election regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s online convention. But the endorsement is a major boon on the November ballot.
The accusations between Yusra and Anderson center on who these delegates are and how they were selected.
In a normal year, neighborhood members get the chance to attend in-person caucuses—open party meetings—and select a slate of delegates. Anyone over 16 years old may take part in caucuses. But only those eligible to vote in the next election are eligible to become delegates to the convention, where they vote to endorse candidates. Campaigns often encourage their supporters to become delegates in order to line up likely endorsement votes.
Because of COVID-19, the entire process moved online this year. The caucuses were essentially online questionnaires that voters filled out at their convenience; the ward conventions will happen through phone or video call, depending on the ward. Potential delegates just needed to fill out a short online form to register, explained Minneapolis DFL chair Devin Hogan.
Because it was all virtual, the DFL instituted new measures to ensure only those eligible to participate would be counted. Caucus goers and convention delegates were required to respond to a postcard sent to their home address. Alternately, they could send the DFL a photo of a piece of mail with their name and address.
‘Thinking back to last week, did anyone knock on your door talking about politics?’
The Anderson campaign charges that many of this year’s delegates in Ward 2 may have been registered fraudulently. Starting in early May, his campaign manager, Saul Eugene, started contacting some delegates to ask about their eligibility and how they’d become a delegate.
In the email seen by Sahan Journal, Eugene writes: “I’m reaching out about the DFL Caucus and Convention process with the Minneapolis DFL.” He has found mistakes on his list of endorsement convention delegates, he writes, and encourages the recipients to contact him if they have never heard of the convention.
And if they have heard of it? In this case, Eugene’s email asks that they “please send a response detailing how you heard about the Convention and through which method you signed up.”
Anderson and Eugene sat down with Sahan Journal at a coffee shop on East Lake Street last week to explain how they came to suspect some delegates may not be legitimate and how they went about launching their own investigation.
Several weeks ago, the DFL sent the candidates a packet of information about delegates, including a timestamp of when they’d registered. Anderson and Eugene noticed that blocks of delegates had registered at regular intervals, 3–5 minutes apart. This pattern struck the two men as suspicious. So they decided to contact some of the delegates who’d registered during this time window.
Eugene said he called five delegates and discovered that all five were unaware of the convention. Further, he alleged, the five delegates did not know they were registered for the online endorsement convention.
Eugene played what he said was a recording of a call with one of those delegates.
In the recording, Eugene speaks to a man, who confirms his name. The man on the recording says he has never heard of the DFL caucus and endorsement convention process and that he did not sign up to be a delegate.
Though he received the confirmation postcard from the DFL, the man reports that he’d never sent it back. Furthermore, he says his family didn’t register him.
A deceptive phone call?
This recorded delegate phone call seems to offer support for some of the Anderson campaign’s allegations, but there’s another side to it. That is, the way Eugene presents—and misrepresents–himself to the seemingly confused delegate.
The phone call begins with a flat, pre-recorded voice announcing that the call is being recorded. Eugene never identifies himself as a member of the Anderson campaign, nor does he give his last name. When asked who he is, he simply says, “My name is Saul.”
Eugene also never clearly explains why he is calling. He says he is calling about the DFL caucus and convention process. But when the man asks “What’s that?” Eugene replies, “Essentially, you sign up online through the month of April, and they send you a postcard that you go online and confirm, and then they email a ballot in June.”
He asks the delegate a handful of questions: “Thinking back to last week, did anyone knock on your door talking about politics?” and “Is anybody in your family involved in politics?”
On the call, Eugene does not account for an uneasy dynamic: that a voter from an East African background may not feel comfortable answering questions from a stranger—posing as an official—questioning his political activity.
No one familiar with the Somali language or culture helped script or plan the calls. “We’re a small grassroots campaign,” Anderson said, “It’s basically just us.”
Eugene said he did not identify himself as a member of the Anderson campaign in the call because “I wanted to focus on the process, and I didn’t want to politicize things, if that makes sense. I didn’t want them to feel like I was coming after them if they were a Yusra delegate. I just wanted to get to the bottom of things.”
As for writing falsely that he was with the Minneapolis DFL in the original email, Eugene called it a grammatical mistake. “What I should have written was, ‘the caucus and convention process with the Minneapolis DFL.’ It was never my intention to imply I was with the DFL,” he said.
In a follow up email to Sahan Journal, Anderson added that Eugene gave his full name, phone number, and personal email address to the delegates he contacted.
“We understand that people’s race, national origin, and other intersecting identities inform their perception,” Anderson said “But there is no evidence that our actions based on the guidance provided to us by the DFL were rooted in race.”
Anderson and Eugene plan to challenge the five delegates they spoke to. (Nearly 400 delegates will represent the ward on Tuesday.) They expressed confidence that their challenges will be successful, and may even lead Yusra to drop out of the race.
A mother and father registered to become delegates—but what about their son?
Following up with one of the contested delegates, Sahan Journal visited the address of the delegate from the phone call. There, the delegate’s father, Omar, welcomed a reporter and seemed happy to talk about the DFL endorsement process.
Omar said his son is attending college in Atlanta, Georgia. Any eligible voter who lives in the ward may be a delegate, and students may register to vote at their permanent address or their school address.
Omar said he didn’t know if his son was registered to vote in Atlanta or Minneapolis.
Omar said he and his wife registered to be delegates for Yusra after hearing about her from friends. But he didn’t know how his son had also ended up registering as a delegate. Under DFL rules, anyone—including the campaigns—may help delegates navigate the registration process. But Hogan, the city’s DFL chair, said the delegates actually had to fill out the registration form themselves.
The Anderson campaign did not present Sahan Journal with any evidence that the Yusra campaign may have falsely registered Omar or his son.
Delegate challenges are uncommon
As part of the convention process, DFL officials in each ward establish a credentials committee that receives challenges brought by candidate campaigns who object to delegates. These individuals will decide whether to disqualify any of the delegates.
Hogan, the DFL chair for Minneapolis, declined to comment on the situation, citing the need for party officials to remain neutral. But he said that Anderson’s only option would be to challenge individual delegates: There is no provision in the process for accusing a rival candidate of wrongdoing.
He added that delegate challenges, like the kind Anderson is seeking, rarely prove successful. A few dozen challenges may surface across the whole city in any given year, Hogan said. “Especially compared to how many thousands of people participate, it’s generally not a huge amount,” Hogan said.
He added that successful challenges typically cite obvious problems—almost always the delegate claiming a false address.
Delegates subjected to ‘a literacy test’?
Asked if their campaign had registered any delegates without their knowledge, Yusra’s campaign manager, Kyrstin Schuette, answered “absolutely not.”
Yusra also expressed dismay and anger about the way the Anderson campaign questioned some Ward 2 delegates about the convention process–an action she said amounted to “instituting a literacy test.”
Many of the East African delegates were elderly and had to surmount language and technology barriers to participate in the convention process, she said.
“When you tell an immigrant community they are doing something wrong, that scares them,” she said. “Especially pretending to come from the DFL. To me, it was just absurd.” By Yusra’s rough tally, the Anderson campaign may have emailed some 140 delegates to ask about the validity of their registration.
She adds that delegates this year needed to undergo a much more rigorous confirmation process than in the past to ensure the virtual convention will be secure. Delegates had to respond to a postcard sent to their homes or send a photo of a piece of mail with their name and address to the DFL. These safeguards make it difficult for a campaign to falsely enlist delegates, she said.
One of the things that most upset Yusra was how this incident could paint her as the “East African candidate,” she said. “Yes, I do have support from my community, but I also have support from across the ward.”
Schuette, a 10-year veteran of campaign work, sat in with Yusra to speak to Sahan Journal.
Yusra and Schuette said there is a pattern where candidates of color, especially East African delegates, find their delegates being challenged by more established DFL figures. Schuette said these challenges rarely get discussed in public, but happen at the fringes of DFL party politics.
She said the party process was not to blame, but still, “this happens every time.”
Yusra and Schuette rattled off a list of candidates who have faced similar allegations: U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, state Representative Mohamud Noor, state Senator Omar Fateh, Minneapolis City Council member Jamal Osman.
“It happens to every single East African candidate at one point or another,” Yusra said.
“We were hopeful that the extra verification processes would be enough to deter them from making these challenges,” Schuette said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t.”
At this point, Yusra abruptly left the call with Sahan Journal. There was a sudden silence on the line, a shuffling sound, and then Yusra returned for a moment. “Excuse me,” she said and hurriedly departed again.
“Sorry about that,” said Schuette, who stayed on the line. “It’s another delegate asking about the email.”
The endorsement balloting runs June 2–8, with the virtual convention scheduled for Saturday, June 5.
*Correction: This story has been updated to note that Robin Wonsley Worlobah is running as an independent. Endorsement balloting starts June 2, but the online convention will be June 5. Abdi Warsame resigned from the City Council in 2020, not 2017.