Abdullahi Abdulle sees his campaign for New Brighton's city council as a wider statement: "Part of the reason I’m running is to show immigrant communities, especially first-generation immigrants, that they are not just guests.” Credit: Photo courtesy Abdullahi Abdulle

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Like many foreign-born citizens, Abdullahi Abdulle was shaken by the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. The turbulent years that followed did little to ease his concerns.

But until recently, Abdullahi had never considered a bid for public office. The 36-year-old Somali immigrant was more focused on his career–he’s an associate transportation planner with the city of Minneapolis–and raising a family. 

The killing of George Floyd changed that.

“All this time, I was thinking, ‘What can I do, other than comment on social media or make phone calls?’” Abdullahi said. “I felt that there had to be a way to contribute in a more meaningful and direct way.”

Then a friend suggested that Abdullahi might want to take a shot at a city council seat in his adopted hometown of New Brighton, a north metro suburb of some 22,000. 

With that, Abdullahi threw himself wholeheartedly into the endeavor. Along the way, he racked up a bevy of endorsements from current and former city officials, set up a slick website, and purchased ads on Facebook. 

By New Brighton standards, this constitutes an unusually aggressive campaign for a non-partisan post. Only one of Abdullahi’s five rivals for the seat has a website.

“Part of the reason I’m running is to show immigrant communities, especially first-generation immigrants, that they are not just guests,” Abdullahi explains.

Abdullahi is in good company. Across the metro area, first- and second-generation immigrants are running for city offices in unprecedented numbers this year. Others are stepping up to contest seats in county government or the Minnesota state house. 

In large part, the trend reflects the growing populations and growing electoral clout of immigrant communities. 

According to a 2020 report from Pew Research Center, naturalized immigrants in Minnesota now account for about 6 percent of the state’s electorate, up from just 3.8 percent in 2010. While many states have a larger percentage of immigrants, only Georgia and North Carolina have seen their share of foreign-born eligible voters grow at a faster clip.

In some Minnesota communities, the numbers are far more striking. Nearly a quarter of all residents in Brooklyn Park, the state’s sixth-largest city, are foreign-born. A majority of residents are persons of color. 

Still, it wasn’t until 2016 that the shifting demographics manifested in city hall. That’s when Susan Pha, who is Hmong American, became the first person of color to serve on the city council. Two years later, Wynfred Russell, a Liberian American, joined her.

Now, it appears the floodgates have opened, as Pha fends off a challenge from Henry Momanyi, a Kenyan-born outreach worker who finished second in a primary for the seat.

“Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, they are the epicenter for people of color in Minnesota,” said Momanyi. He said he anticipates that immigrant voters will turn out in unprecedented numbers this year. 

‘When Trump got elected, everything changed’

High turnout is also predicted in neighboring Brooklyn Center, where Alfreda Daniels, a Liberian refugee who came to the U.S. as a child, is seeking a seat on the city council. 

Daniels expects increased engagement from immigrant voters this year. Two factors she cites: the value of seeing candidates who look like them on the ballot and Donald Trump.

“When Obama was president, it was difficult to get people to focus on what was happening,” said Daniels, who works as a labor organizer for the AFL-CIO. “We had a Democrat in office. He was Black. People were very comfortable. When Trump got elected, everything changed. People were scared. Now people don’t have to be called twice to come to a meeting.”

The surge of first- and second-generation immigrants running for office isn’t restricted to communities with large populations of color. In Edina, where 87 percent of the population is white, two of the seven candidates vying for a pair of open council seats–Janet Kitui and Ukasha Dakane–were born in Kenya.

Likewise, Boni Njenga, who came to Minnesota from Kenya in 2004, is running for the Hennepin County Board in District 5. The seat covers the south metro suburbs of Bloomington, Richfield, and Eden Prairie. 

Njenga hopes his personal history will help him connect with voters. 

“I think people are amazed to hear the story. I came here with $50 in my pocket,” said Njenga. While he is a political novice, he said his “lived experience” should resonate. In his campaign, he has prioritized evidence-based solutions to problems such as homelessness.

In one of the more closely watched suburban state House races, Amir Malik, of Blaine–a civil rights attorney whose parents emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s–is taking a second stab at unseating GOP incumbent Nolan West.

Malik, who lost in his first bid by a razor thin 153-vote margin, said immigrant voters might prove decisive in the traditionally Republican-leaning district (37B). 

Blaine is not without a strong, pro-Trump contingent. Malik’s neighbor across the street, he noted, flies a “Just Say No to Creepy Joe” flag in front of his home. And Blaine voters elected West two years ago despite the incumbent’s history of posting racist and homophobic sentiments on social media. 

Prior to his election, West was forced to resign his job as a legislative intern, after the election of Barack Obama. In a 2008 post, West declared “it’s lynching time.” 

Amir Malik, a civil rights attorney, sees an awakening of interest in Blaine, where he’s running for the state House: “I’m hearing from a lot of immigrants who were apolitical–who just worked and focused on their families. And they feel like they are under attack.” Credit: Photo courtesy Amir Malik

New subdivisions, new Americans

Trump-related passions cut both ways in Blaine. In door knocking, Malik has been surprised to see the changes in the fast-growing suburb. Some of the subdivisions he’s visited this year didn’t exist two years ago and many of the new homes are occupied by immigrants. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, he said, is driving political interest. 

“These people he’s been denigrating are not happy about it. I’m hearing from a lot of immigrants who were apolitical–who just worked and focused on their families. And they feel like they are under attack,” Malik said. “People who could have become citizens but didn’t are now rushing to become citizens.”

That said, Malik is focusing his campaign on bread-and-butter issues such as the reconstruction of a problematic intersection on Highway 65, property tax reform,  and mental health services. The latter issue is particularly important, he said, because of an alarming rash of suicides among local high school students.

While political candidates from Minnesota’s immigrant communities express varying degrees of confidence about the outcome on November 3, most of those interviewed say the very fact of their candidacy constitutes progress.

“I think what’s happening is that we have suddenly seen ourselves as Americans,” said Alfreda Daniels, the Brooklyn Center city council candidate.

“We have seen how decisions impact us, that we can represent our communities.” 

Whatever happens, Daniels said, she feels like she’s already won.

“The fact that a refugee girl has her name on the ballot and has been endorsed by so many people, that to me is history,” she added. “The fact that other young Black girls can see me running, that is a victory.” 

Mike Mosedale

Mike Mosedale is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis. A New York City native, he worked for newspapers in New Milford, Connecticut, and Superior, Wisconsin, before moving to Minnesota. A longtime...