Why Ilhan Omar Is the Optimist in the Room

Why Ilhan Omar Is the Optimist in the Room

Why Ilhan Omar Is the Optimist in the Room

The Minnesota representative is bringing an organizer’s mind-set to Congress.


Just a few days after President Donald Trump incited his fans to chant “Send her back” at a rally in July, Representative Ilhan Omar and her staff fanned out down Lake Street in the heart of South Minneapolis. The road was closed off for a neighborhood festival, with sidewalks lined with informational booths, musicians, and people selling fruity drinks and local beers. People smiled and drew close to the then-36-year-old congresswoman. A trio of a cappella singers improvised songs about her. She played soccer with a few kids, skillfully nutmegging one of them.

I’ve seen politicians work crowds before, and Omar moves with a different energy. Instead of drawing the attention toward herself and her agenda, she expands the spotlight to those around her. At her core, she’s still a community organizer, building networks across the microcommunities that make up Minneapolis. As I walked with her team, I turned to her and said, “You seem to know everybody.” She replied simply, “It’s home.”

As one of the first two Muslim congresswomen in the United States, she’s a focal point of Trumpian racist fantasies about creeping Sharia. She’s also one of a handful of progressive and newly elected officials pushing the Democratic Party to the left. It seems her every public statement generates intense scrutiny from both the right and the center.

But to fixate on the national discourse obscures how Omar rose to prominence and how she operates in communities that have elected her by overwhelming margins. Since February, I’ve attended every public appearance of hers that I could, got to know her staff in Minneapolis and in DC, and sat down with her to talk about her political philosophy. Here’s what I learned: She likes to listen. She asks questions. She spends more time passing the microphone than speaking into it. She cares about the details of policy, especially the ways they might affect vulnerable communities. She is a product of inclusive Midwestern politics, not the result of a localized identity politics.

When I moved to Minnesota from the East Coast in 1997, I was fully infected by Lake Wobegon stereotypes. I thought the food would be bland. I thought everyone would be white. I thought I was surrendering diversity for pastoral homogeneity. We see that false vision manifest every four years in the buildup to the Iowa caucuses, when the heartland gets equated to a minority of rural white communities. Such stereotypes fuel anti-black and anti-Islamic bigotries and posit Omar as an outsider in the “real” Midwest.

Yet according to the 2010 census, more than three-​quarters of Midwesterners live in urban centers, not rural communities or towns. Even rural spaces aren’t as white as the media commonly portrays. For decades, Hmong families have been farming in Minnesota, and now increasing numbers of Somalis are doing likewise. Minneapolis, however, remains over 63 percent white, and Omar’s 5th Congressional District is more than 67 percent white. Her political ascent required the ability to connect across diverse communities.

Omar grew up in a Somali neighborhood in Minneapolis, but it’s a mistake to see her as someone whose political activity has been as a representative of just that community. She went around the traditional pathways into politics. “There isn’t really a Somali person who will say they see me as an organizer within the Somali community. That thought has been really laughable to many Somalis,” she told me.

After graduating from North Dakota State University in 2011, she worked as the child nutrition outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Education. In 2013, she also served as the campaign manager for Andrew Johnson, a young engineer running for the Minneapolis City Council. When he won, she became his policy aide, seemingly placing her in line to run for office herself.

Her rise, however, wasn’t smooth. She encountered hostility and, in one case, violence. In 2014, at a local Democratic Party caucus where she was organizing in support of a Somali politician running against an incumbent Minnesota House member, multiple assailants, their identities never revealed, held Omar down and beat her, sending her to the hospital with a concussion. Afterward, she wrote an op-ed for The Star Tribune arguing that she was assaulted because “my opinions are contrary to those of a few male political leaders in our community” and in service to others who wanted to keep additional Somalis out of local politics.

It was clear then that Omar couldn’t be easily silenced, but she remained a reluctant candidate. She once told an audience she had to be asked 14 times before she agreed to run for office. She credits her decision to try for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016 in part to joining Women Organizing Women, a group led by another local Somali leader, Habon Abdulle. Since being elected, Omar has proved a natural politician. She authored 38 bills in the Minnesota legislature, and in the US Congress she has refused to back down in the face of the president’s cruelty.

On the day Omar flew home in July, a crowd of over 150 supporters, including Abdulle, greeted her at the airport, assembling on short notice as Facebook invites shot through Minnesota’s progressive networks. She entered the baggage claim area to cheers, grabbed a bullhorn, and delivered remarks that shifted quickly from radiant to serious. She said Trump turns his hate on her because he “is threatened [that] we are inspiring people to dream about a country that recognizes our dignity and our humanity.”

That was the last time over the weekend that she allowed Trump’s insults to dominate the conversation. I followed her that evening to a town hall at the Sabathani Community Center in a historically black neighborhood in South Minneapolis.

Here’s what happens at Omar’s events. She arrives to thunderous applause. She speaks briefly. If Trump has tweeted about her recently, she acknowledges it but then immediately turns to the issue at hand. That July night, for example, she invited Representative Pramila Jayapal to speak on a Medicare for All panel with Erin Murphy, a nurse and former Minnesota House majority leader; Melisa Franzen, a state senator; Rose Roach, a nurse and labor activist; and Dave Dvorak, an emergency room doctor. All the panelists spoke, then Omar asked them questions. She weighed in from time to time but mostly encouraged others to mobilize and educate the crowd. The same thing happened in a May panel on global warming and in August panels on maternal health for women of color and on immigration reform. She convenes and presides.

Omar is strengthening and expanding the networks that she is going to need to change the country’s direction. Her model of politics as an extension of community organizing helps make people feel empowered to seek transformative change themselves. At the end of the Medicare for All panel, attendees buzzed happily as they dispersed, no longer angry about Trump’s tweets but focused on taking the small steps required to build a more just health care system. Her brand of politics sends the message that we’re all in this together.

In August I made my way to the warehouse district just north of downtown Minneapolis to interview Omar. Her office is on the second floor, with a narrow reception area that opens up to a well-lit open space. She settled down on a couch and pulled a gray blanket over her lap. I asked her about her panel events, observing that I had never seen a politician talk so little. She told me, “It is an organizer’s philosophy. You set the table, and you allow for people to not only be seen but be heard.”

She traced this habit to her family, saying, “There was no hierarchy in my home, there was no one really smarter than the next person. We could just interject as kids, and whatever adult was in that space would pause and say, ‘You have something to say? Finish your sentence.’ I think it allowed us to grow and feel internal liberation. And it allowed whoever was the leader, the adult in that room, to feel more secure in whatever decision or thought process they were going through, because it wasn’t solely their own.”

She said this childhood experience still informs her philosophy of cogovernance—and not just when planning town halls. “If you think about the fundamentals of a representative government, you hear everyone so that you can represent their voice. That’s kind of how I think about my position as a leader,” she said.

I asked her if there is something especially Minnesotan about that, and she answered, “There’s something human about that,” but then elaborated, “I think that is why so many of us feel alive in Minnesota politics, because there is something about building consensus. There’s something about having joy in politics, knowing that everything is local, the decisions that you’re going to make are impacting your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues.”

Omar’s desire to bring new voices into politics has led her to sometimes avoid the traditional community spokespeople who crop up in diverse cities. “I have a complete disdain for gatekeepers, and I try to keep them at a distance,” she said, adding that she has developed “a complete disregard” for “talking to the subcommunities as a voting bloc.”

I pressed her, asking, “But don’t different groups have different needs sometimes?” She replied, “Not in the way that I see it. I don’t have particular needs as a Muslim refugee immigrant that aren’t really similar to anyone else wanting proper health care and full education and a world that’s safe from persecution.” While she acknowledged that different groups encounter distinct barriers and threats, she insisted that “our core needs as humans” are universal and that universality should govern our politics.

Although attacks on identity politics often come from the right, Omar offered a cogent reframing from the left. She said she never wants to assume, “because [people] have a particular identity, that they must be very different in the kind of world that they want.” She looks for ties based on common values instead of asking, “Who are the black leaders I’m connected to, so that I can do black organizing? What Somali leaders do I work with so I can do Somali organizing? What Jewish leaders am I connected to? That framework,” she added, “has not been part of my organizing work.”

This disregard for convention, though, may have also contributed to Omar’s early stumbles, when her criticisms of Israel invoked anti-Semitic tropes. These are the kind of unforced errors that she might have avoided had she spent more time cultivating those designated leaders who are skilled at navigating the rhetorical pitfalls of their communities.

She seems to be learning. Her office said that after she apologized for tweeting that political support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby,” she and her team reached out to local Jewish groups. She organized a call that included Jewish Community Action, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and several rabbis in her district to make sure her rebukes of Israel would not unintentionally divide allies.

She knows that controversy will follow her. As I wrote this piece, she tweeted a death threat that she had received. The wife of a DC political consultant alleged in a divorce filing that her husband was having an affair with Omar (who denies it). The Alabama GOP voted to expel her from Congress. And she shared an anodyne political cartoon about being barred from Israel—but the cartoonist, it turned out, had placed second in a 2006 Holocaust cartoon contest in Iran.

She said she’s handling the pressure easily enough. Being Somali, she explained, has given her a thick skin because of her community’s habit of good-natured mockery. “I also grew up in a Somali culture, where we are extremely direct and are trained to not take much offense. I mean, 90 percent of our nicknames are based on our abilities or defects that we might have as humans. Somalis call me ‘half-life’ because I’m so tiny. The natural thing for a Somali person when they see me [is] to say, ‘What is happening to you? Why are you dying?’”

What does worry her, though, is that people who identify with her will feel the blow. “I know that if they say something about Muslims or immigrants or refugees, that there is a refugee or an immigrant or a Muslim person who sees themselves in me and who will take it personally.”

Meanwhile, Omar and her team keep working to find new audiences to educate and experts to elevate. She’s always the “optimist in the room,” she said. “I am the kind of person that really isn’t challenged by any circumstances. I will see an opportunity.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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