Trust Representative Ilhan Omar to introduce a piece of legislation that cuts straight to the heart of the matter. While other officials in Washington are arguing about where to find resources to address the mounting challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and mass unemployment, the Minnesota Democrat has stepped up with the Make Billionaires Pay Act. Introduced last week in cooperation with her frequent ally Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the proposal would impose a 60 percent tax on the gains in wealth accumulated by billionaires as the country has been reeling from Covid-19.
“It is shameful that billionaires profit off the suffering of working families as the pandemic ravages the economy and kills thousands of Americans every day,” declared Omar. “For far too long, the richest 0.001% of America, have avoided paying their fair share in taxes. This bill will go a long way towards addressing our nation’s massive wealth inequality and finally guaranteeing healthcare as a human right. Nothing could be more important in the midst of a global pandemic than ensuring quality healthcare for every American.”
The boldness of the bill was typical of Omar’s response to the many crises the United States is wrestling with this year: a pandemic, skyrocketing unemployment, evictions, systemic racism, a climate crisis, and the broken budget priorities of a Congress that keeps feeding a military-industrial complex at a time when Americans are going hungry. In recent months, she has worked on her own and in cooperation with congressional allies to develop and introduce legislation to institute a nationwide cancellation of rents and home mortgage payments through the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, to suspend school meal debt, to establish a federal agency responsible for investigating all nationwide deaths occurring in police custody, and to amend the Insurrection Act so that it can’t be abused by presidents for political purposes.
This is how Omar operates. She goes big. Yet, as Congressional Progressive Caucus cochairs Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal explained this week, the Minnesotan also goes deep, looking for openings to add amendments and secure immediate victories—such as her successful fight in March to include a measure allowing the federal government to grant waivers so schools closed during the pandemic could maintain meal programs for low-income students in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Now, however, as she seeks reelection in a Minnesota Democratic primary that will be held Tuesday, critics are trying to paint Omar as an uninspired representative. Her challenger, corporate lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux, whose campaign has drawn more than $4 million in funding from Omar’s critics in Minnesota and across the country, has sought to portray the incumbent as an ineffectual member of Congress who has gotten “distracted fighting with Donald Trump on Twitter or even with their own party.” Melton-Meaux claims, “I’m dedicated to service, not celebrity.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which has endorsed Melton-Meaux, gripes, “While Omar wants to lead a movement, Melton-Meaux seeks to serve the Fifth District.”
That’s the same sort of bogus attack that rivals of former Senator Paul Wellstone used to make on the progressive Democrat from Minnesota. Just as critics denied Wellstone’s remarkable combination of progressive idealism and practical political skills, so they try to dismiss Omar.
But those who know Omar are pushing back. Pocan and Jayapal just issued a statement that rebuffed the naysayers. “As Whip of the Progressive Caucus, she has fought to lower Minnesotan’s prescription drug prices, negotiated a rules package that sets up a Select Committee on the climate crisis, and fought to strengthen our coronavirus relief package,” they announced. “Rep. Omar has been indispensable to the work of the progressive movement.”
That’s the real issue. Omar is, as Pocan and Jayapal suggest, an indispensable progressive, and there are plenty of powerful people who know that.
“It’s not an accident that Ilhan and I had primary challengers. Because when you speak truth to power, power fights back,” wrote Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a Monday message circulated by the Working Families Party, which noted that Omar is “facing an opponent who is being propped up by Republican Super PACs and GOP mega-donors who are threatened by our Squad’s collective power.”
AOC told Omar supporters the same thing last week: that it wasn’t an accident that she, Omar, and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib have faced primary challenges. “So when we’re the ones attracting multi-million dollar primary challengers in an unprecedented way, that just tells you how effective Ilhan is,” asserted the New York Democrat. “It just tells you how damn effective she is against big real estate, against our military industrial complex, against our Wall Street complex, against basically every corrupt institution that we have right now in this country.”
That reference to taking on the military-industrial complex was especially salient. No member of Congress has worked harder to frame new approaches to foreign policy than Omar, who has been outspoken in her advocacy for diplomacy and international cooperation as opposed to bombings and invasions.
“Omar is steadfast in her pro-peace efforts, despite drawing the ire of President Trump and receiving numerous death threats during her time in office. She knows that progressive changes to U.S. foreign policy are desperately needed and is willing to put in the effort needed to realize a new approach to our international relations,” declared Peace Action’s Lilly Dragnev. “She has accordingly worked to end endless war and promote government spending that reflects the priorities of people instead of the military-industrial complex. She has helped foreground a national conversation on Palestinian rights and the U.S.-Israeli relationship. She has dedicated herself to the causes of peace, equality, racial justice, human rights, and environmental sustainability.”
Ilhan Omar’s approach is bold, and it is sometimes controversial. That attracts primary opposition, especially in a Democratic Party that is too cautious when it comes to questions of structural change. But Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Omar’s predecessor in the House, says that’s exactly what we need during these times of crisis.
Describing Omar as “a leader who is disrupting conventional wisdom and challenging 50 years of thinking that has brought us stunning inequality, weakened public institutions and an utter lack of preparedness for a global pandemic,” Ellison argues, “Washington doesn’t usually embrace bold thinkers. Entrenched special interests like things the way they are: moneyed interests, a priority; working people of all colors, an afterthought. But in the Fifth Congressional District, we do embrace bold thinkers—and we should re-elect Rep. Omar.”