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Policing, abortion at forefront of primary race between Rep. Ilhan Omar and Don Samuels

MINNEAPOLIS — Don Samuels is waging his Democratic congressional primary battle against nationally known U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar with the hope that Minneapolis voters will reject her campaign like they did last year’s contentious policing ballot measure.

Omar, seeking a third term representing Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, supported the proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council and School Board member, helped organize the successful campaign to defeat it.

“That was the straw, actually, that kind of broke the camel’s back for me, that the district wasn’t going to be well served and that she could be in there for a long time,” said Samuels, 73, a Jamaican immigrant who began organizing against gun violence about 25 years ago after a bullet pierced his north Minneapolis home.

Tuesday’s DFL primary election in the Fifth District marks the latest chapter in the fight between moderates and progressives in Minneapolis and nationwide, as Omar and Samuels quarrel over how to reform policing, address crime and protect abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

The first Somali-American elected to Congress, Omar, 39, said her advocacy for sweeping actions to fight climate change, expand abortion rights, cancel student loan debt and overhaul policing aligns with the “bold changes” her constituents in Minneapolis and eastern Hennepin County want.

Just last month, Omar was arrested during an abortion rights protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I have always been on the front lines advocating for our liberties and freedoms to be extended in this country,” Omar said.

The congresswoman said she is not surprised to face a second straight well-funded primary opponent. Her unapologetically outspoken approach, echoed by fellow members of the progressive “Squad,” has made her a polarizing figure within the Democratic Party, often conflicting with her more moderate colleagues and drawing Republican criticism.

“When you push power, power pushes back,” Omar said.

Democrat Antone Melton-Meaux drew national attention in his 2020 bid to unseat Omar, raising millions of dollars. But Omar easily beat him by nearly 20 percentage points.

Samuels has raised less money than Melton-Meaux but believes Omar’s support for replacing Minneapolis’ police force has left her vulnerable. He pushed for more officers amid rising violent crime, and he and his wife, Sondra Samuels, successfully sued to compel the city to increase police staffing.

Some prominent opponents of the 2021 ballot measure, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, are endorsing Samuels. Frey’s backing of Samuels came after Omar endorsed two of his mayoral challengers last year and encouraged Minneapolis voters not to rank him on their ballots.

“Don has been an advocate for his community on the Northside for decades, and someone who has worked with city leaders to bring investment to underserved communities,” Frey said in a statement.

Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins praised Omar for supporting a different public safety vision for the city following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“We must really transform how we do public safety. To just continue with more of the same, we’re going to continue to get the same results,” Jenkins said.

Omar charged that Samuels would not challenge the status quo. He served three terms on the city council and chaired its public safety committee, yet problems with crime and the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department remain, she said.

On the council, Samuels said he helped create a city policy making it easier for ex-felons to find jobs and held vigils for gun violence victims on the city’s North Side. After a police officer killed Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Samuels, then a private citizen, started a program allowing officers to give people vouchers instead of tickets to replace broken lights.

While Omar and Samuels disagree on how best to prevent crime, they both support legislation to reform policing practices and hold officers accountable for misconduct. Samuels said he backs Omar’s bill to limit no-knock warrants.

Both Democrats also said they want to codify abortion rights into federal law. But Omar questioned how hard Samuels would fight for reproductive rights, noting one of his paid campaign workers opposes abortion.

“This is a very personal issue for me, for my daughters, and for many people who rely on us,” Omar said.

Omar was referring to Victor Martinez, a pastor who helps Samuels’ campaign with Latino voter outreach. Martinez said he opposes abortion, with exceptions for rape and incest, but does not air that belief when campaigning for Samuels.

Samuels said he does not “have a questionnaire that I have people fill out when they volunteer for my campaign” and reiterated his support for abortion rights.

The Democrat said he is comfortable working with both political parties and would seek to meet with every member of Congress. Such bipartisanship, Samuels hopes, would help advance key Democratic priorities such as universal background checks on gun sales.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Samuels said, adding he would collaborate more with Minnesota’s congressional delegation than Omar has.

Samuels and his supporters have criticized Omar for breaking ranks with fellow Democrats on key votes. She voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Russian oil sanctions and increasing U.S. Capitol security after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.

“You can’t always be the one way out on the edge or way out in front because people won’t be comfortable working with you,” said former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe, who endorsed Samuels.

Omar’s votes and words occasionally draw negative attention. A prominent congressional critic of Israel’s government, she has apologized for past remarks on Israel viewed as anti-Semitic.

Her supporters and opponents disagree on how popular she is in her district. A widely circulated video of Omar being booed while on stage at a Target Center concert last month instantly became fodder for her critics.

“Those boos were a direct reflection of their dissatisfaction,” said Cicely Davis, the GOP-endorsed Fifth District candidate. She will face Republican primary opponents Royce White and Guy Gaskin on Tuesday. Republicans have not won the Fifth District in decades.

Omar insisted the video was misinterpreted, saying she arrived late to present an award to the singer and thus interrupted the performance.

“It was not the best time to interrupt people who’ve paid lots and lots of money,” Omar said.

Opponents of Samuels note he’s had his own controversies. Samuels once made a highly criticized remark that Minneapolis’ North High School should be burned down. He said the statement was made out of frustration with low graduation rates and meant metaphorically that the school “needed radical change.”

In March, when Samuels was criticized for not adequately chaperoning a child who drowned on his and his wife’s watch, he responded with a flippant comment, tweeting “can’t swim but can govern.” Many condemned his remark and he later apologized.

The DFL Fifth District primary ballot also includes candidates AJ Kern, Albert Ross and Nate Schluter.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who represented the Fifth District before Omar, said the congresswoman has struck a good balance between advocating for progressive policies and delivering resources to her district.

Earlier this year, Omar secured $17 million in federal funding for local projects, including money for a clinic on E. Lake Street and to add sprinklers to the last of Minneapolis’ aging public housing high-rise buildings, spurred by the 2019 fire at the Cedar High Apartments that killed five people.

“She stands for working people,” Ellison said. “She stands for creating prosperity for middle- and low-income people.”

©2022 StarTribune. Visit at startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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