Congressional Pathfinders: Ilhan Omar
A March 2019 Rolling Stone story on Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar summarized her place in American culture during the third year of a divisive Republican presidential administration: “She’s everything Trump is trying to ban,” the sub-heading read. “Now she’s in Congress.” It was difficult to argue with the magazine’s conclusion. As a strong woman of color--and a hijab-wearing Muslim at that--the Minnesota legislator, President Trump’s frequent target, was a threat to the white male-dominated world of her political opponents. Despite the improbability of her accession, she rose from a Somali immigrant at age 12 to become a member of the United States House of Representatives from Minnesota’s fifth congressional district beginning in 2019. Her election was historic, making her the first Somail-American elected to Congress as well as the first naturalized citizen from Africa and the first of two Muslim American women (along with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan). I discuss Congresswoman Omar in my forthcoming book, Congressional Pathfinders: “First” Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History.
She was born Ilhan Abdullahi Omar in Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 4, 1982. Raised in Baidoa, more than 150 miles away, she was the youngest of seven siblings. Her mother, Fadhuma Abukar Haji Hussein, died when Ilhan was two years old. Afterward, her father, Nur Omar Mohamed, and her grandfather, Abukar, director of Somalia's National Marine Transport, reared her.
During the 1980s, Somalia was engulfed in a bloody civil war. Omar’s family members realized that they could not stay in the country, and so they fled. They spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before finding their way to New York. Her experience in the camp was horrific. Malaria was an ever-present threat. Kidnappings and violence were common. More than 30,000 men, women, and children were crowded into the camp, a wretched place where safety was never assured, and fear was a constant companion.
By 1995, a Lutheran Church had sponsored the family’s entry into the United States. She was disappointed in what she found after the airplane deposited them in New York City. “This doesn’t look like the America you promised,” she said to her father. He told her to be patient. She would understand the strengths and weaknesses of her adopted land in time.
The family initially settled in Arlington, Virginia. Omar was obviously different from her classmates, and those differences sometimes made her the target of bullies. She recalled an episode where her tormentors threw gum in her scarf, knocked her down a flight of stairs, and jumped on her while she changed clothes for gym class at school. Her father was sympathetic to her plight, offering her an explanation for the abuse. He “sat me down, and he said, ‘Listen, these people who are doing all of these things to you, they’re not doing something to you because they dislike you. They are doing something to you because they feel threatened in some way by your existence.’” It was a lesson she never forgot—and a lesson that would explain much about Donald Trump’s reaction to her political career.
The family eventually moved on to Minnesota, joining a burgeoning Somali population in the state. Omar said the family moved because “the people there were supposed to be nice.” Her father worked as a taxi driver and eventually found work at a post office.
Omar set her sights on becoming an active participant in her new land. In 2000, she became a US citizen at age 17. She attended Edison High School in Minneapolis and enjoyed her role as a student organizer. From there, she went on to North Dakota State University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies in 2011. Later, she was a policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Interested in child nutrition, Omar worked for the Minnesota Department of Education as an outreach coordinator for a few years. In 2012, she served as a campaign manager for State Senator Kari Dziedzic’s reelection campaign.
By 2015, she was serving as director of policy initiatives for the Women Organizing Women Network, a group led by an influential Somali leader, Habon Abdulle, that urged East African women to assume leadership roles in their communities. Although she had shied away from elective office early in her career, Omar was becoming well known in her community and was seen as a rising star in progressive circles.
She stepped onto center stage in 2016 when she ran for, and won, a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) ticket. Her district, 60B, included portions of northeast Minneapolis, an area with a high Muslim population. With her victory, Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in the United States.
Her term of office began in January 2017. She was active in the legislature, authoring 38 bills and serving as assistant minority leader for the DFL caucus. Although she was effective in enacting laws, she also generated controversy. State Representative Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa accused Omar of deliberately violating state finance laws by using campaign funds to pay for a divorce lawyer as well as running afoul of Minnesota House rules when she accepted speaking fees from public colleges. Omar insisted that she had not violated campaign finance laws, but she offered to return the speaking fees.
Other campaign finance allegations followed. Matters came to a head in June 2019 when the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board announced that Omar’s use of campaign funds for personal out-of-state travel was inappropriate and her decision to pay for her tax returns from her campaign war chest violated Minnesota finance rules. She was ordered to reimburse her campaign committee $3,500, and she paid a $500 fine.
Despite the controversy, Omar’s political career remained strong. On June 5, 2018, six-term incumbent Congressman Keith Ellison, one of the first Muslims to serve in the United States Congress, announced that he would not seek reelection to the House so that he could campaign to become Minnesota attorney general. Recognizing a prime opportunity to move up in her career, that same day Omar filed papers to run for Ellison’s seat in the fifth congressional district. With a DFL endorsement, she won the August primary and went on to face conservative activist Jennifer Zielinski in the fall general election, winning the seat with 78 percent of the vote. Omar’s victory, while impressive, was hardly surprising. The fifth district is the most Democratic district in Minnesota, and one of the most Democratic in the Midwest.
Omar was among a group of young progressives elected to serve in and, they hoped, remake the 116th Congress. She changed the institution before she was even sworn into office by persuading the leadership to alter rules regarding head covering so that she could wear her hijab on the House floor. As she was sworn in, she placed her hand on a copy of the Quran owned by her grandfather. One outraged detractor, Pastor E. W. Jackson, fretted that the relaxation of the House rule regarding headgear meant that Congress might soon resemble an Islamic republic. Omar responded via Twitter. “Well, sir,” she tweeted, “the floor of Congress is going to look like America. And you’re just going to have to deal.”
Even before she set to work in Congress, Ilhan Omar attracted enormous media attention, far out of proportion to her position as a freshman congresswoman. She became a member of an informal group known as the Squad, freshmen progressives dedicated to pushing the generally staid House of Representatives to pursue more socially liberal policies. Aside from Omar, the group included three newly elected congresswomen: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. The Squad, to some extent, represented a new demographic in Congress--young women of color who supported the left wing of the Democratic Party. They were diametrically opposed to the administration of the septuagenarian Republican President Donald J. Trump, who championed reactionary policies and frequently flaunted his antipathy toward women and people of color.
Omar became a symbol of all that is wrong with America, at least according to right-wing conservatives fearful of the “browning” of America. Her supporters portrayed her as the embodiment of the American dream--an impoverished refugee who arrived in the country unable to speak the language, but bright and eager to learn, a fierce, determined woman who pulled herself up by her bootstraps to become a member of Congress in her thirties. Her detractors painted a far different picture of a dangerous, radical, traitorous “other” --a foreigner who threatened core American values and may have been an agent of America’s adversaries. Fox News, the television station that routinely presented fanciful, unproven conspiracy theories and so-called “alternative facts” during the Trump era, prominently featured Ilhan Omar in numerous stories--more than six times as often as it featured stories about South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and the third most powerful person in the chamber. Clyburn was a standard progressive--black, to be sure, but a veteran lawmaker in his seventies--hardly a fearsome threat to conservative America. With her brown skin, hijab, and often intemperate rhetoric, Omar was the perfect villain for Fox stories about “others” who would undermine Caucasian sensibilities. She was outspoken and unapologetic, a small brown woman--a Somali Muslim, no less--wearing a funny headdress and spouting out leftist policies that frightened rural whites in places that overwhelmingly supported Trump.
Considering the vitriol hurled at her by the right-wing media, Omar might have been well advised to tread carefully, but she did not. She did herself no favors in her public comments, especially a February 2019 tweet that reflected anti-Semitic tropes. In February 2019, journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted a message indicating that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy threatened to punish two Squad members, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, over their criticism of Israel. Omar tweeted a flippant response: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” a lyric from a Puff Daddy song referring to $100 bills. In another tweet she sent soon thereafter, Omar accused the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of funding Republican support for Israel.
Her remarks drew bipartisan condemnation for their anti-Semitic tone. Republicans were accustomed to heaping scorn on this outspoken Muslim woman of color, but Omar’s comments put Democrats in a tight spot. They were reluctant to denounce one of their own, but at the same time the comments could not go unaddressed. In early March 2019, the House of Representatives passed a resolution denouncing hate speech such as “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry.” The resolution did not mention Omar by name, but it was clear that lawmakers acted in response to the dustup over her tweets.
The congresswoman was contrite--to a point. She tweeted an apology: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to all be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.” Yet she was unwilling to back away completely from her original remarks. “At the same time,” she tweeted, “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil-fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”
Aside from her provocative statements and unusual background, Omar’s policy positions were among the most politically liberal in the 116th Congress. She supported free tuition for college students with annual family incomes below $125,000 as well as tuition forgiveness programs for low-income students. Similarly, she argued on behalf of Medicare for all and announced her support for the United States National Health Care Act, also known as the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act. She argued against the U.S. military’s penchant for bloated budgets and the nation’s deployment of troops around the world because, in her view, those activities result in perpetual warfare and bloodshed. Omar vehemently opposed the Trump administration’s plans to construct a wall along the Mexican border.
Recognizing the political value of attacking a symbol of Democratic extremism, President Trump singled out Congresswoman Omar for vicious attacks on Twitter. On numerous occasions, the president launched a series of racist tweets against the Squad, urging the women of color to “go back” to their home countries and questioning their patriotism. Having grown accustomed to such name-calling, Omar was sanguine about the tweets. “The right wing, Trump, the Republicans, white supremacists [launch] attacks on immigrants, refugees, black people, women, Muslims,” she told a Time magazine reporter. With Ilhan Omar, they could combine the attacks because “they have all of that in one box.”
Public figures are always potential targets for deranged persons seeking revenge or notoriety, but Congresswoman Omar received more than her share of death threats. In February 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested a Coast Guard lieutenant, Christopher Hasson, on charges that he was plotting to assassinate numerous political figures and journalists, including Ilhan Omar. A self-proclaimed white nationalist, Hasson felt threatened by non-whites exercising political power.
Another would-be killer came to the FBI’s attention in April 2019. Patrick Carlineo, Jr. called Omar’s office and threatened to kill the congresswoman because he supported Trump and believed that Muslims should not serve in the U.S. government. The president did not seem concerned that his words might incite violence. Just a few hours after Carlineo was charged, Trump spoke at a Jewish meeting in Las Vegas. “Special thanks to Rep. Omar of Minnesota,” he said. “Oh, I almost forgot. She doesn’t like Israel.... I’m so sorry!” Ignoring Trump’s taunts, Omar urged leniency after Carlineo pleaded guilty in November 2019.
As the frequent target of wild anti-Muslim stories and innumerable death threats--partially the result of racist hate speech propounded by the president of the United States--Congresswoman Omar might be expected to wilt under the pressure. As of this writing, she has not. “I grew up in a Somali culture, where we are extremely direct and are trained not to take much offense,” she explained to a reporter in 2019. What she does worry about, however, is how the attacks affect her supporters. “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 take it personally.”
Despite the epithets and the controversy, Omar declares herself the “optimist in the room.” As she told a 2019 interviewer, “I am the kind of person that really isn’t challenged by any circumstances. I will see an opportunity.” Considering her long journey from eking out a dismal existence as a Somali refugee to becoming a prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives, it is difficult to argue with her assessment. If an opportunity exists, Ilhan Omar probably will find it.