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Somali American Lawmaker in Minnesota Sees Role as Bridge Builder


First-term legislator Omar Fateh shows off the Minnesota Senate chamber in the state Capitol in St. Paul. Behind him is the mural "Minnesota: Granary of the World." (Betty Ayoub/VOA)

Omar Fateh prides himself on outreach, on trying to make connections and improve conditions for those living in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota – especially those in the Minneapolis district who elected him to the state Senate a year ago.

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"Growing up in an immigrant household but within the American culture" has equipped him "to bridge the gap between the new immigrants as well as the folks that have been here," the U.S.-born Somali American said.

Fateh represents Senate District 62 in south Minneapolis. Its 82,000-plus residents are racially and ethnically diverse, many of northern European and African American descent, as well as of Native American and Hispanic heritage. Newcomers from Mexico, Asia, East Africa and elsewhere have made this area their home in recent decades.

In seeking office, Fateh said he relied on the counsel and support of the district’s "indigenous folks, Latino folks, East Africans, workers, renters, elderly folks – folks that care about a whole list of issues, from affordable housing to climate change."

They helped propel Fateh into office. In January, he became the first Somali American and first Muslim to serve in Minnesota’s Senate.

Jolene Johnson praised Fateh for regularly visiting Little Earth – a multiblock affordable housing complex that gives preference to Native Americans – and offering advice on resources for the community’s many struggling households.

"He doesn’t blow smoke at us. I believe he does care about us," said Johnson, a longtime resident and member of the Ojibwa tribe. "And that’s a nice feeling to have about somebody you voted for."

Jolene Johnson, left, says Minnesota state Sen. Omar Fateh has been attentive to residents of Little Earth, an affordable-housing community primarily for Native Americans, in Minneapolis. (Betty Ayoub/VOA)
Jolene Johnson, left, says Minnesota state Sen. Omar Fateh has been attentive to residents of Little Earth, an affordable-housing community primarily for Native Americans, in Minneapolis. (Betty Ayoub/VOA)

Political interests

Fateh, who’s in his early 30s, has been interested in politics for well over a decade.

He was born in Washington, D.C., to parents who had emigrated from Somalia. The family moved to a nearby Virginia suburb where he was raised. As a college undergraduate, Fateh interned for a Democratic U.S. congressman and, after earning a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, ran for an at-large seat on the Fairfax County School Board in northern Virginia.

Fateh lost that 2015 race but, as the news site MinnPost reported, he gained the insight that Minnesota, where he had relatives in the large Somali American community, might hold more promise for political work. He was encouraged to apply for a job with Minneapolis' city government doing nonpartisan voter outreach and education. He got the job and moved late that same year.

Working in the Minneapolis elections office and in other government jobs, "I got to meet a lot of great folks throughout the city," Fateh told VOA. One was Kaltum Mohamed, who grew up in south Minneapolis. That is where they settled when they married. "We love it here," said Fateh, now a University of Minnesota information technology business analyst.

In 2018, as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party – Minnesota’s version of the Democratic Party – Fateh made an unsuccessful bid for the state’s House of Representatives. Less than two years later, he defeated a three-term incumbent in a primary race for the state Senate – and went on to win 89% of the vote in that November’s general election.

As a self-described Democratic socialist who promotes affordable housing and health care regardless of ability to pay, Fateh said he is "a minority within the minority party" in Minnesota’s Senate. Republicans control that chamber by a slight margin; Democrats have an edge in the House. With a divided legislature, "it was pretty difficult to come to agreement" over the state’s budget, Fateh said.

Minnesota Lawmaker Sees Role as Cultural Bridge Builder
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Tough vote

The new lawmaker’s district includes the site where George Floyd, a Black man, died when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in May 2020. The death sparked months of protests in communities across the nation, along with demands for racial justice and police reform.

Fateh had backed a proposal – rejected by Minneapolis voters in early November – to fold the city’s police department into a broader new Department of Public Safety. It would have combined police with other professionals specially trained to respond to situations involving mental illness, addiction and housing insecurity.

"We failed to convey our positive message," Fateh wrote in a follow-up email to VOA. Instead, "we were overcome by a massive, monied effort" to recast the plan as "defund the police."

Minnesota state Sen. Omar Fateh, in vest, and legislative aide Dawson Kimyon visit the George Floyd memorial site in Minneapolis, Minn. (Betty Ayoub/VOA)
Minnesota state Sen. Omar Fateh, in vest, and legislative aide Dawson Kimyon visit the George Floyd memorial site in Minneapolis, Minn. (Betty Ayoub/VOA)

"The people of Minneapolis are understandably apprehensive about public safety considering what we have experienced in the past two years, and I think they voted defensively," Fateh said, calling for holding to account officials who nonetheless have promised reforms.

On a late September Saturday, Fateh visited what is known as George Floyd Square, a memorial site near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street. Floyd’s image looms from a mural surrounded with flowers and signs such as "Justice. Accountability."

"Folks are coming from all over to pay their respects, look at the memorial," Fateh said, "but also coming to these Black businesses that are over here: the coffee shops, restaurants, the tea bars."

Uneven recovery

Fateh’s district suffered during the civil unrest, with many businesses – especially along the Lake Street commercial corridor – damaged by looting, arson and other violence. Some parts are rebounding, judging from the crowded aisles at the Mercado Central and from construction booming around Karmel, a Somali market crammed with stalls offering fashion, food, hair care and other services.

But struggles persist in the district where, according to census data, the median household income is about $45,000 and many live on much less.

"It has been very stressful. It has been a mental health roller coaster," said Ikram Mohamed, who runs a childcare center across from a boarded-up, fire-blackened building on Lake Street. She cited troubles with inconsistent enrollment, staffing and income because of the pandemic – as well as the presence of drug users, vagrants and prostitutes drawn to vacant structures nearby.

Mohamed was among a handful of care facility operators meeting with Fateh to discuss what they described as sometimes burdensome government regulations that disadvantage their clients and businesses.

"One of the things I try to do is bridge the gap between the immigrant community but also the government, the commissioners," said Fateh, who serves on two Senate committees involving health and human services.

Working with constituents is the part of elective office that Fateh said he finds most satisfying.

The legislative process has been less so, Fateh said. He cited two main factors: "being in a minority" and, because of the pandemic, mostly engaging with other lawmakers onscreen instead of in person.

"Debating someone in a committee hearing virtually rather than seeing them right next to you is very different, because once you log off, it's done," he observed. "But when you're in person, you connect with them on a deeper level rather than just arguing and logging off. You can have a personal conversation right afterward. And I think that's really important so that you build that level of trust and respect among each other on both sides."

This story has been updated to clarify that Omar Fateh moved to Minnesota in 2015 for work involving politics and elections, not to seek political office.

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