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Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (born October 4, 1981) is a Somali-American politician serving as the U.S. Representative for Minnesota's 5th congressional district since 2019. The district includes all of Minneapolis and some of its suburbs.

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar, official portrait, 116th Congress.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Minnesota's 5th district
Assumed office
January 3, 2019
Preceded byKeith Ellison
Member of the Minnesota House of Representatives
from the 60B district
In office
January 2, 2017 – January 3, 2019
Preceded byPhyllis Kahn
Succeeded byMohamud Noor
Personal details
Born
Ilhan Abdullahi Omar

(1981-10-04) October 4, 1981 (age 37)
Mogadishu, Somalia
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)
Ahmed Nur Said Elmi
(m. 2009; div. 2017)

Ahmed Hirsi (m. 2018)
Children3
EducationNorth Dakota State University (BA)
WebsiteHouse website

Omar was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016 on the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party line, making her the first Somali American elected to legislative office in the United States.[1] She was also the first naturalized citizen from Africa and first Somali-American elected to the United States Congress. Along with Rashida Tlaib, she was one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and is the first minority woman to serve as a U.S. representative from Minnesota.[2][3][4]

A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Omar has advocated for a living wage, affordable housing and healthcare, student loan debt forgiveness, the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and the abolition of ICE. She has strongly opposed the immigration policies of the Trump administration, including the Trump travel ban. Omar has also been outspoken on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, criticizing Israel's settlement policy and military campaigns in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as pro-Israel lobbies such as AIPAC.

Contents

Early life and education

Omar was born on October 4, 1981, in Mogadishu[5] and spent her early years in Baidoa, Somalia.[6][7] She was the youngest of seven siblings. Her father, Nur Omar Mohamed, an ethnic Somali, worked as a teacher trainer.[8] Omar's mother, Fadhuma Abukar Haji Hussein, a Benadiri (a community of partial Yemeni descent), died when Omar was two.[9][10][11] She was thereafter raised by her father and grandfather.[12] Her grandfather, Abukar, was the director of Somalia's National Marine Transport, with her uncles and aunts also working as civil servants and educators.[8] After the start of Somali Civil War in 1991, she and her family fled the country and spent four years in a Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa County, Kenya near the Somali border.[13][14]

In 1995, Omar's family's application to be resettled as refugees in the U.S. was approved, and they initially settled in Arlington, Virginia.[10][15] Later that year, they moved to Minneapolis, where she learned English. Her father worked initially as a taxi driver, later as a postal office worker.[10] He and Omar's grandfather emphasized during her upbringing the importance of democracy, and she accompanied her grandfather to caucus meetings at age 14, serving as his interpreter.[12][16] Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000 when she was 17 years old.[17][10] She has spoken about being bullied for wearing a hijab during her time in Virginia, recalling classmates sticking gum on it, pushing her down stairs, and jumping her when changing for gym class.[10] Omar remembers her father's reaction to these incidents: "They are doing something to you because they feel threatened in some way by your existence.”[10]

Omar attended Edison High School, and volunteered there as a student organizer.[18] She graduated from North Dakota State University[16] with a bachelor's degrees in political science and international studies in 2011.[19]

Omar was a Policy Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.[20]

Early career

 
Omar with John Sullivan in Paris as part of Minnesota's World's Fair Bid Committee

Omar began her professional career as a community nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota, working in that capacity from 2006 to 2009 in the Greater Minneapolis–Saint Paul area. In 2012, she served as campaign manager for Kari Dziedzic's reelection campaign for the Minnesota State Senate. Between 2012 and 2013, she was a child nutrition outreach coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Education.[citation needed]

In 2013, Omar managed Andrew Johnson's campaign for Minneapolis City Council. After Johnson was elected, she served as his Senior Policy Aide from 2013 to 2015.[20] During a contentious precinct caucus that turned violent in February 2014, she was attacked by five people and incurred some injuries.[8] According to MinnPost, the day before the caucus, Minneapolis city councilmember Abdi Warsame had told Johnson to warn Omar not to attend the meeting.[21]

As of September 2015, Omar was the Director of Policy Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, advocating for women from East Africa to take on civic and political leadership roles.[20] In September 2018, Jeff Cirillo of Roll Call called Omar a "progressive rising star."[22]

Minnesota House of Representatives

Elections

 
Omar, then a candidate for Congress, speaks at a Hillary for Minnesota event at the University of Minnesota in October 2016
 
Omar at the Twin Cities Pride Parade in 2018

In 2016, Omar ran on the Democratic–Farmer–Labor (DFL) ticket for the Minnesota House of Representatives in District 60B, which includes part of northeast Minneapolis. On August 9, Omar defeated Mohamud Noor and incumbent Phyllis Kahn in the DFL primary.[23] Her chief opponent in the general election was Republican nominee Abdimalik Askar, another activist in the Somali American community. In late August, Askar announced his withdrawal from the campaign.[24] In November 2016, Omar won the general election, becoming the first Somali American legislator in the United States.[1] Her term began on January 3, 2017.[25]

Tenure and activity

During her tenure as state Representative for District 60B, Omar was an Assistant Minority Leader for the DFL caucus.[26][27] She authored or co-authored at least 266 bills during the 2017-2018 legislative session.[28]

Committee assignments

  • Civil Law & Data Practices Policy
  • Higher Education & Career Readiness Policy & Finance
  • State Government Finance[29]

Financial transparency issues

In 2018, Republican state representative Steve Drazkowski publicly accused Omar of campaign finance violations,[30] claiming that she used campaign funds to pay a divorce lawyer, and that her acceptance of speaking fees from public colleges violated Minnesota House rules. Omar responded that the attorney's fees were not personal but campaign-related; she offered to return the speaking fees.[31][32] Drazkowski later accused Omar of improperly using campaign funds for personal travel to Estonia and locations in the U.S.[30][33][34]

Omar's campaign dismissed the accusations as politically motivated and accused Drazkowski of using public funds to harass a Muslim candidate.[34][35] In response to an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune arguing that Omar should be more transparent about her use of campaign funds, she said: "these people are part of systems that have historically been disturbingly motivated to silence, discredit and dehumanize influencers who threaten the establishment.”[34]

U.S. House of Representatives

Elections

 
Welcoming several of the new female Congressional Black Caucus members in January 2019

On June 5, 2018, Omar filed to run for the U.S. House from Minnesota's 5th congressional district after six-term incumbent DFLer Keith Ellison announced he would not seek re-election.[36] (Ellison instead ran successfully for Attorney General of Minnesota.) On June 17, she was endorsed by the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party after two rounds of voting.[37] Omar won the August 14 primary with 48.2% of the vote.[38] She faced health care worker and conservative activist Jennifer Zielinski in the November 6 general election.[39] She won with 78.0% of the vote, becoming the first Somali American elected to the U.S. Congress, the first woman of color to serve as a U.S. Representative from Minnesota,[3] and (alongside former Michigan state representative Rashida Tlaib) one of the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. Congress.[40][41][42] She had virtually assured herself of a seat in Congress with her victory in the DFL primary. With a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D+26, the 5th is the most Democratic district in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. The DFL has held the seat without interruption since 1963, and the Republicans have not tallied more than 40 percent of the vote in almost half a century.

Omar received the largest percentage of the vote of any female candidate for U.S. House in state history,[43] as well as the largest percentage of the vote for a non-incumbent candidate for U.S. House (excluding those running against only non-major-party candidates) in state history.[43] She was sworn in on a copy of the Quran owned by her grandfather.[44][45]

After her election, a proposal was made to modify the ban on head covering in the U.S. House. The proposal was successful and Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.[10]

Minnesota's 5th congressional district, 2018[46]
Party Candidate Votes %
DFL Ilhan Omar 267,703 77.97
Republican Jennifer Zielinski 74,440 21.68
n/a Write-ins 1,215 0.35
Total votes 343,358 100.0
DFL hold

Congressional committee assignments

Committee assignments
116th Congress (2019–21)[47][48][49]
Party leadership and caucus memberships

Caucuses

Political positions

Democratic socialism

According to a campaign staffer in 2018, Omar identifies as a democratic socialist.[52] However, unlike Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who were also elected to Congress in 2018, Omar was neither a member of nor endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.[53][54]

Education

She supports free tuition for college students whose family income is below $125,000 as well as greater accessibility to student loan forgiveness programs.[55]

Health care

Omar supports Medicare for All as proposed in the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.[10][56]

Immigration

Omar has stated she is in favor of the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.[57] She supports prosecuting federal officials who have been accused of physical and sexual assault of people in their detention.[58][non-primary source needed] She supports the protection of sanctuary cities and a path to permanent status for DREAMers and their families.[57][non-primary source needed] She opposes efforts to seal the border, calling Donald Trump's border wall plan "racist and sinful".[59] She also criticized Barack Obama's "caging of kids" along the Mexican border.[60][61]

Militarism

Omar has been a critical of U.S. foreign policy and called to reduce funding for "perpetual war and military aggression",[62] saying, "knowing my tax dollars pay for bombs killing children in Yemen makes my heart break", with "everyone in Washington saying we don’t have enough money in the budget for universal health care, we don’t have enough money in the budget to guarantee college education for everyone."[62] Omar also stated: "By principle, I'm anti-war because I survived a war. I'm also anti-intervention. I don't think it ever makes sense for any country to intervene in a war zone with the fallacy of saving lives when we know they are going to cause more deaths. I also don't believe in forced regime change. Change needs to come from within."[63] Omar has criticized U.S. government's drone assassination program, citing the Obama administration's policy of "droning of countries around the world".[60][61] Omar stated that "we don’t need nearly 800  military bases outside the United States to keep our country safe"[64]

Saudi Arabia

Omar has criticized Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses and the Saudi Arabian–led intervention in Yemen.[65][66] In October 2018, she tweeted: "The Saudi government might have been strategic at covering up the daily atrocities carried out against minorities, women, activists and even the #YemenGenocide, but the murder of #JamalKhashoggi should be the last evil act they are allowed to commit."[66] She also called for a boycott of Saudi Arabia's regime, tweeting: "#BDSSaudi".[67] The Saudi Arabian government responded by having dozens of anonymous Twitter accounts it controlled post tweets critical of Omar.[65]

In an op-ed published on The Washington Post website, Omar wrote that "Our criticisms of oppression and regional instability caused by Iran are not legitimate if we do not hold Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to the same standards. And we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to repression in Saudi Arabia — a country that is consistently ranked among the worst of the worst human rights offenders."[64]

Israeli–Palestinian conflict

During her time in the Minnesota legislature, Omar was critical of the Israeli government and opposed a law intended to restrict the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.[68] She compared the movement to people who "engage[d] in boycotts" of apartheid in South Africa.[67] During her House campaign, she said she did not support the BDS movement, describing it as counterproductive to peace.[69][70] After the election, her position changed, as her campaign office told Muslim Girl that she supports the BDS movement despite "reservations on the effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution".[71][72][69] Omar has voiced support for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.[67][64] She criticized Israel's settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank.[73]

In 2018, Omar came under criticism for statements she made about Israel before she was in the Minnesota legislature.[68][70] In a 2012 tweet, she wrote, "Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."[68][74] The comment, particularly the notion that Israel had "hypnotized the world," was criticized as drawing on anti-Semitic tropes.[68] The New York Times columnist Bari Weiss wrote that Omar's statement tied into a millennia-old "conspiracy theory of the Jew as the hypnotic conspirator".[75][76] When asked in an interview how she would respond to American Jews who found the remark offensive, Omar replied, "I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza War and I’m clearly speaking about the way the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war."[74] Later, after reading Weiss's commentary, Omar apologized for not "disavowing the anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used".[77]

In an exchange with the journalist Glenn Greenwald in February 2019, Omar tweeted, "It's all about the Benjamins baby" in reference to American politicians' support for Israel and invoked the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). A number of Democratic leaders—including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn—condemned the tweet, which was interpreted as implying that money was fueling American politicians' support of Israel.[78] The Democratic House leadership released a statement that called Omar's tweets antisemitic and "deeply offensive."[79] The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) denounced her statements.[80][81] Omar issued an apology the next day, stating: "I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes", adding, "I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry."[79]

On February 27, 2019, Omar spoke at a bookstore and said of her critics: "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country." The statements were quickly criticized as allegedly drawing on anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel said it was "deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens" and asked Omar to retract her statement.[82] House Appropriations Committee chairwoman Nita Lowey also called for an apology and criticized the statements in a March 3 tweet, which led to an online exchange between the two. In response, Omar reaffirmed her remarks, insisting that she "should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee."[83][84] Omar's spokesman, Jeremy Slevin, said Omar was speaking out about “the undue influence of lobbying groups for foreign interests.”[85]

Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders defended Omar against the backlash her comments brought on. Sanders said the criticism and efforts to remove Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee were "aimed at stopping a discussion about American's foreign policy toward Israel."[86] Senator Cory Booker, meanwhile, regarded her statements as disturbing.[87] Some members of the Black Caucus believed Omar was unfairly targeted because she is a black Muslim, noting that "the Democratic leadership did not draft a resolution condemning Donald Trump or other white male Republicans over their antisemitic remarks."[88] The second round of remarks prompted the Democratic leadership to introduce a resolution condemning antisemitism but without naming Omar. Following objections from a number of congressional progressive Democrats, the resolution was amended to include Islamophobia, racism, and homophobia,[89] and on March 7 the House passed the amended resolution. Omar called the resolution "historic on many fronts," and said, “We are tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy."[90] Some Minnesota Jewish community leaders subsequently expressed continued concern over Omar's rhetoric and language and indicated that the issue remained divisive with Omar's district.[91]

LGBT rights

Omar was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, a major LGBT civil rights advocacy group. In response to the endorsement, Omar stated, "I will fight for LGBTQIA+ rights in Washington D.C."[92]

Minimum wage

Omar supports a $15 hourly minimum wage.[93][10]

Venezuela crisis

In January 2019, amid the 2019 Venezuelan presidential crisis, Omar joined Democrats Ro Khanna and Tulsi Gabbard in denouncing the Trump administration's decision to recognize Juan Guaidó, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as Venezuela's interim president.[94] She said that the U.S. should not "hand pick" foreign leaders,[95] adding that the U.S. should support "Mexico, Uruguay & the Vatican’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful dialogue", that Trump's action was a "U.S. backed coup", and that Guaidó was part of the "far-right opposition", a view not shared by most congressional Democrats; Guaidó's party has been described as holding center-left positions.[94][96]

In February 2019, Omar questioned whether Elliott Abrams, whom Trump appointed as Special Representative for Venezuela in January 2019, was the correct choice given his past support of right-wing authoritarian regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, his initial doubts about the number of reported deaths in the El Mozote massacre in 1982, and his two 1991 misdemeanor convictions for withholding information from Congress about the Iran–Contra affair, for which he was later pardoned by George H. W. Bush.[97][98] Conservative critics argued that this focus was misplaced in light of the crisis in Venezuela. Abrams responded that El Salvador “has been a democracy” since 1984.[98][96]

Targeting

Assassination plots and threats

In February 2019, the FBI arrested Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson, who was allegedly plotting to assassinate various journalists and left-of-center figures and organizations in the United States, including Omar. According to prosecutors, Hasson is a self-described "long time White Nationalist [sic]" and former skinhead who wanted to use violence to “establish a white homeland.” Prosecutors also alleged that Hasson was in contact with an American neo-Nazi leader, stockpiled weapons, and compiled a hit list. Prosecutors allege that Hasson's plans to commit domestic terrorism were inspired by Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik's 2011 domestic terrorist attacks.[99][100][101][102]

On or before February 22, 2019, "Assassinate Ilhan Omar" was graffitied in a Rogers, Minnesota Holiday gas station restroom, prompting an FBI investigation.[103][104]

Islamophobic poster

On March 1, the West Virginia Republican Party held "WV GOP Day," an event to celebrate the Republican Party, at the West Virginia Capitol. An exhibitor displayed a poster at the event falsely connecting Omar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, along with Islamophobic flyers. State delegate Mike Pushkin, in attendance at the event, said that no Republican delegates condemned the poster. The poster was condemned the following day by the WV GOP party, which said, "The West Virginia Republican Party does not approve, condone, or support hate speech." Omar pointed to the poster as an example of why she is targeted with violence, also citing white nationalist domestic terrorist Christopher Hasson placing her on his hit list and "Assassinate Ilhan Omar" being written in a Minnesota gas station.[105][106][107][108][109][110]

Islamophobic comments

In March 2019, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro made what were seen as Islamophobic comments on her news show when she questioned Omar's loyalty to the United States because she wears a hijab. Fox condemned the remarks and Pirro's show was not aired the following week. President Trump defended Pirro, tweeting, “Fox ... must stay strong and fight back with vigor. Stop working soooo hard on being politically correct, which will only bring you down, and continue to fight for our Country."[111]

Awards and honors

In 2014, Omar was named a rising star in the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party's Women's Hall of Fame.[112]

She received the 2015 Community Leadership Award from Mshale, an African immigrant media outlet based in Minneapolis. The prize is awarded annually on a readership basis.[113]

In 2017, Time magazine named Omar among its "Firsts: Women who are changing the world", a special report on 46 women who broke barriers in their respective disciplines, and featured her on the cover of its September 18 issue.[114] Her family was named one of the "five families who are changing the world as we know it" by Vogue in their February 2018 issue featuring photographs by Annie Leibovitz.[115]

Media appearances

In 2018, Omar was featured in the video for Maroon 5's "Girls Like You".[116]

The 2018 documentary film Time for Ilhan, directed by Norah Shapiro, chronicles Omar's political campaign.[117] It was selected to show at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Personal life

Omar is Muslim and belongs to the Majeerteen clan from Northeastern Somalia. In 2002, she became engaged to Ahmed Hirsi (né Aden). The couple applied for a marriage license, but the application was not finalized. The couple had two children together before separating in 2008. The next year, Omar married Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, a British citizen. In 2011, she and Elmi had a faith-based divorce,[118] and that year she reconciled with Hirsi, with whom she had a third child in 2012. In 2017, Elmi and Omar were legally divorced,[32] and in 2018, Omar and Hirsi were legally married.[17] They and their three children live in Minneapolis.[20] Her daughter, Isra Hirsi, is one of the three principal organizers of the school strike for climate.[119]

See also

References

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External links