Ilhan Omar Opens Up About Her Brutal Summer

The Minnesota congresswoman faces a well-funded challenger in her primary on Tuesday

On August 3, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign launched a new 30-second attack ad against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Biden has “embraced the policies of the radical left,” the video narrator warns, adding that he will champion their efforts to raise “trillions in new taxes” and give “amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants.” Three figures whose cut-out images flank Biden for much of the clip represent that far-left coterie: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The ad ends with a simple plea: “The radical left has taken over Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Don’t let them take over America.”

That Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Omar appeared in the video came as a surprise to no one; the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has for years been one of Trump’s favorite boogeymen. And while all three progressive torch-bearers were shown in the video, only one of them — Omar — would make headlines days later for failing to get her hometown newspaper’s endorsement. Two days after Trump’s ad launched, the editorial board at Minneapolis’ Star Tribune backed Omar’s opponent, lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux, for the August 11 primary in the Fifth District. “While Omar wants to lead a movement, Melton-Meaux seeks to serve the Fifth District,” the editorial board wrote. Even in its slight of the congresswoman, the state’s paper of record had to acknowledge her ambition.

There might not be a more remarkable figure in national politics than Omar. A Somali-American refugee who, in 2018, became one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, Omar has been touted by the progressive left as the embodiment of the American dream. But she’s also among the most vilified members of Congress, and though she’s the odds-on favorite to win the primary for her House seat, the fact that Melton-Meaux has nearly matched her in donations — $4.2 million for her; $4.1 million for him — proves there are some very important people on both the left and the right who’d love nothing more than to see her fail.

“My year really was a really challenging one,” she said when we connected on the phone last month. “To function in an environment that wasn’t just hostile to change but was hostile to my husband.” Omar’s husband, Timothy Mynett, is a political consultant whom she married in March. Omar’s relationship with Mynett has been a source of much speculation from their courtship early on: Omar was previously married, and the New York Post published allegations that she and Mynett had an affair. It’s a complicated and confounding chapter in her political career, and, depending on whom you ask, proves either that Omar is just another self-dealing politician — her campaign has paid hundreds of thousands to Wynett’s firm since 2018 — or has been subject to outsize and unfair levels of scrutiny as Mynett’s firm is a legitimate organization. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the Ilhan Omar dichotomy, where her every move sparks interpretations as disparate as they are intense.

Of the members of the Squad, the progressive foursome of 2018 freshmen that also includes Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Omar is arguably the most polarizing. Part of that controversy is, to an extent, self-created. It was, after all, Omar who paid her husband’s consulting firm, declined to vote to recognize the Armenian genocide in October 2019, and, most infamously, has on multiple occasions employed anti-Semitic tropes on Twitter. Those missteps have given ammunition both to the president, who has amplified bogus right-wing claims that Omar sympathizes with Islamic terrorists, and to the Democrats’ moderate class, many of whom feel jilted by Omar’s politics, particularly her stance on Israel.

“Certainly, first-term members of Congress make mistakes, but she’s made incredibly prominent mistakes on hot-button issues, particularly her comments about Israel and Jews,” said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor who taught Omar during an early-career public policy fellowship.

Those “mistakes” have clouded discussion around her ability to legislate. Which is a shame because she’s actually been quite effective. Omar sponsored 34 bills in Congress and cosponsored 426 bills and resolutions during the 2019 legislative year (the most recent data available). She tops the Minnesota delegation in amendments passed in the House and in the total number of bills and amendments introduced. She was the author of the MEALS Act, which called for providing school lunches during the pandemic and which was rolled into and passed as part of Congress’ Families First Coronavirus Response Act. She’s also put forth bills that have little chance of passing but lay down a marker for the progressive agenda, proposing that the U.S. reimburse childcare costs for federal workers, eliminate the use of toxic landfills, and encourage mobile home park owners to sell their land to residents. And though there were some early hiccups in her relationship with Democratic leaders in Congress, those fences have since been mended. Just last month, Omar’s reelection bid was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the crown jewel on a list of reelection endorsers that also includes Sanders; the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL), the state affiliate of the national Democratic Party; Sen. Tina Smith and Attorney General Keith Ellison of Minnesota; and all three of her fellow members in the Squad. Given that Omar’s seat hasn’t been held by a Republican since 1963, Pelosi’s support has less to do with partisan survival than it does personal goodwill. (Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

In our conversation, Omar didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the strategic necessities of a strong relationship with party leadership. “I serve as the whip of the Progressive Caucus,” Omar said, referring to the party’s far-left convocation. “By nature, you have to have a really good working relationship with not only the Speaker of the House but also with the other ideological caucuses. That is how we are able to win votes and have some of the progressive wins.”

Given the progressive party’s constant see-sawing for power — the punditry will claim one month that the faction is in disarray and the next declare it to be on the upswing — Omar’s words about Pelosi signal a maturity around the political process and perhaps reveal someone whose presence within the party isn’t so schismatic after all.

This has been a profoundly hard summer for Omar, for reasons both political and personal. Police officers killed George Floyd on May 25 outside of a grocery store in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, an area that sits within Omar’s congressional district. As protests quickly spread first through the city and then the U.S., Omar emerged as one of the most vocal supporters of police reform, calling on Minneapolis to dismantle a police department that she said was “rotten to the root.” She also, according to some politicians and activists, worked hard to help amplify district representatives and grassroots groups within Minneapolis. “Omar gave voice to the tens of thousands of folks in Minneapolis who were voiceless,” said Scott Siebel, the outreach director at electoral advocacy group FairVote. Corey Day, the former executive director of the DFL assisting district reps with communications and outreach, added that “she’s been instrumental in trying to figure out different ways that we can support business owners and protesters.”

Over the course of my conversation with Omar, she kept returning to Floyd and, more broadly, the systemic inequalities within her city. “Minneapolis has the worst racial disparities anywhere in the country for Black people,” she said. “Fifty percent of Black Minnesotans are either uninsured or underinsured. The education gap here and the school-to-prison pipeline for Black Minnesotans is very high. We’re the fourth in student death for the nation. We haven’t made proper investment into housing.”

Like nearly every other House Democrat, Omar was a co-sponsor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a sweeping police overhaul bill. Omar dialed her father, Nur Omar Mohamed, the day the bill was passed, June 25, to chat about the legislation. It was a call placed out of habit, a reflex that eclipsed what her mind already knew: Nur had died 10 days earlier, a victim of complications of Covid-19. By all accounts, he was a kind and industrious man, a teacher in Somalia who, after moving with his family to the U.S., worked as a taxi driver and then in the post office.

I could hear Omar softly crying into the phone as we discussed her father. Her mother had passed away when she was two; he was the only parent she had left. When she spoke, her voice was a little shaky. “I don’t really mean to get emotional, but… my dad wasn’t just a dad, you know?” she said. “He was my mother and father and my best friend. To have someone be so constant in your life and within the span of two weeks just be gone, it’s hard on levels that I don’t even know how to fully articulate yet.”

Omar has dealt with an extraordinary amount of loss in her life — her mother died when she was just a toddler; her grandfather, who helped raise her and her sisters, died in 2013; and now her father was swept up in the devastating pandemic ripping through American cities and hitting their Black and brown communities especially hard. “Death has been constant in my short time on Earth,” she said quietly.

Her father, like so many other people in Omar’s life, was a target of far-right hoaxers, who claimed in 2019 that he was a war criminal living in the U.S. “illegally.” It’s an utterly baseless claim and one that shows just how much cruelty and bigotry the congresswoman has had to weather over the course of her young political career.

After working as a nutritionist educator through the University of Minnesota and then as a policy aide at Minneapolis City Hall, Ilhan Omar burst onto the political scene in 2016 when she won a seat in the state House by defeating 44-year-incumbent Phyllis Kahn. Even then, Omar was a frequent target, both verbally — a conservative blogger claimed she had committed immigration fraud by marrying her brother — and physically : While working in City Hall, Omar was assaulted by a small group of people before a precinct meeting. Once inside the state House, however, Omar proved adept at navigating party politics. She was named an assistant minority leader for the DFL caucus — a considerable achievement given how green she was. “She was the only first-termer elected to leadership,” said Melissa Hortman, the state House speaker who was the minority leader during Omar’s tenure. “She was impressive from the go. She was a very energetic member, a phenomenal public speaker.”

“My experience with childhood hunger and displacement really informs why I fight for policies to house and feed people.”

Just two years later, Omar decided to run for Keith Ellison’s House seat in Congress (Ellison himself was off to run for Minnesota Attorney General). Within weeks of Ellison’s announcement, Omar won the DFL’s endorsement. On August 14, 2018, she won the primary — a victory that, in a district as blue as the Fifth, is tantamount to winning the general. Sure enough, in January 2019, Omar was sworn into office, placing her hand on her grandfather’s old Quran. (The first person to be sworn into Congress with a Quran had been Ellison.) Omar made her presence felt on day one, when she pushed to overturn a 181-year-old rule banning head coverings in the House. “This is the Ilhan that has always existed,” said Day, the former DFL leader. “There’s more of a spotlight on it, of course. The light is a lot brighter.”

The youngest of seven children, Omar was born into a prosperous family in Somalia. When she was seven, the country’s civil war forced her family to flee the country. They would spend the next four years in a refugee camp in Kenya; Omar suddenly found herself sharing a bed, fetching water for the family, and watching movies in a hut-turned-theater in the neighboring village. Omar was 12 in 1995 when her family was granted sponsorship to move to the U.S. They lived first in New York, then Arlington, Virginia, and finally moved to Minneapolis, which is home to the country’s largest Somali population. “My family was always working really hard to make sure we weren’t outwardly struggling,” she told me, “even though we were.” Omar learned English in those days by watching TV (she used her newfound language skills to help her grandfather participate in local causes) and became a citizen in 2000.

Any halfway decent politician is well-practiced in the art of self-mythologizing, but even in D.C., Omar’s personal story is unusual. “I think politics is personal,” she told me. “My experience with childhood hunger and displacement really informs why I fight for policies to house and feed people.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, her colleague and fellow Squad member, praised that work. “I’ve had the good fortune to witness Ilhan in community with her constituents and in the halls of Congress,” she said, “and no matter where she is or who she’s talking to, Ilhan leads with her heart.”

Something few people mention about Omar is that she’s quite funny. Sometimes her humor borders on wry (discussing her recent memoir, she acknowledged that although her father never got to read the book, “I’m sure he would have had opinions about it”); other times, it’s more good-natured (she told me with a chuckle that she’d “cooked more in quarantine the last few months than I have the last five years”).

This deft amiability is part of the secret of her political success. “She’s extremely engaging,” said Jacobs, the University of Minnesota professor. “She asks really good questions that other people wouldn’t ask and does it in a way that is stimulating.”

“Ilhan is very down-to-earth and very funny,” added Cari Ness, who was a fellow alongside Omar at the University of Minnesota. “With some of the absurd things said about her the last five years, I can only imagine her laughing at that.”

Among those absurd things: unfounded claims that she supported al-Qaida; a debunked story about her calling the U.S. a “rotten country”; false allegations that she caused a city in her congressional district to do away with the pledge of allegiance before city council meetings; and, most recently, spurious reports that she had called to dismantle the entire U.S. economy. Many of these claims have been supported and amplified by Trump, who famously tweeted last year that Omar and the other members of the so-called Squad should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Following the president’s tweet, a crowd at his campaign rally in North Carolina chanted “Send her back!” after Trump mentioned Omar.

The response from Omar to stories like these has always been clear and forceful: Such allegations are rooted in hatred and reveal far more about the state of the right than they do about anything she stands for. (After Trump’s “go back” polemic, Pelosi helped to quickly pass a resolution condemning the president’s comments as racist and, one month later, showed further support by traveling with Omar to Ghana to recognize the anniversary of the American slave trade.)

It hasn’t been as easy to brush off the accusations of anti-Semitism. An incomplete list of Omar’s comments condemned as anti-Semitic: tweeting in 2012 that “Israel has hypnotized the world”; tweeting in February 2019 that Congress’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” and implying shortly after that there was an imperious correlation between pro-Israel sentiment and the Israel lobby; and, most recently, sending out a campaign mailer critical of Melton-Meaux’s wealthy and moderate donor base that only identified his Jewish patrons. (Melton-Meaux also got into hot water in recent weeks after his campaign released an FAQ assuring constituents that any donations from Jewish donors wouldn’t influence his policy decisions.)

Omar has faced some repercussions for her comments on Israel — most notably, she was the unnamed inspiration for a House resolution in March 2019 condemning anti-Semitism. But more significantly, she’s also become the face of the Israel divide on the left between those who say she’s demonstrated a pattern of anti-Semitism and those who argue that anti-Israel sentiment should not be read as an anti-Jewish sentiment. “She certainly has had her challenges,” said Mike Erlandson, a former Minnesota DFL chair who has endorsed Melton-Meaux, “challenges that, in the case of some other candidates, may not have been overcome-able. But this is the Fifth District, probably the second-most liberal district in the country.”

When I asked Omar why the Israel–Palestine conflict has been such a focal point throughout her time in Congress, she answered in cautious congressional boilerplate: The freedoms of all peoples are intertwined, a point she’s made many times over. “Many of the people that are part of the movement for equitable relations, these people have been uplifting marginalized races, not just here in the United States but across the world,” she said, before pivoting to talk about her debt relief efforts during Covid-19.

I got the sense that Omar didn’t want to linger on questions about her views on Israel, and I’m not surprised: A) It’s bad press, and B) it mostly centers around tweets she’s trying to leave in the past. (I’m going on the record to say I think the mailer scandal is more of a staffer flub than anything else.) In fact, several members of Minnesota’s Jewish community have expressed optimism that their relationship with the congresswoman is improving. “There’s a lot of attention on her with respect to Israel or her comments about Jewish influence. I would say though, that for the last year, it’s been a lot more quiet,” said Ethan Roberts, the director of government affairs at the Minnesota branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a national nonprofit. Roberts also pointed out that Omar signed onto a letter a few months ago lobbying to extend the U.N.’s arms embargo on Iran. “We were appreciative, and we communicated our appreciation directly to her chief-of-staff, who we’ve always maintained a good relationship with,” he said.

Yet Omar can’t seem to escape the shadow of her past controversies, in part because her opponents won’t let her. Melton-Meaux’s campaign raised $382,000 in large-dollar donations via the bipartisan Pro-Israel America PAC and $106,000 through NORPAC, another pro-Israel PAC. That cash infusion has created a narrative of a competitive race and an endangered incumbent. But Omar is no longer some insurgent candidate — she’s the overwhelming favorite to win, with the support of both progressive and moderate leaders. “It’s an uphill battle to beat an incumbent,” said Erlandson. “It’s an even bigger uphill battle to beat an incumbent that has probably 100% name ID among DFL primary voters.”

Omar certainly sounded confident on the phone, not just about her race, but about the future of the progressive wing. “I think there’s a positive trajectory,” she said, citing progressives’ primary wins in New York and Illinois. “I’m optimistic about what we are capable of doing once we have more votes.”

Update: An earlier version of this story misstated when Omar received a concussion. It was during her time at city hall, not while campaigning for office.

Senior Editor, GEN by Medium. Previously: Pacific Standard, Wired

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