The political awakening of Minnesota's Somali community poses a conundrum for the DFL party. While Somali-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, many appear to disagree with the party when it comes to gay rights.
That tension was on display Sunday, as the party considered a dispute between a Somali city council candidate and the openly gay incumbent he's running against.
At the meeting, the party's Constitution, Bylaws and Rules Committee upheld the party's endorsement of Abdi Warsame, who's running for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council.
That seat is currently held by Robert Lilligren, who's been on the council nearly a dozen years. But Lilligren lost the DFL endorsement this year to Warsame after hundreds of Somali-Americans turned out at precinct caucuses in April, and came back to the party's convention, giving Warsame overwhelming support.
Lilligren's appeal challenged that process. Nimco Ahmed, his campaign manager, who's a Somali-American, says she heard Warsame's supporters attack Lilligren for being gay at the party's precinct caucuses in April.
"The same mike that belongs to the DFL, that was paid by this party, our candidate was being called gay: 'For the gay guy, go on this side, for the Somali brother, go on this side," said Ahmed. "Those are unacceptable. He has a name!"
All 13 City Council wards in Minneapolis were redrawn last year as part of the post-census redistricting, and Lilligren's ward changed substantially. Somali activists, led by Warsame, lobbied to have the borders moved so that as many East African voters as possible could be concentrated there.
At the same time, Lilligren says it's no secret he's gay, but this year, he says, it's become a campaign issue.
"This is a big deal with this community," he said.
Last year, Minneapolis voted overwhelmingly to reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same sex-marriage. Only 22 percent of the city voted for the amendment. But in the newly redrawn sixth ward, 47 percent of voters supported the amendment. In the most heavily Somali precincts, up to 65 percent voted yes.
Marriage amendment votes by city ward
|W-01||24 percent||75 percent|
|W-02||16 percent||83 percent|
|W-03||18 percent||81 percent|
|W-04||35 percent||63 percent|
|W-05||39 percent||57 percent|
|W-06 (Most Somali-Americans)||47 percent||49 percent|
|W-07||14 percent||84 percent|
|W-08||18 percent||80 percent|
|W-09||25 percent||73 percent|
|W-10||13 percent||86 percent|
|W-11||21 percent||78 percent|
|W-12||21 percent||78 percent|
|W-13||15 percent||84 percent|
|Minneapolis total||22 percent||76 percent|
|Source: Minnesota Secretary of State|
Lilligren says those statistics show many Somalis aren't comfortable with homosexuality.
"It's something that we as a party, we as a city, we as a society need to deal with," said Lilligren. "And I think that we can, but I just want it to be clear: It was there."
Warsame says he supports gay rights and understands what it means to be persecuted, "Especially coming from a community that's poor, that's black and that's Muslim. We've been discriminated against more than anybody. So for us to make Robert or anybody else's race, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation an issue, would have been counter-productive for what we want to do, and what I want to do and the message that I had for the community," said Warsame.
Warsame says he won the DFL endorsement because he had a message that inspired people to turn out at the caucuses.
"One thousand-three hundred people did not show up because they were anti-Robert Lilligren. They showed up because they were pro-Abdi Warsame," he said. "They were voting to be integrated into the city. They were voting because they believed a member of their own could take their issues to city hall and to the halls of power."
"The DFL committee agreed. They ruled that Lilligren's challenge did not rise to the level of overturning the endorsement. But committee co-chair Chris Thorp also noted in an e-mail statement that the party opposes any kind of discrimination.