Caucus battle delayed by scuffle resumes tonight

The crowd at the Brian Coyle Center DFL caucus in Minneapolis, Feb. 4, 2014.
Matt Sepic / MPR News

The DFL caucus that was shut down Feb. 4 following an altercation between backers of state Rep. Phyllis Kahn and challenger Mohamud Noor reconvenes tonight.

DFL officials say they're taking extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of participants during the make-up caucus, when 700 people are expected to pour into the University of Minnesota's Coffman Union.

Meanwhile, as three investigations seek to determine what caused the fracas, a complaint has been filed against newly elected City Council Member Abdi Warsame, who one woman said warned a colleague to stop her from going to the caucus.

The caucus in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood two weeks ago never adjourned because of a fight that injured Ilhan Omar, a 31-year-old Minneapolis City Council aide and DFL party officer who said she suffered a concussion in the fight.

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar, photographed Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 at Minneapolis City Hall, where she works as a senior policy aide to council member Andrew Johnson. During an altercation at the DFL precinct caucus at the Brian Coyle Center, Omar was punched in the face.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Omar, a good friend of Noor, helped coordinate the first caucus in the gym of the Brian Coyle Community Center. She said throughout the night, Kahn's supporters made it clear they didn't want her there.

"There were numerous times by numerous people, I was told if I didn't shut up, or if I didn't go home, that I should worry about getting home safe at the end of the night," Omar said. "Someone said to me they were going to send people to hurt me."

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In the chaos of the caucus, Omar said, a group of about six men and women punched her in the face.

Omar also said newly elected City Council Member Abdi Warsame, who supports Kahn, made it clear before the caucus that she would not be welcome there. The day before the caucus, Warsame approached Omar's boss, City Council Member Andrew Johnson, and warned him to keep her away from the meeting, Omar said.

Johnson wouldn't identify "the co-worker" who made the statement but confirmed the nature of the conversation.

"I was at City Hall, and someone pulled me aside and basically gave me a warning," Johnson recalled. "They said as Ilhan Omar's boss, I should have her stay home and take care of her kids. Otherwise, there might be trouble. I said, 'She has every right to be there.'"

Johnson said he took the message to be sexist, rather than menacing, until he received a phone call from the same person the night Omar was beaten.

"One of the things they said was, 'I told you this would happen,'" he said.

Johnson reported the conversations to the city attorney's office and to the city's human resources department, which he said triggered an internal investigation into workplace safety. A city spokesman confirmed there is an open complaint against Warsame but declined to say more due to privacy rules. Minneapolis police are investigating the assault.

The allegations against Warsame first came to light Tuesday in a report by MinnPost.

Warsame called the allegations against him and his supporters "ludicrous," but declined to elaborate.

Abdi Warsame
Somali American Abdi Warsame, who is campaigning to represent Ward 6 on the Minneapolis City Council, photographed at the Riverside Mall Monday, May 6, 2013 in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"I want to address them, but I want to go through the investigation," Warsame said. "I don't want to hamper anything. When we go through the investigation, then I'll give my side of the story, and then we'll clear everything up."

The divide is exposing the complicated dynamics within Minnesota's burgeoning Somali-American political sphere, as well as the tricky alliances and heated emotions that can be found in any tight race.

If Noor succeeds in unseating Kahn -- who is one of the two most senior members serving in the Legislature -- he would be the highest-ranking elected official of Somali descent in the state.

The most explosive charge that Noor supporters are making is that Warsame and Kahn's supporters intentionally disrupted the caucus because they knew it would end favorably for Noor. That's something Kahn vehemently denies.

"No. That is absolutely not true," Kahn said. "This is kind of a fight between different parts of the Somali community. I'm essentially irrelevant to it, in terms of any real part of instigating, or encouraging, or anything like that."

Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, says the proposal to restrict the health department's access to newborn medical data is too strict.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Kahn said the scuffle involved punches thrown on both sides. Her supporters told her that the fight broke out after a Noor backer broke an agreement over how the caucus would be convened. They also say that the woman treated for her injuries, Ilhan Omar, who serves as vice chair of her senate district, broke DFL party rules because she is not neutral in the race as she claims.

Kahn also questioned the extent to which Omar was injured.

"I'm just pointing out there should be some evidence, and if it's true, then it's true," Kahn said.

When a reporter suggested that her remarks sounded less than conciliatory, Kahn said, "I'll let her friends and associates be concerned about her health."

Omar shared with MPR News a medical report showing she was diagnosed with a concussion, facial contusion and a neck sprain.

The question of Omar's neutrality in the race is fair, DFL Chairman Ken Martin said.

"But regardless of whether she was neutral in this race, she did not deserve to be beaten that evening," he said.

Martin said both sides took part in what he calls "unseemly" behavior. He also said that the party is conducting its own investigation.

When the caucus convenes tonight, Martin will be joined by co-chairs former Mayor R.T. Rybak, former St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter, and Senate District 53 Chairwoman Alberder Gillespie -- all outsiders to the district.

To ensure that the caucus goes much smoother than the first, Martin said the party has hired professional Somali translators and private security guards, and has arranged buses to take people from Cedar-Riverside to the U of M campus.

"We're spending over $4,000 on this one caucus," he said. "We have 4,000 precincts in the state, and this is one of them. We've spent the last two weeks dealing with one precinct in the whole state."

But he said all of that effort and money is worth it, if it means engaging a new immigrant community that is quickly learning to flex its muscles and build political power.