Kahn, Noor press fight for Minneapolis House seat as primary nears

Phyllis Kahn
State Rep. Phyllis Kahn is running for re-election in District 60B. She recently visited a child care center that remains open due to some legislation Kahn helped pass.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Rep. Phyllis Kahn's 42 years in the Legislature count for a lot in the halls of the state Capitol, where her seniority makes her a player on state budget and spending bills.

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In her Minneapolis district, however, it's not clear anymore how much that clout counts with voters.

Kahn, among the longest-serving members of the Minnesota House, has been fighting a fierce primary battle for months against fellow Democrat Mohamud Noor, a relative newcomer to politics who, if he wins, would be the Legislature's first elected Somali-American.

Mohamud Noor
Mohamud Noor, who wants to replace Rep. Phyllis Kahn, talks to supporter Gregory Erickson while door-knocking in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

The rough and tumble House race has exposed rifts within the Somali-American community that erupted in physical violence at a DFL caucus in February. It's also split the DFL party. Noor's backed by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. New City Council Member Abdi Warsame is doing all he can to re-elect Kahn, who was one of the first elected officials to throw her support behind his campaign.

Voters get the final say at the polls Tuesday, though the district's politics may never be the same no matter who wins.

An outsider when first elected to the statehouse in 1972, Kahn has been reminding voters of her power and that influential positions don't go to freshman lawmakers.

"New blood, in general, is not good," said Kahn, 77. "You want people working for you who can do things for you in the Legislature. Whether you like it or not, the Legislature operates on a seniority system."

Noor, a Minneapolis school board member, argues Kahn has failed to use her sway to remedy racial disparities that divide people in the racially diverse and rapidly changing district and that he'd give those problems a higher priority than Kahn.

"The issues of education that have been ignored are critical. The recent department of health report showing they've not done well with people of color -- that's unacceptable," Noor said. "The issues of high unemployment in this neighborhood, or in this district -- that's not acceptable. I can go on and on. That means there's a lack of representation."

At 36, Noor says he can identify with students burdened by student loans. He's still in debt from the computer science degree he earned at Metropolitan State University. He's also worked as a store clerk at Macy's. Before that, he says, he started with nothing, as an immigrant who landed in Minneapolis on a flight from Nairobi, Kenya.

"You come to a new country, whereby you don't have employment, you don't have any housing, you come to family members who are supporting you initially," he said. "You have to find your way out."

Despite Noor's complaints, Kahn has a record of working on behalf of the disadvantaged. For example, she raised a ruckus after disabled and immigrant voters confronted long lines during an Election Day mix-up two years ago. She got heat from Rybak and others when she publicly complained, "Somebody at the city should be executed."

"I obviously don't watch what I say," she conceded. "If you want a legislator who watches every word they say, then don't elect me."

Some DFLers question why Noor would challenge Kahn now when there might be other political opportunities down the road. Noor admits patience is not his virtue.

"If we're going to be waiting, that is not the solution," he said. "The changes we want were supposed to have been happening a long time ago."

Noor has mobilized many Somali-American voters, but those votes alone won't win him the district -- a demographic hodgepodge of recent refugees, working-class whites, students, and university intelligentsia.

Kahn, a white Ivy League-educated geneticist by training, says neither she nor Noor can claim to fully reflect the complexity across the district's five square miles.

"He looks like part of the district, and I look like part of the district," she said, adding, "It's a very complicated district."

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