Uber driver steps up to challenge Rep. Omar for 5th District seat

Haji Yussuf challenges Rep. Ilhan Omar in the 5th District election.
“I want to get to know everyone in this district. Every neighborhood, every corner, every street, everyone," Haji Yussuf said.
Courtesy of Haji For House

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and shares stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Joey Peters

A local Uber driver is making a longshot bid for the DFL nomination for Congress against Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Haji Yussuf, who previously founded a multilingual advertising agency and worked for the state of Minnesota, said Omar has lost touch with Minneapolis’ grassroots and is too focused on her role on the national and international stages.

“Most of her ideas are national ideas, the larger progressive movement ideas,” said Yussuf, 44. “She’s just repeating those. It’s not something unique that she has come up with.”

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He faces a steep battle in challenging Omar, who won 78 percent of the 5th District vote in her 2018 election, but he said he’d be more of a presence in the district than Omar is now.

“I want to get to know everyone in this district,” he said. “Every neighborhood, every corner, every street, everyone. If I get permission, I would love to [visit] every home.”

His campaign sign and his first internet ad are modeled after those of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, whom he credits with sparking his interest in politics nearly 20 years ago.

Yussuf’s platform includes speaking out on the burden of paying student loans, fixing “a planet on the edge” of environmental catastrophe and raising worker wages.

He said he’s still saddled with debt from his time as a student at St. Cloud State University in the mid-2000s. He explained how he recently quit his job at the Minnesota Department of Revenue to watch his children during the day because he and his wife, who works for a local mental health and chemical dependency treatment group, couldn’t afford child care.

Yussuf took a job with Uber during the evenings and nights. While driving for the company, he said he’s spoken with more than 250 people from across the city about what’s been affecting their lives. His Uber clients come from all walks of life, he said, including nurses, waiters and businesspeople.

“The issues are the same,” he said. “People want higher wages, access to health care, a better education system.”

During his campaign launch this weekend, Yussuf plans to introduce some of the people he met while driving for Uber.

Yussuf said some of his passengers were elders in the African diaspora who say Omar is not engaging with them.

“Sometimes they have little things that have to be done, like maybe their Social Security check document is missing,” he said. “The connection with individual people and communities, the representation of everyone in our community — that is what I feel she’s missing.”

But Yussuf also emphasized that he doesn’t want his campaign to be confrontational against Omar, whom he described as “a reflection of our 5th District.”

Omar is the most prominent Somali politician in the country, and the first elected to Congress. Like her, Yussuf is a Somali immigrant. He came to the United States from Kenya in 1999, first to Florida and soon to Minnesota.

“She is a mother, a sister, a friend — I consider her a friend,” he said of Omar. “I am not in favor of the attacks and the lies and the unnecessary bullying she receives every day. We should condemn them.”

A spokesperson for Omar’s reelection campaign declined to comment on Yussuf’s candidacy.

Yussuf has spent half his time in Minnesota living in Minneapolis and the other half in St. Cloud. He moved back to Minneapolis last year.

Also challenging Omar for the DFL nomination are Antone Melton-Meaux, Leila Shukri Adan and John Mason.