Early voting is already underway in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District DFL primary, scheduled for Aug. 11. Incumbent Rep. Ilhan Omar is facing four challengers, but one in particular is garnering national attention.
Antone Melton-Meaux, a relative political newcomer, is a mediation lawyer who has lined up endorsements from leading civil rights activists and prominent figures in the local business and legal community.
He raised an eye-popping $3.2 million from April to June, several times more than Omar’s $471,000. Both candidates are receiving support from well outside of Minnesota.
MPR News host Cathy Wurzer is speaking with both front-runners in the race this week. Here is an edited transcript of her conversation with Melton-Meaux. Click on the player above to hear the full interview.
Your ads allude to Omar's national stature, saying you won't "be chasing cameras or selling books." She has an international profile in part because she is a pioneer — the first woman of color in the Minnesota congressional delegation, one of the first of two Muslim women to serve in Congress. I know you voted for her. When did your view of her sour?
It was a combination of things over time. First, when I heard of the really hurtful tropes that she made towards the Jewish community, that troubled me deeply. And then, I saw that she was missing votes, and not just a few, but quite a few votes. And then lastly, when she did not condemn the Armenian genocide in the fall of last year, to me that was a really unacceptable vote.
The congresswoman, unfortunately, has embraced kind of the divisive politics — the toxicity — of Washington, really based upon ideological purity tests. And people are frankly tired of that, because what happens is nothing gets done in Washington.
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Your political experience is limited. What would you do for the district that Omar has not?
I have worked on the Hill. I was a Congressional Black Caucus fellow in the 90s. And I worked for Donna Brazile, who actually became the chair of the DNC, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. In my work there, I did housing and early education legislation. And what I learned from that experience is seeing how Donna and Eleanor did their work. They were strong voices, but they understood the power of collaborations, partnerships, getting things done.
You have raised millions from well outside the district for the campaign, and much of that coming from pretty large, well-heeled donors. Here’s what a couple of the other candidates in the race against you and Omar, John Mason and Les Lester, have to say.
Mason: When I'm looking at that, and then hearing the words of, you know, ‘I'm a progressive and I'm for the people the 5th, and I'm focusing on the 5th.’ Well, it puts into question, what is he focusing on? Because the people are the 5th, that's not who we are.
Lester: Right, and that's one of my main concerns is that Antone would not be independent in Washington because he's being backed by special interest groups.
What's your response to those two gentlemen?
Well, first, I would encourage Mr. Mason to actually read my platform. What he'll see is a very strong progressive platform focused on universal health care, focused on addressing our climate crisis, focused on making sure that we have quality and accessible, affordable housing. And these are the things that I have held as beliefs my entire life. I've been working in issues of LGBTQA for 20 years. When the first laws in the country to represent inmates in the process of gender transition — I fought for their constitutional rights to do so.
But you are being backed by some pretty powerful special interest groups. You said recently that donations received from the Jewish community won't influence your policy decisions, but you walked that back in an interview last week with the Jewish News Syndicate. What's your true stance there?
I just want be clear about this. It's important that we don't conflate the Jewish community here with issues of influence in Israel. That is a longstanding undercurrent that is harmful to the Jewish community. And I stand against that. That's why I walked it back. It wasn't right for me to do that. And I apologize for that. And that's what leaders should do.
But let me also say this: the support that we've gotten from Pro-Israel America is consistent with their principle of supporting nonpartisan candidates. They've given to both Democrats and Republicans. These include our very own Sen. Tina Smith, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and even Joe Biden.
You've also been under some criticism for an op-ed piece you wrote back in 2015 on Black Lives Matter. You criticized activists for some of the anti-police chants that they were using. Do you stand by that article?
One hundred percent. It was an expression of love and support for Black Lives Matter. I'm a Black man that's grown up and lived in this country. And I myself had interactions, difficult ones, with a police officer. I was, as a law student, detained by two white officers for three hours. And they try to coerce me into admitting to a crime that there was no way that I could commit. And I stood my ground and I demanded to be released. But I'm no fool. But for a few circumstances, that could have been a knee on my back. So I take the issue of police brutality and misconduct very seriously.
I also believe that it's important for the movement to not say and do things that undermine the movement, and the chant that was made there was a chant about violence towards police officers. And I said what I believed then, and I believe now, that that was a chant that harms the movement.
There are folks who think that the Minneapolis Police Department and other police departments across the country should be defunded. Omar has been a vocal supporter of replacing the MPD with some kind of a new public safety agency. Where do you think the path forward is with that issue?
Very tragically, we have policed and criminalized homelessness. We have police and criminalized mental health crises. We can't do that any longer. We have to take those resources from the police function and move them to supportive community services. But, for me, we have to have a police. People need to feel safe in their homes, in their communities, in their businesses. I've talked to residents in north Minneapolis. I've talked to East African business owners on Lake Street. And they have a deep concern that they won't be protected when they need the police to show up.