Rep. Omar on 5th District reelection bid: ‘I’ve been a coalition builder’

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar smiles at a podium on stage.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks at a Medicare for All Town Hall at Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2019

DFL candidates for Minnesota's 5th Congressional District are scheduled to debate Friday afternoon on WCCO Radio. The five-way race has become a fierce contest between the two front-runners, incumbent Rep. Ilhan Omar and political newcomer Antone Melton-Meaux.

The DFL-endorsed candidate in the race is Omar, who has garnered an international profile after becoming the first Somali American, Muslim woman elected to Congress.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with both frontrunners in the race this week. You can find her conversation with Melton-Meaux here.

Below is an edited transcript of her conversation with Rep. Omar. Click on the player above to hear the interview.

As I mentioned, I spoke with your challenger yesterday, and one of his key pitches to voters is that he would be more collaborative, more effective in getting things done. Here's what he had to say about you.

Melton-Meaux: 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.

What's your response to that representative?

That is laughable because, you know, as someone who's running one of the most divisive campaigns that has ever been run in our district, talk about division and toxicity is really surprising. And secondly, I would say, you know, I've been a coalition builder. I am a coalition builder. This is why I lead the delegation in amendments passed, in bills introduced. And this is why we've had the support of people who I don't often agree with on everything — as he says, ideologically pure, even though I think that's called having values. People like Speaker Pelosi and Speaker Hortman endorsing our campaign because they know we show up, we do the hard work.

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You've run into criticism for making inflammatory remarks about Israel. Your opponent has gotten big money from pro-Israel groups and donors. Is it too late for you to repair damage with the Jewish community?

I have tremendous support from my Jewish constituents. You've probably read an open letter that hundreds signed on. I have tremendous relationships with my Jewish colleagues. There are organizations that don't endorse in primary races and we clearly have their support, otherwise they would have endorsed our opponent. And to me, it's not a surprise. There is a handful of people who believe in the inherent right of Palestinians to have a dignified and humane existence, and all of them are being massively challenged in their primaries.

Let's talk about the money, your use of campaign funds to pay your now-husband's campaign consulting firm, even after you disclosed your relationship. Do you think it's ethical to be using campaign contributions to pay your spouse?

I don't pay my spouse. What I pay for –

You pay his firm, though.

–  is services. I pay the firm to do services and pay our vendors. This is a firm that employs 20 people who touch our account, and does the work on our behalf with multiple vendors who are sending our direct mail, who are running our digital advertising. So that's where that million dollars goes. You can see when you look at my expenditures exactly where every single dollar goes.

But do you not see a conflict of interest in using your husband's firm?

Absolutely not. Our relationship with the firm stems from their relationship with Keith. Will Hailer was a longtime campaign manager for Keith Ellison. He's somebody who understands and has deep fluency in the ways in which we do campaigns ethically in the 5th. And I trust his judgment and I trust his ability to know what mailers need to go out, what digital ads need to be run, and how we build a grassroots coalition that delivers.

One issue that I talked to your opponent about that's also top of mind for voters in the 5th District is policing. You support the City Council plan to disband and replace the department entirely. Walk us through that.

Yeah, actually, surprisingly, it was one that our opponent tweeted about, supported, and then deleted. That's not what leaders do. Leaders have a vision and they make that vision available to their constituents. And for me, we're looking at a police department that has a credibility crisis, a department that has now lost the relationships with other institutions that it would work with, and has lost, frankly, the trust of many of the people they're supposed to protect and serve. And so I am with the Minneapolis City Council in their belief that this particular department needs to be dismantled and that we do need to reimagine what public safety should look like in our communities. Resources need to be honed in, in addressing our mental health crisis and substance abuse. We have to stop policing poverty, and go about the process of bringing our community together to think about what it means for every single person to feel safe and to feel served.

You are a first-term incumbent and in any new situation, you learn an awful lot. What, if anything, would you have done differently in your first term?

Well, in our first term, we actually had the first office to open in the freshman class to provide constituent services. And our understanding was always that we represented the most engaged district in the country, not just the most progressive, and we believed that our constituents were coming to our town halls, were hearing all of the amazing work we were doing on their behalf. And we find ourselves defending our record. And so I've learned that more needed to be communicated, and more of that information needed to get to our constituents, even as we did our Congress In Your Corner across every single corner of the district. It still seems as if we didn't get that information out to everyone, and I look forward to making an adjustment in that.