Voters weigh Omar vs. Melton-Meaux as primary approaches

A photo collage of Ilhan Omar and Antone Melton-Meaux.
As primary election day neared, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s main rival Antone Melton-Meaux reacted to a campaign finance complaint while Omar highlighted her ties to her district. Voters are divided in the most expensive primary campaign in the state.
Left: Judy Griesedieck for MPR News 2018 | Right: Courtesy of Antone For Congress file

Antone Melton-Meaux, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's main DFL primary challenger, said Wednesday that a newly filed campaign finance complaint against him is "frivolous." 

The Minnesota DFL Party filed the complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that Melton-Meaux’s campaign skirted federal laws by helping to establish shell campaign work vendors so the money he paid them would be difficult to track.

Flanked by supporters, Melton-Meaux told reporters his campaign had nothing to do with setting up vendors, and instead has done only legitimate business with the companies the state DFL Party is calling into question.

"What this really is, frankly, is a desperate attempt by the DFL to resurrect Congresswoman Omar's campaign that is falling apart,” he said. “That's what this is."

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The complaint came less than a week before the Aug. 11 primary and is not likely to be investigated by the time the voting is over.

Omar held her own event Wednesday to highlight her ties to her district. She rejected the notion that DFL had to step in to help her.

"The party didn't do anything to benefit me. The party did what they think is right,” Omar said. “My colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spent $6.5 million in her reelection bid and she won by 50 points. We do the work — not only to win an election but to organize our base to be sure that people understand what we are fighting for.”

Whoever wins the DFL primary will be on the ballot as the Democratic candidate in November. The district has been a safe one for Democrats, who have held the congressional seat for well over half a century. 

Four Democrats are challenging Omar for the DFL nomination, but Melton-Meaux is the one Omar is taking most seriously. He has raised more money than Omar and has been running a lot of ads, contending that Omar is more focused on her celebrity than on the needs of the people she represents. And as the primary race approaches the end, voters are split on who to pick to go on to the November ballot.

A man speaks at a microphone with a crowd behind him.
Congressional candidate Antone Melton-Meaux answers question during a press conference in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Omar achieved celebrity status even before she was elected to Congress, and as a member of the “squad’ of first-term female Democrats in Congress has become a target for Republicans, including President Donald Trump who has called her “an America-hating socialist.”

Phoebe Ruona, who will vote in the 5th District DFL primary, agreed that Omar is not the best choice.

“It was like she wanted the spotlight all of the time,” Ruona said. “She reminds me of a little Trump.”

Ruona has a Melton-Meaux “Focused on the 5th” campaign sign in her south Minneapolis yard. She said she also sent Melton-Meaux a $100 campaign contribution. After reviewing Melton-Meaux’s credentials, she concluded he’s a better choice than Omar or any of the other DFL challengers, Ruona said.

“He seemed to be level and he seemed to be really, I don’t know, smart and the kind of person I would trust to be my congressman,” Ruona said.

Omar has been defending her time in Washington and arguing that 5th District Democrats appreciate the national voice she gives to issues of racial and economic justice.

A man in a hat stands in front of a lake.
Joe Watters says he supports Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Joe Watters, who lives in the uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, is backing Omar.

“She has brought international attention to herself, but I feel it’s for all the right reasons,” Watters said.

“I know that, as a newcomer, she was supposed to stay in her lane, if you will, and she did not and that offends people. That’s too bad. She gets things done and I respect that.”

Watters called Melton-Meaux a “good man,” but said he thinks Trump supporters far from Minnesota are backing him only because they want to knock Omar off the national stage.

“I have received more campaign literature opposing her, negative attacks, than I have ever seen,” Watters said.

The vast majority campaign of contributions to both Omar and Melton-Meaux have come from outside of Minnesota.

Both Omar and Melton-Meaux have long lists of endorsements from well-known Democrats. Former three-term Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels is backing Melton-Meaux. He thinks Melton-Meaux would be more collaborative than Omar.

A man in a mask stands in front of a store.
Former three-term Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels is backing Melton-Meaux. He thinks Melton-Meaux would be more collaborative than Rep. Ilhan Omar and more open to listening to other people's ideas.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“She’s too polarizing," Samuels said, pointing to comments Omar, who is Muslim, has made about Israel and Jews. Early in her term Omar issued a public apology after party leaders criticized her use of antisemitic tropes and suggestion that U.S. lawmakers who support Israel do so because of campaign contributions.

"If he can negotiate, collaborate and see a little bit of virtue in the other side and more towards the center together then, yeah, he would be an improvement," Samuels said of Melton-Meaux.

The other Democrats challenging Omar in the primary are Les Lester, Daniel Patrick McCarthy and John Mason. 

Mason said he thinks Omar has drawn so much opposition because much of what she promotes is far-reaching and uncompromising rather than achievable.

“What we need is progressive leadership,” Mason said. “But from a person that’s actually going to accomplish, not just talk about, the issues.”