The Somali breakthrough in Minnesota politics

The Somali immigrant community in Minnesota, the center of the Somali diaspora in the United States, has been nibbling for years at entering the state’s politics. Heavily concentrated in central Minneapolis, in the old Scandinavian neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, their first political success came in 2010 on the city’s school board, followed, in 2013, when a Somali immigrant was elected to the city council, and then, in 2016, when a Somali woman handily beat a long-time incumbent to get elected to the State Legislature.

These new Americans political success had come slowly and over a number of years, but last night’s primary election results in Minnesota were the definitive breakthrough of the Somali immigrant population in the state’s politics.

Not only did Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee woman, who came to American when she was eight years old, win the Democratic primary for a seat  in the US House of Representatives, but her seat in the State Legislature will be filled by a fellow countryman, Mohamud Noor.   They both handily won their Democratic primaries, Omar capturing 48 per cent of the vote and beating the experienced former Speaker of the State House, and Noor winning with 40 percent of the vote. Both of them will represent heavily Democratic districts, and there is little doubt that they will be elected in November.

The Somali election victories are truly historic and they underscore the fact that the Somalis are in Minnesota politics to stay. These first victorious Somali politicians are all first generation immigrants, born in the old country and arriving in America at various ages. As they settled in central Minneapolis, the neighborhood that used to be heavily Scandinavian and called “Snoose Boulevard” the area became known as “Little Mogadishu.” And just like the Scandinavian immigrants before them, these new Somali immigrants sought political clout using their ethnic concentration in the center of the city.

(For more on this, please see my book, Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics. Minnesota Historical Society Press)

But what is new, as Ibrahim Hirsi recently wrote on the Minnesota news site, MinnPost, and what he called a “milestone,” is that there now is a second generation Somali-Americans, born in America — “Somalis without the accent” — entering Minnesota politics. 28-year-old Omar Fateh, born in Washington, DC, is one of them, and he is like all the other Somali-American political candidates, well-educated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees,

But last night, Fateh only came in third in the State House District 62A, south of downtown Minneapolis. He was narrowly beaten by two other Somali-Americans competing in the Democratic primary, which was won by Hodan Hassan, a clinical worker, immigrant and a single mom. In a tight race, she captured 28 percent of the vote, beating also another Somali immigrant, Osman Ahmed, long active in Minnesota politics.

As the American-born political generation is starting to knock on the door, the first foreign-born Somali generation clearly still have political clout. But the fact that a new generation seems to stand ready to take over is a most encouraging sign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yes, indeed, it’s an astonishing political turn for the Republican Party

No issue is more important in American politics right now than to get a complete picture of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S elections.

But, instead, as the prominent, conservative, foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan writes in the Washington Post today, the Republican Party, traditionally hard-line anti-Soviet and anti-Communist, is “astonishingly” running interference for Russia and is becoming Putin’s accomplices by its actions, or, rather, inactions, on the vital question of Russia’s role in the elections.

This question is a national security issue, according to Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and it is “essential to get a full picture” of what Russia did and is capable of doing well before this year’s European elections and the 2018 mid-term elections here in the United States.

“It’s time for the (Republican) party to put national security above partisan interest…The stakes are too high for politics as usual,” Kagan concludes.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/republicans-are-becoming-russias-accomplices/2017/03/06/8616c2f4-027a-11e7-ad5b-d22680e18d10_story.html?utm_term=.d62e989c8ff2

A tragedy, and an uncertain future, but not the end

Well, I tried, as did over 59 million American voters, but Donald Trump was not to be stopped.

The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, one of my favorite American journalists, called the election, “An American tragedy” — a triumph for “nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”

Trump’s victory is a victory for the old America and a rejection of the past eight years under Barack Obama. It’s a big step backwards, away from the America of freedom, openness, and multiculturalism that had brought millions of immigrants, like me, to its shores.

Not only did Trump improbably win the White House, but the Republican Party held on to its majorities in the Senate and the House. The political results will come swiftly: Merrick Garland, nominated many months ago by Obama to the Supreme Court will never become a member of the Court, whose conservative majority is now guaranteed for years to come. The Affordable Care Act could be abolished and the fate of those twenty million with new health insurance is unknown. The future of the nuclear deal with Iran is highly uncertain. “Get ready for a rough ride,” writes Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus.

Still, this is not the end of America. The political forces, from Trump himself and other Republicans to President Obama and Hillary Clinton, have all quickly urged the coming together to ensure the peaceful transition of power. We are Americans first, patriots first, said Obama. “We all want what’s best for the country.” Tomorrow, he will receive Trump in the White House.

For the anti-Trump forces, for the losing side, there are some silver linings in the dark clouds. Hillary Clinton won the plurality of the vote, 59,679 million to 59,472 million for Trump. But she lost the all-important Electoral College vote, failing to reach the magical number of 270. And that’s really all that counts. That’s happened before, most recently in 2000, when Al Gore won the plurality of votes but still lost the election to George W. Bush. It’s time to do away with this antiquate election system and elect America’s president on the basis of how many votes he/she gets.

California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont belong to the group of states where Clinton captured over 60 percent of the vote, followed by New York State with 59 percent, Washington State 56, and Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island 55. In Washington, DC, almost 93 percent of the voters supported Clinton. For Trump, Wyoming gave him his largest victory margin with 70 percent of the vote, followed by West Virginia 69, Oklahoma, 65, North Dakota, 64, Alabama and Kentucky 63, and Tennessee 61 percent.

It was urban vs. rural, the two coasts vs. the heartland. The election shows a country split down the middle, more divided than anyone had realized.

The Democrats failed to capture the majority in the U.S. Senate but they had some success by electing three new, female, senators: Kamala Harris, California, Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada, and Tammy Duckworth, Illinois, an Indian/African-American, a Latina, and a Thai-American. Maryland has a new U.S. Senator, Democrat Chris Van Hollen — my former Congressman — who, in turn, was succeeded by Jamie Raskin, also a progressive Democrat.

In Minnesota, which I have followed closely a few years, Clinton squeaked through with 46.8 percent of the vote, or 43,000 votes, but the Republicans increased their majority in the State House and captured the majority in the State Senate. Democratic governor Mark Dayton’s two remaining years in office will not be easy. Minnesota also elected the first Somali American to the State Legislature. 34-year-old Ilhan Omar, who came to America as a child after years in a refugee camp, captured 81 percent of the vote in her Minneapolis district and became not only the first Somali-American legislator in Minnesota, but in all of America. That’s not Trump’s America, but it is my America.

 

A happy Labor Day, after all…

As an immigrant and a recent citizen, I will cast my first presidential vote in November. I have looked forward to this for quite a while although this sad, even depressing, campaign hasn’t been the kind of campaign that I had hoped for. And my choice is clear: Hillary Clinton — Trump’s America is not my America.

Today, on Labor Day, I realized that all is not doom and gloom. At the traditional Labor Day Parade in Kensington, the next town over from my home town of Silver Spring in the Maryland suburbs just north of Washington, DC, thousands had come out in the beautiful weather. There was excitement and optimism in the air; good people are running for office, among them my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate to succeed retiring Barbara Mikulski, and State Senator Jamie Raskin, also a Democrat, who is trying to succeed Van Hollen in the U.S. House of Representatives. Their campaigns are important parts of this year’s overall political campaign and their outcomes are almost as important as the race for the White House in determining what kind of America we will have after November.

Van Hollen and Raskin

Van Hollen and Raskin both handily won their respective Democratic primaries in April and their victories in November, although not guaranteed, of course, are highly likely in this Democratic state. Van Hollen, the son of a foreign service officer, was born in Karachi, Pakistan. A progressive with lots of foreign policy experience and knowledge, he has been in Congress since 2003 — the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, and part of the Democratic leadership team. Raskin, a law professor at the local American University, has been in the State Senate since 2006, where he has been a leading voice on many liberal issues: marriage equality, repeal of the death penalty, gun control, climate change, medical marijuana, campaign finance reform.

They are smart and hard-working and their hearts are in the right place. They will be great additions to the U.S. Congress, which, god knows, needs all the help it can get.

Scalia’s death raises the stakes but also the question of reforms

The presidential election campaign all of a sudden got more contentious, more exciting, and more important with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative on the Court.

The voters on November 8 will now decide not only who occupies the White House after President Obama, and who controls the U.S. Congress, but also who, conservatives or liberals, will control the third branch of the American political system, the Supreme Court.

With Scalia gone, the Court is tied, 4 – 4, between conservative and liberal justices. An Obama appointment would almost certainly swing the Court to a liberal majority and, for the first time since 1972, the justices appointed by Democratic presidents would outnumber those appointed by Republican presidents. The change would be monumental.

The Republicans in the Senate led by majority leader Mitch McConnell have instantly made it clear that they have no intention to consider an Obama nominee, no what who that is. The decision to appoint Scalia’s replacement should be made by the next president. But Obama is not elected to a three-year but to a four-year term. He has almost a year left in office and he has, rightly, declared that he intends to nominate a new justice. So we are in for a big fight, a complicating, new factor in an election campaign already fraught with uncertainty and tension.

McConnell, who famously said during Obama’s first term that his primary political goal was to make sure that Obama was not reelected now wants to deny the president, who has already appointed two new high court justices, the chance to appoint a third. McConnell’s stern “no” could have serious election implications for the Republicans and their goal to keep their Senate majority, as NYT’s Nate Cohn outlines. We’ll see how this plays out.

The death of Scalia is also an important reminder of how totally unpredictable the system of appointing Supreme Court justices is. It’s time to change what’s been, rightly, called an undemocratic system by doing away with life time appointments and create more orderly nomination procedures with term limits and a retirement age. In Minnesota, to which I presently spend a lot of attention, the retirement age for the state’s highest court is 70. That’s a bit young, maybe, but why not 75? And why not a 20-year term limit? Or both?

Sadly, such reforms are seldom part of the American political dialogue. They should be, particularly as the politicization of the Supreme Court shows no signs of abating.

Nordic pragmatism as a recipe for success

The Nordic countries, those up there at the top of Europe often called Scandinavia — Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway — came out on top of all the countries in the world in the Fragile States Index for 2014 published the other day.

Finland came out at the very top, the only country described as “very sustainable,” with Sweden, Denmark and Norway as the top three “sustainable” countries of the world, with Iceland, the fifth Nordic, in eighth place, and with the United States on twentieth place, part of a lower group of “stable” nations.

What do these five nations in northern Europe have in common? They are democracies with clean governments and a highly educated population. They value stability, common sense and results.

Maybe this can explain, at least in part, the unusual “December Accord” — even for Scandinavia — last Saturday, when six of the eight political parties in the Swedish parliament came together and cancelled a snap election scheduled for March and instead worked out a deal under which the minority government of Social Democrats and Greens, only three months old, will be able to govern, albeit on the basis of a budget hammered out by the four opposition parties.

The accord has not been well received by a number of different reasons, both on the left and on the right. But it did avoid a dreaded snap election, a seldom used ingredient in Swedish politics — 1958 was the last time that happened. The next Parliamentary election will now be the ordinary election in 2018.

The “December Accord” also served to continue to hold the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats on the far right at arms length, not including them in any deal, keeping them out of any government, and preventing them from dictating the composition and policies of the Swedish government.

As so many times before in the modern era, the Swedish politicians came together in a serious political crisis, “came to their senses,” as the leading newspaper Dagens Nyheter put it the other day. It was pragmatism for the good of the country, to achieve stability, get results, avoid chaos.  Here is the latest main editorial for those who can read Swedish!

Maybe this overarching pragmatism is the secret behind the success of those small Nordic countries, and a recipe for success for others? Maybe there is even something that those fighting forces in the U.S. Congress can learn from all this? Maybe, as I said.

We are reminded again: Torture is torture. Period.

The U.S. Senate’s torture report is out, and that was a good day for America. But it underlined  once again that America “lost its way”during those dark years after 9/11, as Eric Lichtau wrote in his book Bush’s Law – The Remaking of American Justice.

“This is not how Americans should behave. Ever,” says today’s main editorial in the Washington Post.

So, to talk about whether these “enhanced interrogation techniques” worked or not is completely irrelevant.

“Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked,'”  the Post adds. Exactly.

“Only fools” discuss whether illegal actions “work,” wrote Slate Magazine’s legal commentator Dahlia Lithwick some time ago. Exactly, again.

But, as Lithwick also wrote, they “got away with it:” Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and his staff member Jose Rodriguez, who destroyed video tapes of the torture sessions.

Now, what? Probably nothing, unfortunately.

Congress, controlled by the Republicans after the new year, will not touch this. And President Obama, who started out so well and in his first weeks as president in 2009 shut down CIA’s secret prisons, prohibited the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and he promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, also said no to all investigations, no prosecutions and no indictments, no truth and reconciliation commission like in South Africa after apartheid, no to a commission report like the one after 9/11. Nothing.

Was he wishing it would all go away? It hasn’t. The prison in Guantanamo Bay is still open and now the torture debate is back with a vengeance.

It was a “horrible decision” by Obama to close the books on this chapter of of our history, writes the New York Times today, describing the whole report as a “portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach.” And, it “raises again, with renewed power, the question of why no one has ever been held accountable for these crimes.”

Exactly, yet again.