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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Swedish-American Historical Quarterly on my book “Scandinavians in the State House”

Here is a review of my book about the Scandinavian political legacy in Minnesota. It is written by Kevin Proescholdt, editor of the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, and published in January 2018, Vol. 69, No. 1.  

Bergman, Klas. Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics. Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017. 310 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, endnotes. ISBN: 978-1- 68134-030-2.

Minnesota is often referred to as the most Scandinavian of all the United States. Tens of thousands of immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland did indeed settle in Minnesota, and over time these immigrants exerted an enormous influence on the state, including its politics. Since 1892, for example, Minnesota has had twenty governors of Nordic descent. Between 1915 and 1976, every Minnesota governor was of Swedish or Norwegian descent except for one Finland- Swede and one Dane. And the numbers of these governors are dwarfed by the thousands of Nordics who have served in local and county positions and state legislative offices, across the state and through the decades. Two such Nordics from Minnesota have even served as vice president of the United States.

Klas Bergman’s Scandinavians in the State House tells the story of the Scandinavian influences in Minnesota politics, and how those influences have shaped, and continue to shape, Minnesota politics today. Far more than just a compilation of Scandinavians who were elected to offices in the state, and far more than an uncritical filiopietistic, cheer–for-our- own-ethnic-group portrayal, this book delves into the widely varying backgrounds of Scandinavians in Minnesota, and how that diversity of experiences helped create the rich and enduring influence on the politics of the state.

The book is arranged somewhat, but not strictly, chronologically. This deviation from a purely chronological arrangement allows the author to delve more deeply into topics that may not neatly fit a straight chronological pattern, topics such as “Radicals in Exile” or “Finns on the Range.”

The books begins in detail looking at the “four pioneers” in the state capitol, the first Scandinavians to be elected governor of Minnesota: Norwegian immigrant and Civil War veteran Knute Nelson in 1892, a Republican; Swedish-born John Lind in 1898, a Democrat; John A. Johnson, also a Democrat and son of Swedish immigrants, elected in 1904; and Adolph Olson Eberhart, also born in Sweden, and elected as a Republican in 1908. Though traditionally affiliated with the Republican Party, “the Scandinavian vote was far from monolithic,” even in these early years of gubernatorial success.

The cleavages among the Scandinavian voters were widened even further during the tumultuous years between the turn of the twentieth century and the end of World War I. The Nonpartisan League gained strength among Scandinavians during this time—especially in rural areas—and Swedish immigrant Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. (the father of the famous aviator) became a nationally recognized member of Congress from Minnesota and opponent of World War I. Lindbergh challenged Governor J. A. A. Burnquist (the son of Swedish immigrants) in the Republican primary for governor in 1918 amid the toxic politics of war-time repression and strident xenophobia, and eventually lost to Burnquist, splitting the Swedish vote mostly along urban-rural lines.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Radicals in Exile,” a chapter reprinted in the April 2017 issue of this journal. This chapter provides a nice counter-balance to the image of Swedish immigrants in Minnesota as pioneer farmers like Karl-Oskar from Vilhelm Moberg’s emigrant novels. The chapter follows the lives of three Swedes—Walfrid Engdahl, Carl Skoglund, and Walter Malte Frank—who had all been blacklisted in Sweden for participation in the General Strike of 1909 or for other labor activities, and were essentially forced to emigrate. Though none of the three was ever elected as governor, all three became active in Minnesota politics via such avenues as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), the Farmer-Labor Party (later the Demo- cratic-Farmer-Labor Party), the Socialist Party, or the Communist Party.

After World War II, the author writes of the emergence of the two modern political parties in Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, led by Nordic-American Hubert H. Humphrey; and a progressive Republican Party, a moderate and internationalist party shaped by the former “Boy Governor” Harold Stassen of German/ Czech/Norwegian descent. The author attributes much of the progressive nature of the state and its politics to the Scandinavian influences brought by the masses of Scandinavian immigrants who settled in the state and became involved with the state’s politics and public life.

Klas Bergman ends the book in a most interesting way. In the penultimate chapter, entitled “From Snoose Boulevard to Little Mogadishu,” he describes how Somali immigrants of today have taken a page from the playbook of the old Scandinavian immigrants in the south Minneapolis Sixth Ward. Once a stronghold of Scandinavian Americans, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and the broader Sixth Ward today have become a stronghold for Somali immigrants. Like their Scandinavian predecessors, the Somali immigrants have exerted their political power, and with growing success. In 2013, for example, Somali immigrant Abdi Warsame won an impressive victory over the incumbent city council member to represent the Sixth Ward on the City Council. In 2016 Ilhan Omar, a thirty-three-year-old Somali-American woman who had fled Somalia as a child, defeated a long-time DFL member of the state legislature, becoming the first Somali American elected to any state legislative office in the country. The Somali-American immigrants of today are following the same path to political office in the same neighborhoods that were blazed by the Scandinavian immigrants of a century or more ago.

There is much to recommend in Scandinavians in the State House. It is well researched (including citations of many articles from this Quarterly), well written and well documented, and the author conducted more than ninety interviews to supplement his meticulous research. It is a must-read for understanding the influence of Scandinavian Americans on the political life of Minnesota.

KEVIN PROESCHOLDT

EDITOR, SWEDISH-AMERICAN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

http://www.swedishamericanhist.org

 

 

First comments on my coming book about the Scandinavians in Minnesota politics

Here are some pre-publication comments about my book, “Scandinavians in the State House — How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics,” which will be out on April 15.

“Bergman has written an essential text on Minnesota politics. This is a rich, engaging, and thoroughly researched narrative of the strong Scandinavian imprint on the state’s public life—both past and present.”
Steven E. Schier, Congdon Professor of Political Science, Carleton College

“Well researched. Well written. Klas Bergman has made an important contribution not just to Minnesota’s history but to understanding the extraordinary role immigrants have played in defining the American dream.”
Arne Helge Carlson, Governor of Minnesota, 1991–99

“They were farmers, miners, and laborers. They were Republicans and radicals. They were pastors, poets, and politicians. They were the men and women of Scandinavia who came to Minnesota in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and gave their adopted homeland a distinctive, highly participatory civic culture. With rich detail, Klas Bergman tells a truly epic saga, inseparable from the story of Minnesota itself.
Lori Sturdevant, editorial writer and columnist, Star Tribune

“Klas Bergman vividly explains the historic migration of people, politics, religion, and culture from Scandinavia to key roles in the political life of the North Star State. The book is a timely reminder of the ongoing importance of immigration to America’s civic life.”
Tom Berg, author of Minnesota’s Miracle: Learning from the Government That Worked

“Whether you are a casual observer or a serious student of Minnesota’s political history, Klas Bergman’s book should be on your ‘must read’ list.”
Roger Moe, Minnesota Senate majority leader, 1981–2003

“Minnesota has sure been molded and shaped by Scandinavians in governing positions. I am proud and respectful of all of them and their service to our great state . . . even the Scandinavians that I might disagree with!”
Steve Sviggum, Minnesota House speaker, 1998–2006

“Scandinavians in the State House reinforces just how powerful Nordic immigrants were in the development of what I call Minnesota Exceptionalism, our distinctively progressive character and a communitarian political culture. Bergman not only provides rich new detail on the full extent of that influence and dominance, but he also is respectful of our newest immigrants, who are bringing their own energy and political leadership to the path the Scandinavians blazed.”
Dane Smith, President, Growth & Justice

A voice of hope and optimism from Minnesota

R.T. Rybak, the former long-time mayor of Minneapolis, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and CEO and president of the Minneapolis Foundation,  lends a voice of hope and optimism to these otherwise dark days in America.  Let’s hope he is right. Here he is, on his Facebook page:

“My heart sank Friday as I walked down Pennsylvania Av in Washington and saw a giant reviewing stand had been built in front of the White House. Eight years ago this is where I was so filled with pride when I saw our new President Barack Obama, and his family, as they were about to enter their new home. Knowing it was now about to house Donald Trump was almost more than I could take.
I felt so hollow when I thought about all we have had, and what we will lose. But something really wonderful happened next and I hope it gives hope to those of you who love President Obama as much as I do:
I went through security into the White House because the President invited me in to come by for a few minutes before he left office. I turned the corner to the Oval Office to see him looking more energized than he has in months, and with that huge smile on this face that has lifted so many of us so many times.
I gave him a copy of my book, told him that now that he’s mastered this POTUS gig he was ready for the big time as a Mayor. Then I handed him a note from my wife Megan O’Hara recalling what it felt like nine years ago when we stood in the Des Moines Convention Center, just after he won the Iowa caucus, and the announcer said: “And now the next First Family of the United States of America.”
I was really overwhelmed as I was telling him that because it was such a moment of pride, a beginning of a long path to him getting to the White House and, now it was over. He put his arm on my shoulder and looked at me intensely, saying, “We aren’t done yet.”
I wish I could have bottled the look in his eyes so all the people I know, and don’t, who feel dishearten now, who are so fearful of what comes next, and who feel a sense of loss, know he is absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to stop fighting for what we believe in.
“I’m going to take a little vacation,” he said, “get a little sun, but then we are right back at it. ”
He told me about the work he will be doing on youth and families, on getting more people engaged in voting, on protecting liberties. Then he said the words that meant the most to me: “The best is yet to come.”
I believe Barack Obama was the greatest President of my lifetime, but as I heard him talk, I remembered he is about more than political office. At so many times—his amazing speech about race in the first campaign, his powerful words after Sandy Hook, his second inaugural when laid out the imperative of attacking climate change—he has moved us beyond politics to elevate our values. This is his great opportunity now; just as America faces a crisis of values, a great debate about who we really are at our core, he will be speaking not as just a politician, but as a moral leader. In many ways we need that even more today than great politicians.
In the couple minutes we had left we talked about what I am learning in my own evolution from political to civic leader; about what you can and can’t do in and out of office, and how much can be done if each of your statements aren’t filtered through the cynicism people have for politicians.
We said goodbye and I walked out of the White House, past that reviewing stand, but didn’t feel the same sense of dread. Donald Trump will be my President and I won’t try to delegitimize him even though many, including Trump, tried to do that to Obama for eight years. But we can fight for what we believe, and fight back, hard, when we see something wrong. And, remembering that look in the President’s eye when he told me, “We aren’t done yet”, and remembering all we have seen during his remarkable Presidency, I know he will be with us every step.
Later that night Megan and I went to a farewell party at the White House. I talked to Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan who has gone back to Chicago to work on youth violence prevention, to former Attorney General Eric Holder who is organizing opposition to unfair redistricting around the country, former White House political director and Ambassador Patrick Gaspard who is working on citizen engagement with George Soros, Gabby Giffords is fighting the gun violence that robbed her and so many others of so much, activist actors like Alfre Woodard who has been through waves of social movements saying she’s now ready for the next phase. Obama has been a President but Obama is also a movement that isn’t done on Jan 20.
Back in 2007, when I was working with activists around the country in the Draft Obama campaign, I wrote a blog on a national website saying: “Barack Obama is a great man but this is not about him. It’s about setting off a movement.” The next day he called my office, said that’s the way he saw it, that he was community organizer who wanted to light the spark, and he recruited me to volunteer for what was then a long-shot campaign. I still feel that way, and it’s clear he does, too.
And after those few wonderful minutes with him as he gets ready to leave office, I feel, like him, that “the best is yet to come.”

Thank you, Bob

It was, indeed, a special moment this week, when the country of my birth awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in literature, for he has been a constant companion ever since my student days in California in the 1960s. It was special, it was even grand.

Now, I’ll leave that up to others, and they have been many, to go into the literary merits of Dylan’s songs and poetry, like the Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of the excellent book, “Bob Dylan in America,” who said to the Washington Post:

“We are honoring a great literary figure of our time…He has taken the lyric form, as old as Homer, and raised it to an entirely new level, a level that stands with the highest literature that the West has produced. Period.”

Like in “Mr Tambourine Man…”

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

It’s beautiful and I must have listened to Dylan sing it a thousand times without ever getting tired of it.  I could mention many others, “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Red River Shore,” and on and on…They have all been a constant joy in my life.  In fact, life would have been different without them.

Thank you Bob.

Why didn’t I know about The Tragically Hip?

Sometimes I wonder what I have done and where I have been. It struck me again this morning, as I read articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post about the last concert in the farewell tour of The Tragically Hip, Canada’s premier band, led by the country’s “unofficial poet laureate,” Gord Downie.

Downie is dying of incurable brain cancer, and this was his and his band’s last concert, in their home town of Kingston, Ontario. “Dear World,” the Toronto police tweeted just before the last concert, “Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 pm. Have a #Tragically Hip day.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there, because the band is “an inevitable and essential part of what we are and who we are as a country.”

The Tragically Hip has been around for 30 years and has come to define our northern neighbor’s cultural identity, but they never became big in the United States, and I had never heard of them until this morning. Although I consider myself well-informed and well-read, I am sure this says a lot about me, but it also says something about America, “one of the loudest neighbors in the world,” as one Canadian told the NYT, “the elephant in your bed,” as Justin Trudeau’s predecessor and father, Pierre Trudeau, once said about his big neighbor to the south.

America sucks you in, takes over, dominates, and although the leading newspapers are not without coverage of the rest of the world, including Canada, it all somehow becomes secondary in this often introvert super power. This seems particularly true during this year’s presidential election campaign. I am following it closely, although it has gone on too long and its end cannot come soon enough, and the choice is clear.  More later.

Meanwhile, I will dig into The Tragically Hip. I want to know more. I think I will like them.

From “Vision of Peace” to “Spoonbridge and Cherry” on the Green Line in the Twin Cities

VisionofPeace2During my latest visit to Minnesota, I jumped on the Green Line, the splendid, new street car line in the Twin Cities, that ties together Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

It cost me 75 cents, a real bargain, for an almost hour-long trip from behind the splendid Saint Paul train depot to Target Field, Minneapolis baseball stadium. At both ends, as I continued my search for Minnesota’s Scandinavian legacy, I found two remarkable pieces of art, both made by Swedish immigrants, which have become iconic symbols of each city.

In Saint Paul’s City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse’s Memorial Hall stands Carl Milles’s “Vision of Peace.” Unveiled in 1936, it drew on a Native American ceremony that Milles, who was born in Sweden but spent most of his adult life in America before he returned and, in 1955, died in Sweden, had once witnessed in Oklahoma. Milles originally called it the “Indian God of Peace,” but it was renamed “Vision of Peace” at a special ceremony in 1994 involving the major Minnesota Native American tribes. It’s made of white Mexican onyx, is 36 feet tall, and weighs 60 tons. It fills the hall and is truly magnificent.Green Line

At the other end of the line, after an enjoyable, albeit a bit slow, ride past the State Capitol and along eclectic University Boulevard with auto dealers, supermarkets, the excellent Midway Used Bookstore, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, the Finn/Sisu store for cross country skis, and everything else you might want to find, the street car meanders through the University of Minnesota campus, over the Mississippi River and past the quickly rising Minnesota Vikings football stadium, into downtown Minneapolis and its “Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg and his Dutch born wife  Coosje van Bruggen. The sculpture is located in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden next to the Walker Art Center and it is just as fun to see in winter as in summer.

SpoonandCherryOldenburg came to America as a young boy and grew up in Chicago, where his father was Sweden’s consul general. He and his wife, who died in 2009, created the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in the mid-1980s.

Like Milles’s “Vision of Peace” in Saint Paul, it dominates the surroundings as it lies there right in the middle of the Sculpture Garden with the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. And like with Milles, Oldenburg’s work of art has become a icon in the Twin Cities and it is, of course, yet another example of Minnesota’s Scandinavian connection.