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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Minnesota professor on my book “Scandinavians in the State House”

Here is a review of my book on the political legacy of the Scandinavians in Minnesota. It is written by Paul C. Stone, long-time professor of history at the University of Minnesota, and was published in the spring issue of “Minnesota History.” 

Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics
Klas Bergman
(St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017, 312 p., Paper, $19.95.)

Roughly halfway into Klas Bergman’s comprehensive study of Nordic influence in the public life of Minnesota, the reader comes across a telling yet not surprising passage:

In a 1975 interview with Norwegian national radio, [Walter] Mondale was asked if his Norwegian ancestry influenced his political views: his answer was yes. He said he believed in education, good economic policies that create jobs, good health care, and protecting the environment, and some of this stems from those Norwegian roots. And in Minnesota, “while it is not necessary to be of Scandinavian background, I think Minnesotans feel very comfortable with leaders of Scandinavian background.”

Mondale’s answer is both a paragon of Scandinavian understatement and a telescopic view into a key component  of Minnesotan identity. To put it simply, one cannot contemplate, let alone discuss, the political history of the state without repeated reference to public figures of Scandinavian background. Many Americans, Europeans, and others view Minnesota as a Scandinavian outpost in the center of North America. This impression became full blown by the mid-1970s with Time magazine’s iconic August 1973 cover story on Minnesota, “the state that works,” featuring its handsome, young governor, Wendell Anderson, grinning and holding a fish (that may or may not have come out of a freezer).

Author Bergman, a native of Sweden who was educated in the United States and has spent much of his life in this country, has done an exceptionally good job of providing specifics to substantiate a general impression. Bergman boldly ventures into previously uncharted conceptual territory, methodically chronicling the tendencies, dispositions, and circumstances that led immigrants and their descendants from the Nordic nations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland into positions of public prominence and political authority in Minnesota.

Scandinavian immigration owed much to the favorable early portraits of the state painted by Swedish writer and traveler Fredrika Bremer and Swedish immigrant Hans Mattson, who served as a Union soldier and later headed the state bureau of immigration. Bremer, who was friend to Emerson and Thoreau, directly suggested after an 1850 visit that Minnesota would be an ideal new Scandinavia: Swedes would find familiar forests; Norwegians, waters; and Danes, lush pastures. Mattson was more practical in his booster approach: the growing state could benefit from the qualities Nordics would bring, including piety, thrift, and industriousness. Bergman notes that the newly formed Republican Party resonated with these immigrants. The party was against the expansion of slavery and for the individual quest for a better economic and cultural life. Bergman also notes, however, that many Scandinavians came to North America thoroughly radicalized and immediately fell into associations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party.

Among the meatier portions of the book are the descriptions of populism and Progressive tendencies at the turn of the twentieth century. Governors such as John Lind (1899–1901) attracted admiration for their seemingly natural ability to translate European social ideals into an American vocabulary of democratic possibilities. Bergman also provides a long- overdue reintroduction of John Albert Johnson, who was elected governor in 1904 as a Progressive Democrat. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Johnson was frequently spoken of as an ideal presidential candidate; he died early, however, succumbing to cancer in 1909 at the age of 48.

Another notable point that Bergman makes in detail: Scandinavians were not and are not of one nationality nor of one mind. The history of the Nordic countries from the Middle Ages until the high period of immigration to the United States in the nineteenth century is one of conflict and even warfare. Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes tended to be closer to one another in Minnesota than they were in the old countries. The reason largely had to do with a desire for Americanization.

Bergman concludes his encyclopedic study with a description of more recent immigrants to the North Star State. Hmong, Somalis, and Hispanics are examined in terms of neighborhoods, languages, and civic institutions. All such points of reference have clear predicates in Bergman’s earlier examination of the experiences of Icelanders, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns. If Scandinavians in the State House demonstrates one important point it is that common impres- sions become more impressive when seriously explored.

—Paul C. Stone

Hundreds came out for my Minnesota book events — thank you!

I am happy to announce that several hundreds came out for my three book events last week in Minnesota, organized by my publisher, the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and that they produced such great discussions on immigration and politics, both on this side and the other side of the Atlantic.

First at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, then at the University of Minnesota in Duluth (UMD), and, finally, in the Marine Village Hall above the library in Marine on St Croix, classic Swedish immigrant country.

So there are many to thank: American Swedish Institute president Bruce Karstadt and discussion moderator, former state legislator Tom Berg; history professor Scott Laderman at UMD; and Phil Anderson, president of the Swedish American Historical Society, and Marine library’s Anne Reich, who jointly hosted the evening where so many of the town’s residents turned out for the discussion with Carleton College professor Steven Schier and Uppsala University professor Dag Blanck.

Thank you all!

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

Somalis showed their strength at DFL Convention in Minneapolis

The “new Americans” spoke today in Minnesota Democratic politics, and although the Somali American challenger Mohamud Noor did not win the endorsement of the delegates to House District 60B in Minneapolis, he prevented veteran liberal lawmaker, 77-year-old Phyllis Kahn, from winning, thereby forcing a primary runoff in August.DFlNoorSupporters

Kahn, who has represented the district in the State Legislature for 42 years, failed in five rounds of voting to capture the necessary 60 percent of the vote for the endorsement. She came close in the first round – 58.1 percent against Noor’s 41.5 percent. But in the end, in the fifth round, Khan’s support was 56.3 percent against Noor’s 43.3 percent.

Her failure is a victory for what Noor in his speech to the delegates before the vote, called “the new Americans,” like himself, who had fled their bleeding home country and settled in Minnesota in larger numbers than anywhere else in the United States. A victory, he said before the vote, would demonstrate that the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) in Minnesota is “serious about inclusion.” He did not quite make it, but he has another chance to win, in August.

DFLNoorSpeakingNoor, a recent new member of the Minneapolis school board, said that he and his family had “achieved the American dream,” and he stressed the importance of education and pre-kindergarten for all. He was ready to fight for everyone in the district, which includes Somali immigrants in the classic Scandinavian immigrant neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, students from the University of Minnesota, and scores of progressive activists.

Should Noor win the DFL primary in August, he is practically guaranteed a victory in November in this solidly liberal House district. And if so, he will be the first Somali American in the State Legislature and the highest elected Somali American official in Minnesota. Today, Abdi Warsame, who was elected to the Minneapolis city council last November with overwhelming support from the Somali residents of Cedar –Riverside, holds that title. Warsame also had the support of Phyllis Kahn and today he backed her, splitting the Somali vote in the packed auditorium in DeLaSalle High School on Nicollet Island in the middle of the Mississippi River, just underneath the towers in downtown Minneapolis.

Today’s convention took all day, with breaks for lunch and prayer. The delegates showed remarkable stamina and few left between the five rounds of voting. Still, the 277 total votes cast are only a fraction of the eligible voters in District 60B. The August primary will all be about turnout, and it would be unwise to count out a veteran like Phyllis Kahn.

For the Somali immigrant community seeking political clout just like other immigrant groups have sought before them, it is yet another big challenge.

In continued search of Minnesota’s Scandinavian legacy…

June is a good month for my continued search https://klasbergman.com/2013/03/20/in-search-of-minnesotas-scandinavian-legacy/ for the Scandinavian legacy in Minnesota… Maypole goes up at ASI …from the Danish Day at the Danish-American Center on the banks of the Mississippi, to the Scandinavian Folk Music Festival in little Nisswa up north where musicians from all of Scandinavia had gathered to play, to Midsommer celebration and the hoisting of Maypoles everywhere, at the American-Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, at the Gammelgården Museum in Skandia, at nearby Lindstrom’s Nya Duvemåla, the replica of Karl Oskar’s and Kristina’s home from Vilhelm Moberg’s epic about the first Swedish immigrants to this uncannily Swedish landscape around the Chisago Lakes some miles north of the Twin Cities, and at Svenskarnas Dag, Minnesota’s classic Swedish heritage day, which this year was the 80th time that it was celebrated in Minneapolis’s Minnehaha Park.

National costumes and traditional fiddle music everywhere.  Fiddlers Paul Dahlin and his son Daniel, third and fourth generation Swedes, play their grandfather’s and great grandfather’s music from Rättvik at Lake Siljan as well as anyone, and, for someone like me, who spent every summer as a boy in Rättvik, tunes like Gärdebylåten and Gånglåt från Mockfjärd brought, if not tears to my eyes, strong memories…

There was traditional choir song by the ASI Male Chorus and the ASI Cloudberries, Svenskarnas Dag Girls’ Choir, and Flickorna Fem; Vasa Jr. Folk Dancers danced to old tunes,  and the national anthems, both Swedish and American, were part of the celebration, although most of crowd needed a printout of the text of their old anthem, while they belted out their new one, by heart.

And everywhere are those for whom the Swedish heritage seems to mean something special, spurring them to volunteering and action.

At Gammelgården in Skandia, the director Lynn Blomstrand Moratzka has helped built up quite an outdoor museum next to the Elim Lutheran Church’s Cemetery, where the names on the grave stones are Carlson, Mattson, Olson, Anderson, Edstrom, Lindgren, Holm, Peterson, Spjut, and on and on.

Girls's Choir at SkandiaAlice and John Mortenson at Nya Duvemåla

What would Nya Duvemåla be without John and Alice Mortenson, two eighty-year-olds, whose ancestors came over from Skåne and Värmland, and who now lovingly tend to the old homestead on Glader Boulevard with Glader Cemetery close by. It was established in 1855 as the first Lutheran cemetery in Minnesota and is the final resting place for Vilhelm Moberg’s fictional Karl Oskar and Kristina.

Or, for that matter, what would Svenskarnas Dag today be without Ted Noble and Dan Nelson, chair and vice chair for the big day that once drew tens of thousands to Minnehaha Park but now draws a considerably smaller, but no less, enthusiastic crowd. We are looking for a younger generation to take over to keep the legacy alive, but it’s not easy to find, says Ted Noble.