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