MINNEAPOLIS – As Democrat Antone Melton-Meaux meandered through racks of headscarves and clouds of spice and pepper, he carried a pointed message to the voters he courted at the city’s largest Somali market: I want to focus on the work, not being famous.
There’s no missing the target of the dig: Rep. Ilhan Omar. Omar, a liberal Democrat, made history two years ago as the first Somali-American elected to Congress and went on to make countless headlines for making controversial statements on Israel, for tangling with President Donald Trump and for a personal life that became tabloid fodder.
All the attention has helped make Omar a progressive star, but it’s also drawn criticism and a surprisingly strong primary challenger in Melton-Meaux. The Black attorney and mediator is raising millions in anti-Omar dollars and shaking up what was expected to be an easy race.
The heated primary is playing out in a city already wrestling with racial divisions and political identity. Melton-Meaux has drawn support from some traditional Democrats uncomfortable with Omar’s style — highlighting a generation gap that has dogged Democrats this year. He’s raised big money from pro-Israel groups with strong support in the city’s first-ring suburbs. And his bid has prompted a fight for votes in the Black and Somali-American communities, each roiled by this summer's uprising over George Floyd's death.
“She has been ineffective in Washington because she is divisive, and she’s focused on her celebrity,” Melton-Meaux said.
Omar dismisses the criticism, along with Melton-Meaux, who she said is simply the beneficiary of deep-pocketed opponents who want to take her down.
“This campaign really isn’t about whether Ilhan is doing the work,” she said. “It’s about how effective we’ve actually been and how people don’t want that effectiveness to continue.”
Omar, 37, ordinarily would be expected to crush any opponent in the Aug. 11 primary in the heavily Democratic Minneapolis-area district. The former refugee from Somalia gained fame as one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and as a charter member of “The Squad” of four progressive freshmen women of color.