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Ilhan Omar Didn’t Expect “A Red Carpet Welcome” To Congress

Ilhan Omar, facing a primary based in part on her national image, said in an interview her image and identity justify her politics.

Posted on August 3, 2020, at 3:30 p.m. ET

Ilhan Omar sits with arms crossed
Eman Mohammed For BuzzFeed News

Representative Ilhan Omar, poses for a portrait during an interview at a cafe in Washington DC in 2018.

There have been many fights over the past two years, and for Ilhan Omar, all of them have deep roots in her own identity: as an immigrant, a refugee, a Muslim, and a Black woman.

She draws a direct line from her identity to her place at the center of two years’ worth of attacks from the right, the news stories, the controversies, and now to the well-funded and bitter primary challenge she is facing in her deep-blue district in Minneapolis.

“No one has ever been in Congress who represents as many of the marginalized identities that I represent in one body, and who has been a first in the ways that I’ve been a first,” she told BuzzFeed News.

“To be the only member in Congress that comes from a country that is currently on the president’s Muslim ban — I did not expect there to be a red carpet welcome situation.”

In a 30-minute interview ahead of the primary election next week, Omar spoke about the ways her identity has shaped every facet of her time in Congress.

Omar believes her identity has fueled attacks against her. But just as directly, Omar says, it has shaped the work she has done — and the battles she has waged — on the floor of Congress.

“My constituents knew that I wasn’t just going to use my voice and resources in uplifting these communities,” Omar said. “They knew I was going to use my own experience to bring about change and shift the narrative.”

Omar’s primary race with Antone Melton-Meaux, a local lawyer, has commanded the same kind of outsized national attention that she has drawn her entire career.

With no previous political experience or public profile, Melton-Meaux has raised huge sums of money to challenge Omar, much of it from the many people who dislike her. Though Omar’s campaign released internal polling showing her far ahead of Melton-Meaux, her staff have been telegraphing differently, treating him as a serious challenger. Her campaign released its first attack ad against him last week.

At the core of Melton-Meaux’s campaign is Omar’s national profile — and the “distractions” that have come from a list of partly self-created controversies, including her use of anti-Semitic tropes and repeated questions over her campaign sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to her husband’s political firm.

Both campaigns have papered the district with a flood of mailers, an unusual occurrence in a district that is one of the most liberal in the country. One flyer, from Melton-Meaux, declares: “Ilhan Omar Is in the News Again.”

Omar is also in the forefront of President Donald Trump’s latest attack ad against Joe Biden, alongside Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which Trump’s campaign says is now airing on TV in key swing states.

So far, Omar said, very little of what she has faced in Congress has surprised her.

"I did expect it to be this way," she said. “I did expect it to be as relentless as it’s been.”

What has been a surprise, Omar said: the work she believes she's been able to accomplish in the House. She first ran, she said, expecting huge roadblocks to success in “a place that was not built for me.”

One of the first votes the House took when she arrived was on a new policy allowing members like her to wear religious head coverings on the floor of Congress: “Our first challenge was even making that happen, so that I could actually sit as a member of Congress and represent the 708,000 people who had elected me,” she said.

Omar has sat on several major House committees. Of the bills she has introduced, some, like a bill to cancel all rent, are symbolic, amounting to a progressive pipe dream — a fact that has drawn criticism from Melton-Meaux. But a bill Omar introduced to expand access to school meals during the coronavirus pandemic was passed into law as part of the stimulus package.

For Omar, all of that, too, is directly tied to her identity. As a refugee, she said, she had experienced what it was like to not know where your next meal was coming from.

She has more recently been tightly drawn into the protests against systemic racism.

As a Black woman, Omar said she had long seen the failures of the Minneapolis Police Department. After George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in police custody in the heart of Omar’s district, she joined calls to defund the Minneapolis police, replacing them with what Omar called a “reimagining” of public safety.

Nationally, calls to defund the police have also provided fuel for Republicans, who see it as an issue unpopular with swing voters. But Omar said her focus, in calling for defunding and abolishing the police, was squarely on Minneapolis.

“For me, it was really important to distinguish the call for defunding nationwide from our call for dismantling,” Omar said. “Our police department has failed to investigate and solve 50% of homicides; they’ve engaged, reportedly, in destroying rape kits; and they’ve lost credibility with many institutions that would partner with them. The failure of attempted reforms are laid bare in our case.”

Omar’s identity also shaped her decision to endorse Joe Biden — even though she had been a prominent supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, another prominent Sanders backer and member of the so-called Squad of Democratic women of color, has declined to do so.

“That was not really a question for me,” Omar said of endorsing Biden. “There is, personally, too much at stake for me, and there is personally too much at stake for many people who share the marginalized identities that I represent.”

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