Ilhan vs. Antone: A battle for the future of the Democratic Party

Left: Antone Melton-Meaux at a campaign rally in Minneapolis ahead of Tuesday's DFL primary. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer. Right: Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks at a campaign event for then-presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

How is Rep. Ilhan Omar in a tough re-election battle just two years after her quick ascension to national prominence?  

She has a devoted following, the full backing of her party and an inspiring biography as the nation’s first Somali-American congresswoman. Her left-wing politics match the city’s long history of progressive trailblazing. 

But she’s running as if she could very well be unseated by political neophyte Antone Melton-Meaux in Tuesday’s DFL primary. 

Omar says her enemies are far and wide, especially among deep-pocketed defenders of the status quo. 

“The Republicans who fund (Sen.) Mitch McConnell and others (who) have a very heavy-handed interest in a very imperialistic America” have joined together to support Melton-Meaux, she said in a Reformer interview. 

These enemies, she adds, “can’t fathom that somebody who they don’t think should even be in this country now has a voice in Congress and this is why they have their handpicked candidate.”  

Perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine such a strong challenge to a progressive Democrat in one of the most left-leaning districts in the country without the incumbent playing a role. 

“A combination of controversies made this a much more competitive challenge,” said Todd Rapp, a former DFL operative who now owns a public affairs firm. “We don’t do this in Minnesota,” he said, referring to primary challenges to sitting members of Congress.

Indeed, Omar’s first term has been marked by a series of dramas — most of them of her own making — that sent prominent Minneapolis Democrats like former ambassador to Morocco Sam Kaplan scrambling to find a replacement. 

Omar apologized after suggesting Israel’s American allies were primarily motivated by money (“It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”) 

Found to have filed a joint-married tax return with one man while married to another, she then divorced and married her political consultant, whose firm she continues to pay handsomely with contributor dollars. Her own supporters have questioned the financial arrangement. 

She has often had a loose Twitter finger, suggesting without evidence Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was being blackmailed, which was widely perceived to be an insinuation about his personal life. 

In at least two instances, she’s been aligned with the authoritarian regime in Turkey. She voted “present” when the U.S. House recognized the Armenian genocide carried out by Turkey in the years around World War I. And, as part of a broader critique of the use of economic sanctions, she was the lone House Democrat to decline to support sanctions on Turkey after the invasion of northeastern Syria led to the massacre of Kurdish people there.

These incidents form the primary rationale for Melton-Meaux’s challenge, he acknowledged, if subtly: “I just felt like she was just engaged with too much outside the district and wasn’t back here with the people, making herself accessible and accountable,” he said.

Melton-Meaux, a mediator at his small law firm, portrays Omar as a showboater with little to show for her 18 months in Congress other than national headlines.

As an example, he cites her proposal called the “Homes for All” Act, which would spend $1 trillion to build 12 million homes, mostly public housing, in the next decade. 

Affordable housing is important to Melton-Meaux, he said. His mother helped people in Cincinnati find affordable housing her whole adult life.

“It’s in my bones, I saw it every day as a kid,” he said.

Omar’s proposal didn’t include a funding mechanism, had no cosponsors for 60 days — it has six co-sponsors now — and has no Senate companion bill.

“You need these things in order for your bill to be taken seriously, and to have a hearing in committee, to move forward,” he said. “And the congresswoman knew by the way she proposed that bill, it had no chance, it was dead on arrival.”

He said that doesn’t move the agenda.

“To me that’s not progressive politics, that’s not progress, that’s a platitude. She proposed that bill to elevate her brand, to the detriment of the cause, and I think that’s wrong,” he said. “In fact, what that does is set back the conversation of affordable housing.”

Omar defended her work in Congress, pointing to a bill to protect students’ access to meals during school closures that was signed into law as part of pandemic relief legislation. 

She’s “incredibly proud,” she said, to lead the Minnesota delegation in bills and amendments introduced and amendments passed in the House.

Omar said Melton-Meaux is ignorant about politics. 

“It is really devastating to have someone run who is so naïve and ill-prepared on what Congress looks like and what is expected from leaders in a space where it’s important to have people who are pacesetters who are coming up with not just the ideas of today but the ideas of tomorrow,” she said.

Rep. Ilhan Omar carrying daughter Ilwad
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 24: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) carries her daughter Ilwad as she arrives at a town hall meeting on gender pay gap and equity at La Doña Cerveceria on April 24, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Omar, who was born in war-torn Somalia and spent an early part of her life in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, said her influence is growing as progressives become the dominant bloc of the House Democratic Caucus. 

She’s the whip of the Progressive Caucus, and proud of the fact that it’s the largest Democratic caucus, with “tremendous” growth in the 116th Congress, she said. Indeed, the Squad expanded Tuesday with the defeat of U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., by Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush.  

“The majority of the American people, not just Democrats, agree with our policies — they’re pretty popular. I think that our ability to understand and have fluency in the challenges of everyday Americans and looking at what transforming our system needs to look like has made our policies resonate with so many people,” she said.

Omar said she doesn’t know if Melton-Meaux is more centrist than she is because “I don’t really know what his political ideology is. There is no prior record.”

She accused him of adopting policies she’s run on, introduced or implemented.

“It’s basically just like morphing himself into me, which has been really fascinating to watch,” she said.

If he’s copied Omar’s policy proposals, Melton-Meaux has sought to draw contrasts in how he would approach the job. 

“What I have seen from the congresswoman is that she has embraced the divisive politics of D.C.,” he said. “She uses what I call ideological purity tests as a way of kind of promoting her progressive credentials.” 

Omar, who served a single term in the Minnesota House before winning in 2018, disputes characterizations by Melton-Meaux and others that she is divisive. 

“I don’t think anybody who knows me has ever described me as divisive,” she said.

She said she gets along with Republican members of Congress such as Trump defender-extraordinaire Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

“I think there’s a cohort of younger legislators across the aisle who relate on the challenges of what it means to be part of a system and an institution that has disregard and contempt for the younger members,” she said. 

The nation’s polarized politics and clickbaity media have made public friendship impossible, she said. 

“It’s sad none of us really name the people we are close to on the other side of the aisle,” she said.

Omar said she worked on an amendment with a Republican colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee to tackle human trafficking in Libya, but they won’t hold a press conference for fear of angering their respective colleagues’ political bases. 

Melton-Meaux: Preacher, mediator 

Melton-Meaux has a low-key demeanor and approach befitting a professional mediator. 

He grew up in a middle class Black community, but his church was in a high crime area of Cincinnati. So while he played sports and served as president of the marching band and student body, he was also preaching at revivals and officiating at funerals of young Black men killed by gun violence.

After graduating from college, he went to the University of Virginia School of Law, and then to a D.C. law firm. He moved to Minneapolis in 2008 when his wife took a job at the University of Minnesota, where she is a surgeon and professor. He was a stay-at-home father initially before practicing law and then starting his mediation practice.

Antone Melton-Meaux is trying to unseat Rep. Ilhan Omar in Tuesday’s DFL primary. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer

He does have some politics on his resume, however. In law school he was chosen for the Congressional Black Caucus Fellowship and worked for Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. 

Melton-Meaux points to that experience to make another attack on Omar: He says he learned the importance of constituent services — retrieving lost Social Security checks and the like — and says Omar has neglected it. 

It’s one of many minor attacks and counterattacks Omar and Melton-Meaux are making on countless TV ads and mailers, the effectiveness of which is unclear.  

There are her missed votes, and his work at a law firm years ago that has advertised success against unions. 

There are his big dollar donors who at times have supported Republicans, and her time spent out of the district. 

Omar’s institutional support became clear this week when the DFL launched an attack on Melton-Meaux for concealing some of his campaign spending. 

Although she claims to be far ahead, Omar expressed irritation with Melton-Meaux. 

“I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. He’s just trying to find things to criticize. It is really sort of like a desperate attempt to gaslight folks into believing that there’s something wrong with their representation when there really isn’t,” she said. “You’re not actually for the people, and you are there to quash their voice and the progress they’ve been fighting for.”

Melton-Meaux said the attacks on him indicate Omar’s campaign is worried. 

“The congresswoman understands that her campaign is in trouble, that we have the momentum,” Melton-Meaux said.

The squabbling can seem petty, but the nation will be watching Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District Tuesday to see whether Omar is able to fend off  Melton-Meaux. 

Not only because of Omar’s big name, but also because the race is a microcosm of the future of the Democratic Party. 

Although both Melton-Meaux and Omar favor many of the same policies like a “Green New Deal” for the environment and universal health insurance, they represent distinctly different wings of the Democratic Party, even if only in temperament. 

A kinder, gentler capitalism vs. socialism. 

Those who believe American power can often be a force for good vs. those who think the U.S. has at times been a sinister presence on the world stage. 

Those who still count incremental progress as progress vs. those who want to tear down institutions and rebuild.

It’s Biden vs. Bernie in miniature. 

That battle happening among Democrats could define American politics for the next decade. 

“It’s not dissimilar to the emergence of the Tea Party in 2010,” said Bob Hume, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Mark Dayton and now director of public affairs at Tunheim.

Hume is referring to the Republican identity crisis since 2010 in which the most ideological right-wing candidates have challenged more established party stalwarts. 

As Hume pointed out, what’s a little confusing is that in this case, the more ideological left wing candidate is the incumbent, rather than the insurgent challenger. 

Regardless, as Rapp said, “It’s the party answering the fundamental question: Who are we now?”