Rep. Betty McCollum, powerful in Washington, faces tough test at home

Progressive challenger Amane Badhasso would be the first Oromo woman in Congress

By: - May 13, 2022 6:00 am

Photos courtesy Amane Badhasso for Congress, Betty McCollum for Congress.

Rep. Betty McCollum has reached the height of Washington influence, wielding control over some $700 billion each year as the top lawmaker on the subcommittee that sets the budget for the entire U.S. military.

Closer to home in the east metro, however, McCollum faces a fierce challenge from a young woman of color hoping to pull off a stunning upset and join the growing ranks of progressives in Congress. 

Just months after hitting the campaign trail in Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District, Amane Badhasso raised an eye-popping $300,000 by the end of last year — outraising McCollum, who has represented the St. Paul area for more than two decades. 

To do so, Badhasso — a former child refugee — leveraged her strong network of fellow Ethiopian immigrants across the United States, particularly those from the East African country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. Like her, many of them fled violence and government suppression in Ethiopia to build new lives in the Twin Cities.

“Amane fights for the rights of the people,” said Temesgen Beriso, 41, a business owner in Oregon who gave Badhasso’s campaign a total of $5,800 last year — the maximum allowable amount for individuals. “She fights for immigrants, she fights for refugees, and she is a refugee herself,” said Beriso, who came to the United States more than 20 years ago.

But campaign finance experts say some elements of the campaign’s fundraising data bear signs of inadequate compliance. One donor made nine separate contributions on one day, while another told the Reformer he contributed $500 on behalf of someone else, which is banned under election law. 

“That’s pretty much on its face an illegal transaction,” said Saurav Ghosh, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, and former investigator at the Federal Election Commission. 

The findings could complicate an already messy and intensifying race for the nomination in the heavily Democratic district. 

Already, a former state senator has urged lawmakers to investigate Badhasso for failing to file financial records as required by law, and Democratic-Farmer-Labor party officials have been accused of unfairly targeting the Badhasso campaign’s delegates.

“There is a pattern in this race of attempts to intimidate and disenfranchise a lot of the immigrants who are participating in this process for the first time in their lives,” Dante Aralihalli, a spokesperson for the Badhasso campaign, said in an interview on Thursday.

As for the problematic donations, he said it’s possible they were “innocent mistakes” by immigrants who might not be familiar with all campaign finance rules, or faced language barriers. He said the campaign wasn’t aware of the $500 donation, but would “absolutely get in touch” with the donor “and rectify the situation if necessary.” 

He added: “Our campaign is built on ethics. It’s 100% grassroots funded, and we want to make sure that we are absolutely in compliance with all federal campaign finance laws.”

Delegates for both candidates will gather this weekend at a convention to decide who will secure the party’s influential endorsement. Both candidates are alleging mischief during the convention season and pledge to move on to the August primary no matter Sunday’s result. 

In a statement to the Reformer, McCollum said, “I’ve been involved in DFL politics for a long time and this year’s endorsing process is unlike anything I’ve experienced. My goal this weekend is to earn the DFL endorsement. But if there is no endorsement, I will be running in the August primary election and I intend to win.”  

If Badhasso wins, it will almost guarantee her remarkable rise from a refugee camp in Kenya to the halls of power in Washington, as the district is reliably blue, and would mark the first time an Oromo woman was elected to Congress.

From a childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya to Minnesota

Born in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, Amane Badhasso and her family fled conflict at home to neighboring Kenya, where she became a refugee. At age 13, she resettled in Minnesota. “Amane has seen firsthand the promise of the American dream,” her website says.

Now in her thirties, she has become a well-known social justice activist and Democratic operative in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area. In 2020, she “served as a key staffer” for the Biden-Harris presidential ticket, her campaign says, “ensuring Minnesota stood up to Donald Trump’s reckless agenda.” 

Badhasso has thus far expressed few major policy disagreements with McCollum, who has a record of supporting left-leaning causes. 

McCollum is the co-chair emeritus of the Native American Caucus and co-sponsored the effort in Congress to investigate the atrocities of Indian boarding schools. She has been a key player in the fight to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from sulfide mining. Long a champion of the cause of Palestinians’ self-determination, she once banished an American-Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbyist from her office for a time after she accused him of bullying behavior.    

Badhasso has sought to distinguish herself from the senior House Democrat by touting her campaign’s grassroots support and painting her opponent as beholden to corporate interests rather than the community. 

“UnitedHealth Care raises premiums and tries to restrict emergency room coverage while its CEO rakes in $142.2 million,” Badhasso tweeted on Tuesday. “My opponent @BettyMcCollum04 takes thousands from UnitedHealth Care while pretending to support #MedicareForAll. That’s not progressive. We can do better.” 

(McCollum is a co-sponsor of Medicare for All, H.R. 1976, and supported by the Medicare for All PAC.)

McCollum, who serves as chair of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, has also accepted donations from political action committees for defense industry titans. “When you are someone who takes thousands of dollars from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, while, on the other hand, deciding where our military budget gets allocated, that’s a problem,” Aralihalli said. “That’s the opposite of progressive.” 

McCollum has felt the pressure of Badhasso’s campaign, issuing a call for help to fellow Minnesota political figures earlier this year in response to Badhasso’s year-end fundraising feat.   

Since then, a longtime ally of McCollum, former state Sen. Richard Cohen, has gotten involved in the race. Cohen, who represented part of St. Paul in the Legislature for more than 30 years, penned a letter to the House Ethics Committee in March encouraging the panel to probe Badhasso’s failure to submit a financial disclosure report on time. The filing typically lists assets, income, and other details that can be used to determine possible conflicts of interest. 

“Amane Badhasso is a candidate for Congress who has hired professional staff and political consultants, raised campaign funds more than 60 times the threshold for filing the candidate disclosure report, and filed a complex [Federal Election Commission] report on time,” Cohen wrote, according to a copy of the letter shared with the Reformer. “There is no excuse for the requirements of the Committee on Ethics or the Ethics in Government Act to be ignored.”

The committee “should set an appropriately high standard for compliance with the law, including the option of referring this matter to the Department of Justice,” Cohen added, if the panel finds Badhasso “willfully” failed to file the report.

Aralihalli said it was a simple oversight, and that the campaign was not made aware of Cohen’s letter at the time. He said the campaign will “absolutely, 100% file” the form and pay the late fee.

“We’re a scrappy, grassroots campaign,” he said. “Sometimes we miss something. It was not purposeful. It was not intentionally malicious. I mean, it’s a candidate financial disclosure filing form for an organizer with student debt who has a working class income.”

He also criticized Cohen for writing a letter to the Ethics Committee instead of reaching out to the campaign. “Sen. Cohen absolutely 100% has Amane’s contact information, has the contact information for the campaign, ample opportunity at any point in time to reach out to us and let us know,” Aralihalli said. “He decided he wanted to try and gin it into some sort of political issue.” 

Meanwhile, local DFL Party officials, concerned that some people were incorrectly put forward as Badhasso delegates, sent them text messages asking to confirm their status. Wintana Melekin, a Badhasso delegate and voting rights activist, called the message she received “threatening and disrespectful” and an “intentional attempt to limit Black people from voting.”  

“I know the life in refugee camps.” 

But the controversy hasn’t appeared to dull Badhasso’s support. The Reformer contacted nearly 20 donors listed in the campaign’s public contribution data, and spoke with more than a half dozen of them to understand her fundraising success. 

The supporters said they were also Oromo, and many own small businesses in the transportation and health care industries. Badhasso’s background, role in the community, and populist message were key selling points for them, they said. 

“I know her for a long time,” said Ali Hola, a St. Paul resident who gave Badhasso’s campaign a total of $4,300 in 2021 — $2,900 for the primary and $1,400 for the general election. Hola, who runs a school transportation company, said he “saw her all the time” when she was working in the community, “and that’s why I’m supporting [her].”

Hola came to the U.S. about 17 years ago and said those in the Oromo diaspora have a strong tradition of helping one another when in need. He said he was also impressed with Badhasso’s ability to go from being a refugee as a child to obtaining a good education and working for her community. “Because I know the life in refugee camps,” he said. 

Gebi Felema, who operates an adult foster care business in St. Paul, said Badhasso’s understanding of immigrant communities motivated him to donate $1,500 to her campaign. “She herself went through a lot of ups and downs before she got here,” he said. “Most of all, she stands for the working people. So that’s why I really want to support her. She understands current issues about education and justice for all.”

Abdata Dulle, who works as a driver for a transportation service, said he wanted to do whatever he could to support Badhasso, and that there is a lot of talk about her within the Oromo community, including on Facebook. 

“When we go [to] church, we talk about her,” he said. “I remember one day, she came to our church too, and she introduced herself there and she was [talking] about the campaign.”

The donor who gave $500 on behalf of someone else said it was for a friend who didn’t have a credit card. Campaigns aren’t allowed to accept cash donations of more than $100 — though they can accept checks for larger amounts.

The Reformer is not naming the man because he said he didn’t know that it wasn’t allowed. “Our intention is just helping her,” he said. 

Ghosh, the campaign finance expert, said the donation “is a problem.” Other donors made multiple contributions on the same day, instead of donating all at once, which Ghosh said can be a red flag to investigators as well. “There’s no particular reason that a contributor would do that,” he said. 

Maru Bedaso, who lives in Washington state, made two separate donations totaling $1,100 on the same day in November. He runs a business caring for adults with disabilities, and said he simply input the wrong number the first time he contributed online.

He said he likes that Badhasso’s campaign is not funded by big donors. “She’s a different type of candidate,” he said. “She is not taking corporate money and she is really dependent on grassroots people.”

But Bedaso declined to say whether anyone else contributed to his sizable donation. “Why am I gonna let you know that?” he said. “That’s not something that you need to know.”

In another case, a contributor named Jamal Tola made nine separate donations on one day, representing a “major outlier” in the data, Ghosh said. Attempts to reach Tola, who contributed a total of nearly $3,000 last year, were unsuccessful. 

Ghosh said though donation patterns like Tola’s don’t prove anything on their own, they are suspicious. “In the past, that has sometimes been what we see in a data report like this when there are straw donors being used,” Ghosh said.

Aralihalli, Badhasso’s spokesman, said the campaign will reach out to Tola as well to “rectify the situation if necessary,” but that he would “be hesitant to jump to the conclusion that this is a possible straw donor scheme.” 

“There could be a number of likely explanations as to why someone would do this,” he said. “There are many people who, you know, maybe don’t have full understanding of the internet and what they’re doing on there.”

Still, Ghosh said, the few questionable donations pale in comparison to the money powerful political action committees inject into American elections to attack or support candidates. “It’s just not that much money compared to the donations that are being poured in by wealthy, special interests and super PACs,” he said.

Last month, Badhasso announced on Instagram that she had repeated last year’s fundraising success, raising nearly $300,000 in the first quarter of this year.

“They said it was impossible, you can’t do it without war machine money, you can’t do it without corporate PACs, you can’t do it without the special interests,” Badhasso said in a video. “We proved them wrong, you proved them wrong.”

Beriso, the business owner in Oregon, said Badhasso is running “for inclusion and justice,” and that he would help her campaign even if he didn’t have the money for a big donation. “Even if I didn’t have enough, I would have [done] whatever it takes to support that campaign,” he said.

Deena Winter contributed reporting. 

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Emma Loop
Emma Loop

Emma Loop is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter focusing on national security, finance, and politics. She has worked at the Windsor Star, Ottawa Citizen, and BuzzFeed News, where she was a member of the FinCEN Files reporting team that was named a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Foreign Policy, the Washington Examiner Magazine, and more.