First Somali-American Wins Seat on Minneapolis City Council

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By Issa A. Mansaray | The AfricaPaper

Minneapolis, MINN – On Nov. 5, Abdi Warsame was declared winner in the municipal election to represent Ward 6 on the Minneapolis City Council. In his first run for political office, Warsame defeated incumbent Robert Lilligren in a landslide victory. Lilligren was the first and only Native American City Council member in Minneapolis for over a decade.

WINNER

Warsame won about 64 percent of first choice votes, followed by 40 percent of the second choice votes and an estimated 20 percent of the third choice votes, as reported on the Minnesota secretary of state’s website on Nov. 5.

The website also reported that incumbent Lilligren gained 32 percent of the first choice votes, an estimated 27 percent of the second choice and 13 percent of the third choice votes for Ward 6.

Seven years after his arrival in the U.S., Warsame has become the first Somali-American to be elected to the Minneapolis City Council.

“We did it through hard work. Actually, I am not just the first Somali-American. I am the first Africa-born American to win a council seat in the city of Minneapolis, the first East African and also the first Somali,” Warsame explained. “So there is a lot of firsts now. But before that, there was late Hussein Samatar, elected to the school board. But he didn’t have a competitive race. That is the difference.”

SUPPORTERS

In mid-April this year, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsed Warsame’s candidature. He staged a tireless campaign to get the East African community’s support, promising to represent a diverse and broader community if elected. The East Africa community turned out in recorded numbers to cast their votes after many years of complaining that they are underrepresented in the city’s politics.

More than 200 of Warsame’s volunteers gathered on Tuesday, Nov. 5 to transport supporters to the polling booths in Ward 6. Biniti Sufi Ali volunteered in Warsame’s campaign, encouraging other women on Cedar Avenue to vote.

“Many people wanted to help. Many people that live on Cedar Avenue voted for him: Koreans, East Africans and other Africans,” said Sufi Ali. “All of them worked together to make it possible for Abdi Warsame. It is not only the Somalis.”

When Warsame was declared winner, hundreds of his supporters and volunteers gathered to celebrate at the Mixed Blood Theatre, close to the heart of Cedar Riverside Plaza, where more than 6,000 Somalis and East Africans reside.

Abdi Ali Mohamed, 84, was the first to vote for Abdi Warsame when the polls opened on Nov. 5 in Ward 6. Mohamed said he was glad that he voted and his candidate won. Though he voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and Rep. Keith Ellison and volunteered in both campaigns, Warsame’s election is special to him.

REALITY 

Warsame was born in Somalia but moved to London with his parents at a young age. He earned a Bachelor of Science in business and a master’s degree in international business.

“I am mindful that I did not earn the support of all residents of Ward 6,” he said in a press statement. “But I will work tirelessly to represent and fight for the rights of all our neighbors so that we may all see prosperity.” He also thanked Lilligren for his 12 years of service as a councilman.

Warsame faces a long list of issues to address in his community, from unemployment, road constructions and mounting housing demands to youth in search of mentors. The Somali community has grown rapidly for the past 20 years. Now, many long for political representation.

The Somalis and East Africans on Cedar Riverside celebrated Warsame’s victory at the Mixed Blood Theatre on the evening of Nov. 5, a few hours after he was declared winner.

“Actually, we couldn’t believe it when he won,” said Osman Abdi, a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota. “He was against a veteran candidate that has been in the City Council for a decade and half. Finally, it came to reality.”

CHANGES

Abdi, a strong supporter of Warsame, added that they spent the weeks prior to the election knocking on doors for last-minute votes. For now, many Somalis and East Africans are happy that they have sent a message across the state. Eagerly, they look forward to Warsame’s days in office as a council member who can relate to them, understand their problems and help find solutions.

“We’re very excited. Some people want someone who can represent them and solve their problems,” said Abdi. “He opened doors for other youths like me. He proved that if you have the education, the confidence, you can have an office.”

For businessman Abdirahman Ali, Warsame’s victory is “a big deal” for Somali businesses.

“We expect a lot of changes in Ward 6 on the way we do business,” said Ali, owner of the Dar-el-Salam store at the African International Mall, commonly known as Kaa Mbo Market, on Cedar Riverside. “We will try to connect to the city of Minneapolis more than before. Our candidate is just elected. We’ll see how he is working and what he is doing.”

Ali believes many Somalis expected less from elected officials before, but now they understand that local elections are really powerful.

“Abdi Warsame is the one that opened that door. I hope everyone would vote next time,” said Ali. “Expectation is good. A lot of youths who came to this country want to step up like Warsame. I am sure they can make it.”

“We have a big community here. Abdi Warsame is not only elected for the Somali people. He is [elected] for Ward 6, and everyone is happy for him,” Ali added.

HISTORY

Business owners said Warsame, whose office is located at the mall, has helped their community for a long time. Somali leaders also indicated that if there are shootings in the area, such as the recent killings along Chicago Avenue, which is close to the Somali businesses, Warsame would be expected to help solve such problems by connecting the city of Minneapolis and the community.

“It would be easy for both sides,” Ali opined. “He is making history, as you can see.”

After winning the Minneapolis City Council seat, Warsame, who currently serves as executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association and board chair of the Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program, was in his office on Friday afternoon as groups of Somali youths, women, elders and well-wishers flocked in and out to congratulate him.

Hugging people and shaking hands, Warsame said it “feels good” to win an election that he and his volunteers worked on for more than two years. In his first post election interview in his office, he said the position comes with huge responsibilities and expectations. He plans to prioritize his goals and manage people’s expectations because he did not make outlandish promises during his campaign.

“Every day it gets heavier, and the expectations are high,” said Warsame. “But I think with great responsibilities, there are opportunities as well.”

He is confident that he will play a key role in the city with members from different backgrounds. With a new mayor and young council members, he believes “it will be an exciting time” in the city of Minneapolis.

“I am happy that he won,” said Sufi Ali, a first-time campaign volunteer, adding that many Africans at home and abroad are following the Somali politics in Minneapolis.

|TAP| Africa’s Newspaper of Record