Centrist challenger seeks to oust US Rep. Ilhan Omar in Democratic primary

Don Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member, says the firebrand Minnesota congresswoman ‘has frightened the Jewish community,’ believes she is too ‘divisive’ to serve

Former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels poses outside his home on Nov. 10, 2023, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)
Former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels poses outside his home on Nov. 10, 2023, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — US Rep. Ilhan Omar got a prominent Democratic primary challenger Sunday when former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels announced he’ll try once again to unseat her after coming close in 2022.

Omar, a charter member of “the squad” of progressive House Democrats, won reelection twice despite making comments in her first term that were widely criticized for invoking antisemitic tropes and suggesting Jewish Americans have divided loyalties. But Omar — a Somali American and Muslim — has come under renewed fire for condemning the Israeli government’s handling of its war against Hamas, launched after the terror group slaughtered 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, and abducted 240 to Gaza on October 7.

“Our congresswoman has a predilection to divisiveness and conflict,” Samuels said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of his official announcement Sunday morning on WCCO Radio.

The Jamaican-born Samuels still maintains that his narrow primary loss in 2022 showed Omar was beatable, and that he could have won if they had competed later in the general election, where Omar won 74% of the vote over a little-known Republican.

The big issue in 2022 was the future of policing in the city where George Floyd was murdered in 2020 by a former Minneapolis police officer, which touched off protests around the world and riots in Minnesota. Omar was among the progressives who slammed former president Barack Obama for criticizing the “defund the police” movement as just a “snappy slogan.”

“It’s not a slogan but a policy demand,” she posted on Twitter, now known as X.

File: Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (left) talks during a press conference to call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, October 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

In contrast, the centrist Samuels helped lead the opposition that defeated a proposal on the city ballot in 2021 that arose from the “defund” movement and would have replaced the police force with a revamped public safety agency. Samuels thinks safety will be a top issue again.

“The long tails of the George Floyd and COVID issues continue, with empty storefronts and empty strip malls because people don’t want to invest anymore. They don’t think it’s safe,” Samuels said.

Omar issued a written statement Sunday touting her work in Congress and for her district, including fighting to combat climate change and codify abortion rights. She also noted her part in securing an affordable housing facility for veterans in Minnesota and a public safety measure that provides mental health support and services for victims of gun violence.

“Right-wing donors have targeted me since I first entered public life,” Omar said in the statement, which also accused Samuels of taking hundreds of thousands in contributions from far-right donors and political action committees. “If we’re going to stop Donald Trump, we need record turnout, and I am confident in our ability to drive turnout, particularly in a presidential election year.”

The war in the Middle East has already divided Democrats and upended the dynamics of some House primaries. Omar has been critical of Hamas for attacking Israel and taking hostages — but even more so of Israel’s military response. Her focus has been the plight of civilians in the Gaza Strip. She has also condemned the surge of intimidation and violence against both Muslim and Jewish targets in the US.

It remains to be seen how potent an issue the war will be in an overwhelmingly Democratic district that includes Minneapolis and some suburbs. The district also has a large Somali Muslim population. And it includes St. Louis Park, which historically has been a center of Jewish life in Minnesota.

Samuels said he believes the war will be a big concern. He criticized Omar for voting against placing sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine but supporting sanctions against Israel, and for boycotting President Isaac Herzog’s speech to Congress in July.

President Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of Congress, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, look on. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“She has frightened the Jewish community,” Samuels said, adding that the community “understands that there is a latent and lurking antisemitic sentiment that always needs discouragement, and always in times of national crisis raises its ugly head.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been actively trying to recruit a credible challenger to Omar. That drew pushback from a strong supporter of Israel, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who issued a public show of support for Omar this summer. A super PAC affiliated with AIPAC spent about $350,000 against Omar in 2022. But Samuels said AIPAC didn’t try to recruit him.

Omar’s fellow House Democrats have portrayed her as a serious legislator who in the past four years has earned admiration for giving voice to marginalized groups often forgotten on Capitol Hill.

But Samuels said people sometimes “mistake her oppositional nature and divisive nature for someone who’s speaking truth to power when in fact she is misusing her power, or not using her power, to make change.”

The other declared candidates are relatively unknown. One Democrat is Sarah Gad, a Minneapolis attorney and daughter of Egyptian immigrants who is Muslim. The other is military veteran Tim Peterson. The only Republican currently running is Dalia Al-Aqidi, an Iraqi-American journalist and self-described secular Muslim who calls Omar pro-Hamas and a terrorist sympathizer.

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