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Interview

Offering centrist alternative, ex-councilman poses long-shot challenge to Ilhan Omar

Don Samuels says Squad member alienated groups, including Jews, and that most rejected her effort to defund police; poll ahead of Tuesday primary shows support still with incumbent

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

(L) Don Samuels, Democratic candidate for Minnesota's 5th Congressional district.  (R) Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 6, 2019. (Neighbors for Samuels; AP/J. Scott Applewhite/collage by Times of Israel)
(L) Don Samuels, Democratic candidate for Minnesota's 5th Congressional district. (R) Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 6, 2019. (Neighbors for Samuels; AP/J. Scott Applewhite/collage by Times of Israel)

A former Minneapolis city councilman running on a centrist, pro-Israel platform will seek to pull off a long-shot bid to unseat progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Don Samuels, 72, out-fundraised Omar in the second quarter of this year and received endorsements from the state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, and from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. However, pro-Israel and mainstream Jewish organizations, who’ve poured millions into various Democratic primaries this year, have avoided investing for a second straight election in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district after funneling millions into the campaign of Omar’s last challenger only to see him lose by 20 points.

Little polling has been conducted ahead of the primary, but a June survey from Change Research showed Omar in a commanding lead with 60% of the vote compared to Samuels’s 21%.

Nonetheless, Samuels is convinced he presents a preferred alternative for residents of Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, who are not as far to the left on a variety of issues as their two-term congresswoman has been.

In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, the 72-year-old Jamaica native pointed to a proposal rejected by 56% of Minneapolis voters last November that would have seen the city’s police department replaced with a “public-health oriented” Department of Public Safety. The initiative — rejected by 78% of Black voters — was backed by Omar, who became the first Somali-American elected to Congress in 2018.

“She was out of touch with the community she was claiming to protect, and she was out of touch with the voters in general,” Samuels said. “It’s reflective of a problem that she has, which caused me to run because she has alienated several groups.”

He said Omar alienated the African-American community by supporting efforts to defund the police, has put off construction workers over her opposition to US President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, and has alienated the Jewish community over her comments and record on Israel.

Omar has fought off accusations of antisemitism from pro-Israel organizations since entering Congress, particularly after she suggested that Jewish money was behind American officials’ support for Israel. The lawmaker subsequently apologized and said she was studying “the painful history of antisemitic tropes.”

Omar became one of the first Congress members to publicly back the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) targeting Israel.

“This sends a message to the enemies of Israel that they have friends in the United States and leadership,” Samuels lamented. “Israel is our friend in the region and our strategic partner in many areas like medicine and technology. We can’t send a mixed message about our relationship with Israel, and we can’t send a message that Israel is the bad guy in this conflict.”

Samuels said he backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a framework Omar has also supported in the past. Samuels said he visited Israel on a 28-day religious pilgrimage in 2003.

Omar sought to travel to Israel and the West Bank along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib in 2019 but they both were barred by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the progressive lawmakers were seeking to use the visit “to strengthen the boycott and negate Israel’s legitimacy.”

Samuels argued that lone voices within the Democratic party who don’t toe a line in favor of Israel would hamper US efforts to serve as an objective broker.

“When our government says, ‘We are a friend of Israel, and we’re negotiating for a two-state solution,’ [it’s important] that we all speak with one voice, so we don’t give the other side negotiating leverage on the fantasy that they have in Congress significant support to demonize Israel and to create sainthood on their side,” he said.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., at a news conference, August 19, 2019 at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, after their planned trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank was blocked by Israel. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Summarizing the difference between the candidates on the issue, the challenger said, “Ilhan Omar supports the Palestinian cause, while Don Samuels supports a peaceful two-state solution with freedom and justice as the ultimate goals.”

Samuels described a “deep and friendly connection” with the Jewish community, quipping that his “baptism” into the faith took place when he worked in a Jewish deli in Brooklyn shortly after immigrating to the US.

“My dad was a minister in Jamaica where antisemitism was not as present as it was in the US at the time. So [when] studying the Hebrew scripture of the Bible, the freedom to admire Jewish culture was uninhibited,” he said.

“That’s a big part of my silent motivation, silent resiliency to take on giants… as minority people have to learn to do.”

Given the dark blue nature of Omar’s District, a more centrist option would appear less palatable to voters, but Samuels argued that the incumbent represents an “extreme” voice that doesn’t benefit the Democratic party. “Our congresswoman has been the best… fundraising feature for the Republicans. When President Trump referred to Ilhan Omar, money came pouring into Republican coffers,” he claimed.

“We have a chance now to remove that kind of benefit for the Republican Party from our district, and put someone in office who is a benefit to the Democratic Party.”

Asked how he plans to appeal to younger voters, many of whom are attracted to Omar’s platform, Samuels said he seeks to present them with the results from last November’s vote to replace the Minneapolis Police Department.

Congressional candidate Don Samuels shakes hands with voters in Minneapolis ahead of the August 9, 2022 Democratic primary. (Neighbors for Samuels.

“They’re very enthusiastic and spent a lot of time and energy protesting and demanding change, and they raised a lot of money right after George Floyd was killed,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy there, and we’re going to constantly hold up the rejection of that effort [to defund the police] by the African American community — ostensibly the community they were advocating for — and by the voters in the city at large.”

Samuels acknowledged and condemned some of the attacks on Omar that have highlighted her faith background but indicated that he wasn’t surprised by it. “The fact is that Ilhan is an extreme on our side, and the extremes on the other side will also have an extreme reaction to her.”

Asked if he modeled himself after one of the Democratic party’s most prominent, albeit controversial, centrists, Joe Manchin, the Omar challenger responded, “You can put me with Barack Obama and with Joe Biden.”

If elected, Samuels said he would seek to improve public safety and advance criminal justice reform.

He highlighted legislation he advanced as a councilman aimed at assisting ex-felons in securing employment along with another initiative offering vouchers to replace taillights in order to avoid tickets, which has been adopted across the country.

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