In the district where George Floyd was killed, Omar Fateh wants to bring the progressive wave to the state legislature.
Omar Fateh’s campaign for the Minnesota State Senate operates out of an adult day care center in Minneapolis, run by and for members of the local Somali community. It sits on Lake Street, where much of the immediate local response to George Floyd’s death took place. Just weeks prior, the gas station next door was ablaze; onlookers gawked at the inferno as national guardsmen ushered them along. The care center was unscathed, but when I went to meet with Fateh at his office, the urgency of that first week in June still hung in the air. Around us, a mix of left-wing activists and young East African community members fielded calls and collected polling data.
If you were to go looking for the future of American politics, this would be as good a place to start as any. Between the demise of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the street-level activity of the George Floyd uprising, electoral prospects for the American left are in transition. The upset victories of progressives like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush have augured a shift to local, grassroots entry into legislative bodies. Today, in the very neighborhood where Floyd was tragically murdered, Minnesota’s 62nd Senate District, Fateh may carry the wave forward to the Minnesota State Senate. A 30-year-old Somali American community organizer, Fateh is seeking to oust a longtime party insider who currently represents the poorest neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.
For nine years, the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL)—Minnesota’s local chapter of the Democratic Party—has been represented by the incumbent candidate, Jeff Hayden. A self-identified “pragmatic progressive,” Hayden has been vocal in his demand for gun violence prevention, wage increases, and affordable housing—especially within the context of the Black community. However, some of Hayden’s business-as-usual platform puts him out of step with the political energies of the moment. For instance, he has called for greater public-private partnerships in education. He believes school voucher programs aren’t enough, citing Best Buy–funded tech centers as a means of educational outreach.
The DFL’s February caucus, which allows voters to have direct influence over the composition of the party by selecting delegates and drafting resolutions, proved to be immensely promising. In a surprising turn of events, the upstart Fateh caught Hayden sleeping and mounted a relentless, yet personable, campaign. His message, captured by the slogan “Rise Together,” resonated with immigrant and Black communities, Indigenous groups, and downwardly mobile whites. In the end, 72 percent of DFL delegates in his district backed him, securing him an unexpected official endorsement from the party.
Fateh’s involvement in community organizing helped him garner other official endorsements: The St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter, the Twin Cities chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Sunrise Movement have all backed him. The victor of the August 11 primary, given the lack of Republican voters in the district, will undoubtedly go on to win the general election. It’s unclear which candidate has the edge, but early vote counts have already exceeded the total turnout for the seat’s 2016 primary.
It’s hard not to be reminded of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise upset in 2018, against centrist party stalwart Joe Crowley. That election may go down as the last time in modern political history that an incumbent Democrat failed to take seriously a primary challenge from the left.
Fateh’s background was in community outreach for the city of Minneapolis, where he began to foster a relationship with the robust East African community that resides in the Twin Cities. His own background, having grown up in the Somali community of Washington, D.C., is not dissimilar. His father, Mahmood Fateh, got his start in Boseman, Mont., in 1963, as an immigrant graduate student who paid his way by working in a kitchen. The elder Fateh was often reminded that he wasn’t allowed to to use the same restroom or bus section as white people, and his boss often spouted racist diatribes at him.
“Being born here, in America, but raised in an East African household, to immigrant parents, I think I have that unique perspective,” says Fateh of his upbringing. “Being able to bridge the gap between both cultures I think will be critical, especially within this district that has a large number of African immigrants.”
Fateh’s political aspirations started in 2018, when he ran in the DFL primary for House District 62A, finishing third in a field of five candidates. Afterward, Fateh decided to get involved in community organizing, joining a group of local East Africans called Changing the Narrative, which focused on mental health and addiction.
“In the Somali community, those issues are both still taboo, especially with the elders,” Fateh said. “So we connected with the Indigenous communities that share the same struggles. We learned from them in terms of how to use Narcan, how to speak to elders about it, and educating the community.”
It was at this point, Fateh told me, that he noticed a conspicuous lack of involvement from the state senator—especially concerning Little Earth, the hub of the Indigenous community in the Twin Cities.
“We got to reach out to city council members, our local commissioner, their state representatives, but the senator was always absent,” Fateh explained. “And that really was problematic for us. From speaking to the folks in Little Earth, he hasn’t been there since last election. That’s where our Indigenous population lives and you’re cutting off communication from, I would say, the community that has the most unmet needs.”
It isn’t just the absence of Senator Hayden that compels Fateh to attempt another run: The DFL is poised to achieve its first government trifecta since 2014, with challengers like Lindsey Port, Aleta Borrud, and Aric Putnam positioned to retake the Republican-controlled Senate. Fateh believes that attaining this unencumbered legislative power is only the first step.
“I really believe that flipping the Senate will not be enough, which is why I’m running in a primary. We need progressive senators, we’ve had the trifecta before: senate, house, governorship,” Fateh told me. “But we didn’t get that progressive, working class agenda passed—such as fully funding our public schools.”
Political operatives within the DFL agree. Jason Chavez-Cruz, president of the Young DFL and a legislative assistant to Minnesota House Representative Mohamud Noor, believes Fateh has the radical perspective needed to create meaningful reforms.
“Having him there is going to put the pressure on the Senate DFL to ensure that we do things differently—and when we do take the majority, we take advantage of it,” Cruz said. “We haven’t in the past. We left people behind, with little basic things that would pass easily with a majority.”
Fateh is a self-identified democratic socialist whose platform parallels the Bernie Sanders campaign: universal higher education and health care, comprehensive climate justice, and housing as a human right. These principles carry over to local issues, opposing copper-nickel sulfide mining that will pollute Minnesota’s water and “exclusionary zoning” that imitates much of the effects of redlining.
“We need someone that would be there that’s connected to the community, that understands the renters,” he said. “I’m a renter myself, someone that’s been unemployed before. We can’t just pick one or two things and say, ‘Llet’s focus on this now.’ I think that putting these all pieces together is what will give our district that quality of life, that basic quality of life.”
The most pressing issue, one that will define the term whoever goes on to hold the seat, is the fallout from the George Floyd uprisings. The national spotlight is still on Minneapolis, where the city council has put forth a public charter that is currently being debated within the Charter Commission; it proposes disbanding the police department and replacing it with a public safety agency. The way the city and the state conduct these reforms will have major implications for the future of a national movement for police abolition.
Though state senators have no direct influence over municipal police policy—or whatever communal safety program may take its place—Fateh has plans to decrease the need for police presence in his community. Applying the lessons of his community work, his platform takes steps toward drug decriminalization, prioritizing well-funded mental health organizations. Fateh has also proposed allowing mental health professionals who operate out of local clinics to de-escalate conflicts, like domestic violence or psychotic episodes, that police aren’t trained to handle.
“There is a real opportunity for Omar to bring people together around this change that we’re making to our peacekeeping force,” said Yolanda Roth, a union activist and community organizer who works in the Twin Cities metro area. “And yes, it’s a huge responsibility, but I see it more as an amazing opportunity to open up conversation, not only in the Somali community, but in the Black community as well. And in doing so, really bridge some of the gaps between the African diaspora and the African American community.”
Should Fateh assume office, he will inherit neighborhoods rife with decades-long poverty trends and immigrant families in precarious situations. The economic realities of systemic racism and insufficient legal protection for the labor force have left migrant workers particularly vulnerable.
“We have a lot of elderly Somali moms specifically working at Amazon in Shakopee, and they’ve had their rights basically violated,” Fateh said. “It’s an ongoing fight for them: making sure they have prayer breaks, making sure that they aren’t being overworked. Some folks were doing the job that required two employees, but one employee was doing it.”
Like many of his millennial contemporaries, Fateh sees these issues as interconnected. But that worldview isn’t just an expression of a recent political resurgence—for Fateh, it’s part of his heritage as an American. “From East African immigrants in the ’60s till now, not much seems to have changed,” he told me. “If the corporations are going to be able to take advantage of you, they’re going to. They’re going to exploit you; they’re going to pay you less; they’re going to do whatever they can to maximize their profits—especially folks that are not very well versed on what their rights are.”
Fateh’s unifying message of localized solidarity and equity isn’t just a lone voice. It joins the demands made by contemporaries like Nikil Saval, a socialist and Democratic nominee for the 1st Senate District of Pennsylvania, and Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant organizer who should take New York’s Assembly District 51. As the excitement of the Democratic primary gave way to resignation and compromise with the inevitable Biden nomination, some observers took this to mean the consolidation of the party’s moderate center. But local races are telling a different story. Fateh will appear on the ballot alongside Ilhan Omar—another progressive Somali American from Minneapolis—tying a local political movement to Capitol Hill. If there’s a new blue wave crashing onto the shore, it may not be the one pundits and party insiders imagined back in 2018.