Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar

By Melisa Lin

Ilhan Omar made history last month when she won the primary election for a seat in the Minnesota State Legislature.

Now that her opponent (who is also Somali American) has suspended his campaign, Omar’s path to become the first female Somali-American to hold a seat in Minnesota Legislature is virtually guaranteed.

In her victory speech Omar said she hoped her win would herald “a new era of representation.”

According to the Associated Press, no Somali American has ever been elected to a state legislature before.

It’s a historic moment that has been a long time coming, especially in Minnesota, which has the largest Somali population in the United States, and has seen Somalis win seats in City Council and the Minneapolis School Board.

But other states seem to be more than a few steps behind when it comes to representing the Somali community in local or state government — not for lack of effort on the part of Somali American citizens.

Considering the rate that Seattle’s Somali community has been grown in the last 20 years, you can’t help but wonder: why don’t more East African candidates in our region run for political office, and why do those who do rarely succeed?

Back in 2011, for instance, Otham Heibe ran for SeaTac City Council and pledged to be a voice for improving transportation and promoting human-service programs. He didn’t win, and according to the Seattle Times, doors were literally slammed in his face as he campaigned.

Heibe’s campaign and others like it failed in part because immigrants just don’t have the resources to compete with candidates who are already well established, says community activist Michael Neguse. Neguse is the Crime Prevention Organizer for the Seattle Neighborhood group and does outreach work in partnership with the Seattle Police Department. He has dedicated much of his time to educating east African communities about the how-tos and importance of the political process.

The issue at the root of it all, he said, is a lack of education and awareness about politics.

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