Don Samuels Mounting A Challenge Against Ilhan Omar

Two years ago, Rep. Ilhan Omar faced an upstart, centrist Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate in a primary election for Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District. This time around, in Don Samuels, she faces a venerable, experienced Democratic challenger who has experience as both a Minneapolis City Councilman and School Board member.

But why, at 72 years old, is Samuels running against an entrenched candidate? He said that, in large part, it’s because he doesn’t think Omar is doing enough to help the district.

“Very often the congresswoman is outside of the Democratic bus, if you want to call it that, yelling at the bus, instead of [being] onboard, influencing, prodding, pushing,” he said. “Then once a decision is reached to the direction we’re going in, to be loyal to that. Instead, she stays outside, she doesn’t contribute her weight of resources or our needs and wants – our wants as a district – to the direction that the party is moving in.

“She hops off and criticizes it from the outside, and is on interviews all over the media, explaining her position as if she’s a single party, or she’s one of a party of four or five. And so we find ourselves not being represented.”

Omar’s campaign declined to comment for this story.

The non-partisan newsletter Cook Political Report, which analyzes political trends in the U.S., rates it as solidly Democratic, meaning that the primary winner will likely go on to represent the district in Congress in January 2023. 

Samuels, who is the CEO of the non-profit Microgrants, has lived on Minneapolis’ North Side for the 25 years he’s been in the city. 

“People know that Don Samuels has not left 1542 Hillside Avenue North, even though there have been maybe 20 people who have died within a block of my house in the 25 years I’ve lived here,” he said. “And I have not moved. Why am I not moving? Because I care about this community and I refuse to leave it because I know that the only way that it got where it is was white flight and Black middle-class flight. And no amount of special ed money or housing for low-income people is going to fix America’s problems.”

Public safety concerns

Samuels said he had three main issues: strengthening democracy, bringing national attention to local issues, and public safety – an area to which Samuels returned to repeatedly. He and Omar were on opposite sides of the contentious campaign in the city election of 2021 to amend the City Charter so that the police department would be replaced by a department of public safety. Omar was in favor of the public safety amendment; Samuels was not only opposed to it, but he was also one of the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit to have the language of the amendment changed.

Samuels’s side won the election with just over 56 percent of the vote.

“One thing I’m hoping is that what the voters saw in as they got the results, that North Minneapolis where the Black folks live, areas where the Somali community lives. We vote for public safety, we vote to have enough cops and we don’t want to get rid of the MPD,” he said. “We want good police. And so I’m hoping that that message is getting out.”

Samuels pointed out that Amir Locke and his aunt voted no on the amendment in November. Four months later, Locke was shot and killed by an MPD officer who was serving a no-knock warrant – the very same type of warrant that Mayor Jacob Frey’s campaign website and the All Of Minneapolis campaign that advocated against the amendment claimed was already banned before the election. 

In response to Locke’s death, Frey’s office announced it was proposing a ban on no-knock warrants on March 14. Two weeks earlier, Omar introduced the Amir Locke End Deadly No-Knock Warrants Act, which will establish strict limitations on the use of no-knock warrants in drug-related investigations. Samuels said that he supports Omar’s legislation.

“Here you have our Congresswoman advocating to end what caused the death of Amir Locke,” he said. “Amir Locke went to the polls and voted to keep the police. And so she needs to be able to hold those two.”

But given that he claims Locke voted for something with incorrect information being put out by supporters of the current system, is it possible that people – Locke and others – were misled? 

“Yeah,” he said. “And we have to hold that too and say that’s wrong.”

Despite being on the winning side of both the public safety debate and the mayor’s race – Omar endorsed two of Frey’s challengers – 62,000 voters chose in favor of the public safety amendment. In what is expected to be a tight race elsewhere on the ticket for governor and attorney general, Samuels knows that outreach is key.

“We have campaign strategies for getting the vote out,” he said. 

Other Democratic issues

Samuels is aligned with Omar and the majority of Democrats on many key policy areas. He supports a $15 minimum wage – possibly higher than that.

“I think the inflation we’re experiencing that’s gonna eat away at that, and we have to adjust in the near future,” he said.

He is “absolutely” pro-choice, and opposes the anti-transgender and LGBTQ legislation that states like Florida and Texas are passing. Given the thin Democratic margins both in Minnesota and in Congress, those types of legislation could expand beyond those states to Minnesota or federally.

“I have trans kids in my life,” he said. “So we have to begin to get comfortable with the diversity we have in the world and accept it. And to understand that love is love.”

He also supports the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act

Relationship with the Jewish community

Omar’s relationship to the Jewish community has long been one filled with tensions, and those stem from a number of tweets — some of which dated back to 2012 and have since been deleted — that were deemed anti-Semitic, often stereotyping Jews with money and power. 

Samuels quipped that his first touchpoint with the Jewish community was when he worked in a deli living in New York after moving from Jamaica. In Minneapolis, he worked with an area Jewish organization on an initiative he and his wife, Sondra, started, called the Institute for Authentic Dialogue on Race. At least one rabbi and others in the Jewish community came to the Healing Our City prayer tent that he set up on West Broadway in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

Samuels – unprompted – said that he supports a two-state solution between the Israeli and Palestinian governments, but said he didn’t know what that looked like.

“I believe what you do is you say ‘I believe in this,’” he said. “You start there, and you sit at the table with that premise. I’m not at this point concerned about delineating what that might be looking like, but I am absolutely committed to that outcome. And to staying at whatever table to doing whatever I need to do to contribute to its occasion.”

The two-state solution is a place where he and Omar have similar positions. Where they differ is with respect to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement against Israel. Samuels is “vehemently opposed” to it, while Omar supports it. 

In a 2018 candidate forum at Beth El Synagogue, Omar was asked directly if she supported BDS, and Omar told a crowd of more than 1,000 people that the movement was “counteractive” because it wasn’t “helpful in getting a two-state solution.” A week after the 2018 election where she won her first term to Congress, Omar’s staff told the website Muslim Girl that “Ilhan believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized. She does, however, have reservations on the effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution,” a position she reiterated in text messages to TC Jewfolk

Courting controversy

For all of his advocacy – particularly in his home area of the North Side, his time in the public eye has also brought with it controversy and tragedy

In 2020, Samuels and his wife took a group of neighborhood children on a bike ride, where they stopped for a break at Boom Island Park in Minneapolis. According to reporting in the Sahan Journal, the children waded into the river to get their feet wet, but a strong current swept away 6-year-old Isaac Childress III. His body was found two days later.

Samuels didn’t answer a question about the incident and recently deleted a tweet making light of the incident. (Editor’s note, after the publication of this article, Samuels’ team supplied this statement on the tweet: “Last night, I deleted a tweet because I became defensive about a remark from my opponent’s staffer about the most devastating day in our lives. Twitter isn’t the medium for that conversation, and I more than capably showed why.”) 

In a 2007 interview with Mpls-St. Paul Magazine, when he was on the Minneapolis City Council, he declared “Burn North High School down,” which he said was made in the context of learning that 72 percent of African-American males were failing to graduate from the school.

“I just felt like I needed to say something that would capture the imagination of the public,” he says now, reflecting back on that quote. “It would wake people from this, ‘hey, everything’s cool…The school district’s successful, we’re one of the best cities to live in the country’ and all of that. And so I made a statement over the boundary. And apparently, it was clearly too much for the community to take.

“But I wanted to wake my community up and to wake the administration up.”

Samuels became a single dad when his son from his first wife was 3-years old. He said every time he would move, he would look at school districts and see what the performance was by race.  

“Every school I went to across the nation, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, California, New York: White on the top, Asian second, Hispanics third, and Black last,” he said. “I’ve tutored, I’ve advocated, I’ve done everything I could to do my part.”