With much applause, a smattering of boos, and one protestor shouting from the back, more than 1,000 people packed into Beth El Synagogue on Monday night to hear from the five DFL candidates running for Keith Ellison’s seat in Congress ahead of the Aug. 14 primary.
Jamal Abdulahi, Frank Drake, Former Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, State Rep. Ilhan Omar, and State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray answered an array of questions from Almanac’s Mary Lahammer, a veteran journalist and moderator of many candidate debates over her career.
The winner of the DFL Primary on Aug. 14 will face a Republican challenger in November’s general election, although the seat is among the safest Democratic seats in Congress; a DFLer has represented that district since 1962.
Lahammer questioned the five candidates on topics ranging from gun violence prevention to health care, but it was the topics on U.S. relations with Israel and xenophobia and anti-Semitism that the audience wanted to hear about.
Omar affirmed her support for Israel’s right to exist, as well as not supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement which targets Israel.
“I support a two-state solution. It is going to be important for us to recognize Israel’s place in the Middle East and the Jewish people’s rightful place within that region,” she said. “I believe right now with the BDS movement, it’s not helpful in getting that two-state solution. I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure, and I think that pressure really is counteractive. Because in order for us to have a process of getting to a two-state solution, people have to be willing to come to the table and have a conversation about how that is going to be possible and I think that stops the dialogue. I want to make sure that we are furthering policies and advocating for things that get people closer to having that conversation”.
Torres Ray, Kelliher and Abdulahi both affirmed their support for a two-state solution as well as their opposition to BDS.
Omar, who has encountered her own Islamophobia, stressed the importance of unity amongst all faiths to combat anti-Semitism.
“It’s true anti-Semitism is alive and well. I look forward to joining with the Jewish community in allyship to fight bigotry that is fostering in the community so we are stronger together,” said Omar. “With unity, we have the strength to push back.”
Kelliher, who is the CEO of the Minnesota High-Tech Alliance, talked about the speech contest she took part in while she was in 4H, which was sponsored by the JCRC. While she remembers coming in second – and not winning a trip to Israel – she did learn about the importance of fighting hate together.
“When anyone is singled out in any way, we come together as a community to educate and work together,” she said. “Whether an attack on Islam or Judaism, I will stand with you to fight.”
The forum, co-sponsored by: Jewish Community Action, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota, and Jewfolk, Inc. (the parent company of TC Jewfolk), was the fourth of five scheduled forums for the five Democrats vying for Rep. Keith Ellison’s soon-to-be-vacated 5th Congressional District seat. Ellison is running for Minnesota Attorney General rather than a seventh term in Congress.
The forum, while sponsored by Jewish agencies and hosted at a synagogue, was not an event that was solely for the Jewish community to attend; not only was it open to the broader community, it’s the only of the 5th District forums to be open to the public.
One of the topics that wasn’t asked about was Omar’s Israel-related tweets, particularly one from six years ago – the same questions were asked of all five candidates with each given opportunity to answer. Someone had printed the tweet in question and stuck the fliers under windshield wipers in the Beth El Synagogue parking lot, as well as leaving them in the women’s restroom, and harassed people in the parking lot leaving the event.
On the event’s Facebook page, a poll asked people to vote for their top priority, where health care came out ahead, and was the first topic Lahammer asked about. Four of the five candidates – Drake excepted – advocated for single-payer health care.
“I believe we need to move from the promise of the Affordable Care Act to a system that offers health care for all,” Torres Ray said. “I believe it is the only way we can offer access to all generations, and to ensure quality.
While three of the five candidates have been elected to office before, two – Abdulahi and Drake – had not. Abdulahi, an engineer and community organizer, said that having previous electoral experience shouldn’t be a pre-requisite.
“We need folks with mainstream experience,” Abdulahi said. “I have private sector experience, and it takes considerable effort to get things done. It’s a differentiator.”
Drake, a realtor, has run for office – he was Ellison’s Republican opponent in 2016 before switching parties this year. He clashed several times with Lahammer, who tried to keep him on task and answer the question.
“I’ve gotten more votes than everyone at the table combined,” Drake said, quoting the 80,660 votes he got in 2016. Ellison had nearly 250,000 in his victory.