Are Somali Americans the Swing Vote of the Future?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Recent migrants and new citizens, including thousands of Somali Americans in Maine, Ohio and Minnesota, are building their political influence. And no one should take them for granted.
By Nick Fouriezos
- In key swing states like Ohio, Minnesota and Maine, new immigrant communities such as Somali Americans are fast building political influence that could impact races.
- But they’re making clear to Democrats that they’re not to be taken for granted.
Soon after 14-year-old Ilhan Omar arrived in Minneapolis, the Somali refugee fell in love … with the idea of democracy in action, as she would take her grandfather to a party caucus while serving as his cultural and linguistic translator. “I fell in love with the process,” she recently told OZY. “It is a very grassroots democratic process that sort of invites neighbors to have robust debate about what’s at stake.”
In 2018, three decades later, Omar became the first Somali American elected to the U.S. Congress, riding on a surge in Somali voting rates. It was no fluke. The year she was elected, the U.S. foreign-born population reached a record 44.8 million people — nearly half of whom are already naturalized citizens, and who in total account for nearly 14 percent of the American population. For context, white evangelical Protestants, who often are credited with wielding outsize political influence, only make up about 15 percent.
That’s just one sign of how new immigrant communities are emerging as a political force asserting themselves in American civic life — with Somali Americans being a particularly strong example in key 2020 swing states, including Minnesota, Maine and Ohio.
Somali immigrants began arriving in Portland, Maine, in the early 2000s and quickly shifted northward to Lewiston, a struggling New England mill town whose factories were shutting down as NAFTA pushed manufacturing overseas. Thousands came, making their own a city that was previously 95 percent white in the whitest state in the nation. “This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all,” the mayor, Laurier T. Raymond, penned in an open letter to the community in 2002, requesting that the city’s immigrants discourage others from coming to preserve city resources. The letter sparked outrage, national condemnations and a rally led by white supremacists — although only 32 people showed up, far outnumbered by the 4,000 counterprotesters supporting their new neighbors.
Yet despite that uncomfortable transition, Somali Americans, and other African immigrant communities, have since integrated. The first decade was spent building businesses, particularly along Lisbon Street, where multiple ethnic groceries, clothing boutiques and phone depots dominate a strip with American flags fluttering freely next to Somali ones. The next has been spent amassing the community’s influence. “We were building our capacity. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from … if you’ve been fleeing from violence all your life, you don’t think about politics,” says Fatuma Hussein, the Somali founder of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine. In 2018, three Somali candidates ran for school board. And although they each lost, one of them, 23-year-old Safiya Khalid, became the first Somali American elected to a seat on the city council the following year. It was “a seminal moment,” says Phil Nadeau, who was deputy city administrator from 1999 until 2017.
The Democratic Party has this idea that everybody of color is a Democrat, and yet when it comes to engaging with our issues, we don’t see it in a meaningful way.
Fatuma Hussein, Somali immigrant and founder of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine
Although there are some 13,000 ethnic Somalis in the Portland and Lewiston areas, the Democratic and Republican parties have been slow to bring them into the fold even though every vote will matter in Maine, where both the U.S. Senate and 2nd Congressional District race could be decided by just a few percentage points. The Senate campaign of Democrat Sara Gideon ignored requests to let a reporter interview one of their Somali volunteers for this story, and neither state party responded to questions about how they were organizing the Somali community.
“We are a huge voting number with high participation rates and we are changing the demographics of Maine, whether people like it or not,” says Hussein, who adds that their leaders are focused on holding both parties accountable. “The Democratic Party has this idea that everybody of color is a Democrat, and yet when it comes to engaging with our issues, we don’t see it in a meaningful way.”
Language barriers remain, as do religious ones. Older Muslim constituents aren’t alway eager to involve themselves in politics, and both the GOP and DNC struggle with how to court a constituency that can simultaneously reject Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric yet also may feel uncomfortable with the pro-choice and pro-LGBT stances of the left. Khalid is running nonpartisan voter registration events for Mainers, including a “Black realities” series bringing people of color together. She says that most of the younger members of the Somali community are progressive. “It’s a culture clash,” she admits. However, while Somali elders lean more conservative culturally, she says most plan to vote against Trump and for Democrats in November: “Trump stands against everything I stand for. And a lot of the immigrant population sees that too. Especially if you are a Somali, Muslim, Black woman.”
Maine isn’t the only state where Democrats are struggling to win over new immigrants. Some 100,000 Muslim Americans of African descent reside in central Ohio. Mohamed Jama has been a nonprofit leader in the Somali community in Columbus for decades and a loyal Democrat organizer for both the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Yet when he ran for a vacant state house seat in his district earlier this year, the county Democratic Party — whose executive committee he sat on for years — took the unusual step of endorsing his opponent despite pleas from Somali residents to stay neutral to give all candidates an equal shot. “They were sending out sample ballots with [his opponent’s] name on it,” says Jama, still frustrated months after he lost by just about 1,500 votes in an election delayed by COVID-19. “They don’t see me as an African American. They see me as an immigrant.”
Democrat Emilia Sykes, the Ohio House minority leader, says she would like to see new Americans getting opportunities to lead: “They are very engaged, they are a large population that wants to be part of the process.” But with neither party truly embracing them, it’s unclear who will win their hearts and minds down the line. “We take our issues and relay them to all the elected officials, over and over again, but it’s just lip service,” Jama says. Which is why it’s become even more important for Somali Americans and other recent immigrants to break through with leaders of their own. “We’ll keep fighting. We’ll overcome this,” Jama says.