Can This Mild-Mannered Mediator Defeat Ilhan Omar?

Can This Mild-Mannered Mediator Defeat Ilhan Omar?

By Jacob Pagano

Antone Melton-Meaux


Because this race symbolizes the Democrats’ stylistic divide.

By Jacob Pagano

  • Antone Melton-Meaux is mounting a Democratic primary challenge to freshman U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a national star and member of “the Squad.”
  • The mediator and youth preacher hopes his calmer style of consensus building can win out over the fiery, controversial Omar.
  • The race is playing out in Minneapolis, against the backdrop of George Floyd’s killing and mass protests.

In the days following George Floyd’s death, Antone Melton-Meaux marched through Minneapolis and spoke with folks in his community about police reform. At one gathering, he stood with his daughter for a moment of silence in Floyd’s honor. In many ways, the process of grieving and calling for justice was familiar. As a youth preacher in his hometown of Cincinnati, Melton-Meaux often eulogized young people killed by gang violence. “Everyone was hungry for someone to bring people together with a message of hope and accountability,” he says.

Today, Melton-Meaux, 47, is bringing that message to bear in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing and in his Democratic primary challenge to freshman U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. A lawyer who founded his own mediation practice, Melton-Meaux first became involved in politics when he was selected as a Congressional Black Caucus fellow in the 1990s. Working for District of Columbia Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton under her chief of staff Donna Brazile, who would go on to become Democratic National Committee chair, Melton-Meaux came away with an appreciation for the collaboration necessary to pass laws.

He doesn’t see that in Omar, a member of “the Squad” of fiery young female legislators that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A Somali refugee, Omar has become a lightning rod for her criticism of Israel, at times dabbling in anti-Semitic tropes, for which she has apologized. Melton-Meaux has called her comments hurtful, while reaching out directly to Minneapolis’ Jewish community, the majority of which lives in the 5th District, where the race is taking place. Melton-Meaux also takes issue with the fact that Omar was the only member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation to oppose a new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. Omar had raised objections about environmental and labor protections; Melton-Meaux says the deal will boost the state’s economy.

We are going to have a mediation moment between legislators, residents and the police department.

Antone Melton-Meaux

The primary reflects a division within the Democratic Party between uncompromising progressivism and old-school strategizing. Melton-Meaux is running as a compromiser willing, as he puts it, to have “a coffee with a Republican” in search of common ground. While some might argue that this approach is divorced from the Twitter era, he has received several key endorsements. “He addresses everything with a great deal of thought and care as well as compassion,” says former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger, who’s backing Melton-Meaux.

Omar’s campaign stands by her record, highlighting the 35 bills she has introduced, as well as her leadership positions, including as whip of the Progressive Caucus. Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s communications director, also points out that Omar won by a wide margin in 2018 and continues to poll well among Democrats nationally. For Slevin, this indicates that Omar’s commitment to progressive legislation, which is at times on the cusp of the party’s priorities, reflects the very leadership style her constituents want. 

Yet Melton-Meaux is not exactly running as a moderate. He has called for defunding the police (Omar endorsed this idea as well after Floyd’s killing) as part of reimagining public safety with a renewed commitment to community programs, housing equity and education. The stance is in keeping with Melton-Meaux’s background as a volunteer mediator in housing and education discrimination cases for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights. He also represents children in the foster care system in their search for permanent homes. His demeanor, tactful yet visionary, testifies to his commitment to this work. He’s deeply engaged in community life, whether attending his children’s school activities or delivering a sermon.

Melton-Meaux has been steeped in civil rights since the womb. His grandparents worked the Kentucky land handed down to them by their emancipated relatives, while his parents were active in the civil rights movement. His father led his high school’s integration in Mercer County, Kentucky; his mother devoted her career to helping communities find affordable housing.

It’s the kind of work that deals in long hours and even longer odds, not unlike toppling a sitting member of Congress in a primary — though that feat has already happened three times this year (the casualties were Democrat Dan Lipinski and Republicans Steve King and Denver Riggleman). While Melton-Meaux had raised a substantial $470,000 by the end of March, Omar’s national stardom has helped her pull in $3.3 million.

With this Minneapolis-based congressional district still grieving and convulsing with protests, the race has been scrambled. Add in pandemic voting challenges, and the August 11 primary becomes even harder to predict. Melton-Meaux is betting that a voice of calm is what these times need.

“We are going to have a mediation moment between legislators, residents and the police department,” he says. “That can only work if people come willing to listen and willing to work. Hard work, service, community — they are in my DNA.”