Former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels launched a rematch campaign Sunday against Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, whom he came closer to defeating in last year's DFL primary than any candidate before him.
Samuels, a Jamaican immigrant who also previously served on the Minneapolis School Board, lost to the nationally known progressive congresswoman by just over two percentage points. This time around, Samuels said he'll have more time and likely more money to help him win next August. He launched his last congressional campaign against Omar just five months before the Democratic primary election, and he said many donors didn't believe he stood a chance.
"The trajectory of my campaign is still intact," Samuels, 74, said in an interview at his home in north Minneapolis. "And then, of course, Ilhan has not helped herself. She's dug a deeper hole, especially in this most recent [Israel-Hamas] crisis, and continues to demonstrate that there's an urgent need for new leadership."
Samuels joins two other Democrats, Air Force veteran Tim Peterson and attorney Sarah Gad, who are challenging Omar, a third-term congresswoman.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Omar said she has fought in Congress for "the progressive values Minnesotans sent me to advocate for," from fighting to codify abortion protections into federal law to pushing for climate change legislation and an assault weapons ban.
Omar also noted that Samuels received a campaign donation last year from billionaire Republican Harlan Crow. "Right-wing donors have targeted me since I first entered public life, so I am not surprised that my challenger previously received contributions from Harlan Crow, the same far-right billionaire who bankrolled Clarence Thomas," she said.
In their first contest, Samuels repeatedly criticized Omar for supporting the failed 2021 ballot initiative that would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency. His message seemed to resonate with many voters and officials in the Fifth Congressional District, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who endorsed Samuels' campaign.
It's unclear if that message will be as relevant when they face off next year. While public safety remains an important issue, Samuels said he will focus some of his criticism on what he feels are Omar's inconsistent values.
He blasted the congresswoman for taking a World Cup trip funded by Qatar, which has been widely criticized for human rights abuses; Omar has been an outspoken critic of other countries such as Israel and India for their human rights records.
And Samuels accused Omar of having "minimized the assault on Israel and exacerbated divisions in the way she frames the problem in Palestine."
"I also am outraged at the carnage of innocents, and I'd speak against it," Samuels said. "But we have to be balanced and we have to speak about things in such a way remembering that America is ultimately, at the end of the day, the broker of peace."
Omar has publicly condemned both Hamas' attacks on Israelis and Israel's counterattacks in Gaza. However, she was one of only 10 U.S. House members to oppose a recent resolution that reaffirmed Israel's right to self-defense, condemned "Hamas' brutal war against Israel" and proclaimed the U.S. ready to assist Israel in the conflict.
In a statement explaining her vote, Omar said the resolution "rightly acknowledges and mourns the lives taken by Hamas" but "fails to acknowledge and mourn" the Palestinians killed by Israel in retaliation.
Though he's often knocked Omar for her statements, Samuels said he did not agree with House Republicans kicking her off the Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year. He also doesn't think Omar's fellow progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib should have been censured by the House for her statements about the Israel-Hamas war.
"I disagree with Rashida, but she's in a kind of pain that I'm not," Samuels said of Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress. "I think it's better for the healing of our nation and ending the international conflict if she's heard."
Samuels has his own history of controversial comments. He once made a highly criticized remark that Minneapolis' North High School should be burned down — a statement he said he meant metaphorically and came out of frustration with low graduation rates. Additionally, he apologized last year for making a flippant comment in response to critics who accused him of not adequately chaperoning a child who tragically drowned on his and his wife's watch.
Some of Omar's supporters felt that her narrow victory last year might have had more to do with low voter turnout than enthusiasm for Samuels. Voters are likely to be more engaged next year with a presidential election on the ballot.
"If we're going to stop Donald Trump, we need record turnout, and I am confident in our ability to drive turnout, particularly in a presidential election year," Omar said in her statement.
Samuels has deep roots in the community, particularly in north Minneapolis. He's advocated against gun violence ever since a bullet pierced his home there roughly 25 years ago. And he and his wife pushed for more police officers when crime spiked a couple of years ago, suing to compel Minneapolis to increase police staffing.
If elected to Congress, Samuels said he would seek to create incentives and school training programs that direct more people into law enforcement careers. Homelessness is another issue Samuels said he would prioritize in Congress.
He said he knows defeating Omar won't be an easy task. The congresswoman will have House Democratic leadership in her corner next year — every top-ranking House Democrat, including Leader Hakeem Jeffries, recently endorsed her re-election campaign.
"I expect that she's going to be sending out ads saying, 'they're coming after me again,' " Samuels said. "She will raise money."