Omar Fateh, a 30-year-old, self-proclaimed Democratic socialist who unseated a powerful state senator in this week’s DFL primary, sold himself as a bold alternative for Minneapolis voters who are “fed up and want political change.”
“This is what it looks like to hold power to account. This is what it looks like to win for change,” Fateh tweeted after soundly defeating Sen. Jeff Hayden, a 12-year statehouse veteran with a caucus leadership post and no shortage of progressive credentials.
Fateh’s message resonated in one of the city’s most liberal Senate districts, a swath of south-central Minneapolis that includes the corner where George Floyd was killed by police at the end of May.
Fateh’s victory was just one in a wave of young progressives who toppled at least three DFL legislators in Tuesday’s primary election, delivering wins for activists who had called for a changing of the guard in Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
In another show of strength by the DFL’s liberal wing, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a champion for the progressive left, defeated a well-funded rival by a wide margin.
While the left’s primary victories were confined to the Twin Cities and Duluth, they are likely to echo across Minnesota before the general election, as Democrats try to activate youthful voters and Republicans work to cast their foes as out of touch with suburban and rural constituencies.
“Progressives not only propose policies, we organize folks around achieving those policies in legislation,” said Omar, whose 2016 win over a longtime incumbent legislator abetted her rapid rise into Congress. “We’ve always been the pacesetters of where our party should go, and how to achieve that better tomorrow.”
The upsets, all in districts Democrats are expected to win in November, will bring more youth and diversity to the State Capitol. Fateh, 30, is set to become the first Somali American to serve in the Senate. A pair of white, male incumbents in the Twin Cities were ousted by younger women of color.
The outcomes could also alter political dynamics at the State Capitol and across Minnesota, as a growing bloc of progressive lawmakers gains numbers and influence. In addition to the fallen incumbents, several retiring legislators are slated to be succeeded by younger, liberal nominees in safe districts.
“We knew this was a big opportunity to change and have actual representation from the progressive wing,” said Jason Chavez-Cruz, president of the DFL Party’s youth caucus. “We saw on the ground, people were asking for change.”
It seems clear the outcome wasn’t just about politics. Hayden, currently one of two Black men in the Senate, has been a leading advocate for police reform and investment in communities of color.
“I’m as progressive as they come, my record shows that,” he said. “But I am pragmatic, and I think for people in this district, I think that became a negative word.”
Another incumbent was Rep. Raymond Dehn, who was elected in 2012 to the House seat that covers downtown Minneapolis and the near North Side.
Boasting one of the Legislature’s most progressive records, he finished second in the 2017 mayor’s race in Minneapolis in a campaign that saw him call for disarming and transforming the police — now a rallying cry for many young progressives.
Attorney Esther Agbaje, who led Dehn by a 5-point margin Tuesday, said that as she campaigned, she found residents frustrated about issues of environmental justice, housing affordability and health care.
“Yes, people have been working for those issues, but it’s been hard to see what the progress is,” she said. “People are looking to give someone else a chance, try a different approach.”
Dehn, Hayden and Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth, another ousted lawmaker, all failed to win the DFL’s backing in endorsement votes earlier this year. In Duluth, divisions over the environment and proposed copper-nickel mining sites helped propel political newcomer Jen McEwen to victory over the labor-backed incumbent.
But even the DFL endorsement was not enough to save state Rep. John Lesch, another incumbent cast out Tuesday by a younger challenger. Attorney Athena Hollins dropped from the race after Lesch secured the party endorsement, but then re-entered it after Floyd’s death.
“It’s clear that people are ready for us to make big changes at the Capitol — taking bold action on climate change, pushing for universal health coverage, and making affordable housing a reality for our neighbors, regardless of who you are, how you worship, or who you love,” Hollins said in a statement.
Lesch, also an attorney, served for nine terms, ascending to the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. He suggested that his loss was based not on policy differences but what he called “identity politics.” Likening himself to a “policy manual in a swipe-right world,” he predicted other long-serving Democrats could face similar fates in 2022 and beyond.
“I think it’s fair to say that unless you can present yourself as something new, as far as demographics go, you’ve got a real uphill climb in this environment,” Lesch said.
Lesch said he’d vote for Hollins in November but predicted that she and other challengers who unseated incumbents on Tuesday would find it difficult to deliver on their vows of transformative political change in the frequently gridlocked state Legislature.
“I think in both parties, as new generations of politicians come in, you’re seeing more and more concern with optics over policy,” Lesch said. “That filters up to leadership as well, and in my opinion it’s why you see a decreasing amount of policy passed at the Minnesota Capitol.”
Several top DFL leaders downplayed those concerns. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said as the Legislature has become more diverse, it has become better at addressing issues that affect all of Minnesota’s communities.
“Being divided and having underrepresented groups not at the table is how we get to situations like what we saw in Minneapolis this summer,” he said. “That level of division and distrust will ruin us. We need to change. And part of these election results are realizing some of those changes.”
Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413