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WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum faces a primary challenge from a first-time candidate calling for generational change in an attempt to topple one of Minnesota's most powerful congressional Democrats.

Democratic operative Amane Badhasso is looking to oust a lawmaker who has served for more than two decades in Congress in a year when their party is seeking to hold narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

"Experience matters," said McCollum. "You want a doctor with experience, you want a car mechanic with experience, you want a plumber who knows what they're doing. And right now, with the way the economy is, and what's happening with women's rights and voting rights, people feel good about the experience that I've had and the work that I do."

Rep. Betty McCollum canvassed in her district, running into acquaintance Dick Jones in St. Paul ahead of the August primary.
Rep. Betty McCollum canvassed in her district, running into acquaintance Dick Jones in St. Paul ahead of the August primary.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

The differences between the two are relatively thin on policy, with both backing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, prized progressive ideals that thrill the liberal base but don't have a path forward in Washington now.

Yet Badhasso is trying to position herself as a bold alternative to McCollum and what she criticizes as "complacent status quo, out-of-touch politics."

"The main reason why we need a new generation of Democrats and folks who are not beholden to special interests is because we've observed time and time again why important legislation that should be supported on behalf of working class families dies," Badhasso said. "It dies because we send folks like Betty McCollum to Congress."

However, the reality in Washington is that Republicans and centrist Democrats to the right of McCollum are the ones who often dash progressive dreams.

Despite the heated campaign, the struggle to turn out voters in what tends to be a sleepy primary for the reliably blue Fourth Congressional District seat presents a challenge.

On a recent weekday morning at Nina's Coffee Cafe, a magnet for politicos in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill neighborhood, retired magazine editor Steve Kaplan admitted that despite McCollum's two decades in Congress, he doesn't know much about her. But he still plans to vote for her in the primary.

"Here's what I do know: She's been a reliable liberal voice," Kaplan said. "For the few things I do know her for, I would never vote against her."

At other coffee shops on St. Paul's busy University Avenue and in the heart of its old Rondo neighborhood, several people either said they weren't following the race or didn't want to be interviewed.

Badhasso, a 32-year-old former refugee born in Ethiopia, was a regional organizing director with the DFL during the 2020 general election cycle and now works as a project manager and consultant at a Roseville transportation company, according to her campaign. A spokesperson noted in an e-mail that if Badhasso wins the seat, she would make history as both the first Oromo and first from Ethiopia elected to Congress.

"We need to make sure that we're sending somebody there that is not entrenched in the Washington way of doing things," Badhasso said.

On National Night Out, Amane Badhasso spoke with residents in the St. Paul neighborhood she hopes to represent.
On National Night Out, Amane Badhasso spoke with residents in the St. Paul neighborhood she hopes to represent.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

The 68-year-old McCollum is the longest serving member of Minnesota's congressional delegation and has established herself as a reserved but influential force in Washington. She was chair of the appropriations subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and related agencies before taking the lead on the appropriations subcommittee handling defense spending.

Badhasso has decried the incumbent for accepting campaign donations from corporate employee political action committees from such firms as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin that are tied to the defense industry.

"They don't know what she's doing in Washington, but they do know she holds a position where she is the ultimate CFO of the military industrial complex," Badhasso said of people within the Fourth District.

McCollum says the contributions her campaign has taken show "a cross-spectrum of people that I represent." She also said that Badhasso "is a person who doesn't understand how government works."

"If liberals and progressives want to shape the way our defense funding is spent, then we need to be at the table," McCollum said. "And I'm not only at the table, I have a gavel."

The latest campaign finance records show that McCollum has a hefty financial advantage over her challenger. McCollum also has the support of DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Attorney General Keith Ellison, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and every Democratic member of Minnesota's congressional delegation with the exception of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.

While Omar said in a January story published by the Intercept that "[Badhasso] truly is one of the most impressive people I have ever met," she has not made an endorsement in the race.

"[Badhasso's] challenge is that she's running against an incumbent," Tim Lynch, a political science professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "And incumbents rarely lose in primaries."

Also on the DFL primary ballot is Fasil Moghul, who has not reported any contributions with the FEC.

In one of the most contentious points of the campaign, Badhasso said in a Twitter video posted in May that "after George Floyd's murder, [McCollum] was silent on racial justice" and alleged McCollum "even referenced my race in campaign polling" despite having no evidence linking the incumbent to the questionnaire.

McCollum responded in a letter that her "campaign did not conduct, pay for, or have anything to do with this poll" and noted early comments about Floyd and her support for police reform, saying that "within hours of Mr. Floyd's death, I was calling for action in response to this injustice."

Aside from the district's DFL convention where McCollum won party endorsement, the two have not publicly debated. Early voting in the race has been going on for weeks and while Badhasso charges that she wants a debate, McCollum said in an interview, "I don't plan on giving her a platform for her misinformation."

Badhasso was endorsed by TakeAction Minnesota after working as lead organizer for the progressive group last year from January to August. "She's got very clear political values and ideology," said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, a TakeAction spokeswoman.

Even though Badhasso has the organization's support, Hadj-Moussa noted the race "will be an uphill battle for her, for sure" and said "it's not the highest priority for us."

Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said he expects McCollum "not only to win, but to win decisively."

"I'm frustrated on a number of levels because one, we have a great congresswoman who's delivering for her district and is still very effective," Martin said. "And two, just the sheer amount of resources being spent there could easily be spent in other districts throughout our state and the country to help us keep control of Congress."

Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.