August 9, 2016

Professor Matt Lindstrom featured in St. Cloud Times

Candidates reach out to Somali voters

Kirsti Marohn, 6:06 a.m. CDT August 2, 2016


(Photo: Times file photo)

On a sunny July day, as a crowd gathered at St. Cloud’s Lake George to celebrate Somali Independence Day, political candidates seized the microphone one after the other.

It’s a sign of the growing strength of Somali-Americans as a voting bloc that both political parties are taking seriously. Both the Republican and DFL state parties are reaching out to East African voters in an effort to connect with them on issues and earn their support.

As Somalis become more established in the St. Cloud community nearly two decades after the first refugees settled here, they’re also growing more politically involved and active.

“I do get the feeling at least talking to the members of the Somali community that they’re aware that they’re becoming more influential, and they want to participate in the public culture more than they have in the past,” said Aric Putnam, DFL candidate for the Minnesota House in District 14A.

It’s not just candidates targeting potential Somali voters. Somali community groups have organized forums and events and are inviting candidates to speak.

“They’ve become a significant voting bloc now here in the St. Cloud area,” said Zach Dorholt, DFL candidate for the Minnesota House in District 14B. “There are a lot of really talented young and organized folks in that community who have made it a point to reach out to us and to engage candidates.”
The Democratic Party traditionally has had more success in attracting minority and immigrant voters. But Republicans say they think the Somali people could find a lot to like in their party’s platform, including social values and protections for small business owners.

“They tend to be very conservative in terms of the way they live,” said Keith Downey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party. “They’re trying to make it. They’re trying to realize the American dream.”

However, winning over Somalis, who are mostly Muslims, could be challenging for local Republican candidates in the shadow of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose rhetoric has been seen by many as anti-Muslim.

“It has fired them up,” Dorholt said. “Trump’s comments specifically have caused people to get more involved.”

The growing political importance of Somalis isn’t surprising, said Matt Lindstrom, political science professor at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. With an estimated 40,000 Somalis living in Minnesota, “frankly, it’s just a matter of math,” Lindstrom said.

A growing number of Somalis have either become naturalized citizens or are second-generation children of immigrants and were born U.S. citizens, giving them voting rights. But just how many are registering to vote and exercising that right is unclear.

Historically, Somalis are following the typical pattern of an immigrant group that at first is concerned mainly with survival, not politics.

“If you’re worried about putting a roof over your head or how to feed your children, you’re not concerned about super delegates or primary voting,” Lindstrom said. “That’s just not important. Immediate needs are definitely more important.”

Refugees from Somalia were fleeing a country torn apart by violence and civil war, so many are likely skeptical and even afraid of the voting process that in some parts of the world remains dangerous.

But two decades after the first Somali refugees settled in Minnesota, there are now a growing number of Somalis who are more assimilated into the democratic process, Lindstrom said. There are Somali-American candidates running for St. Cloud City Council and the Minnesota House in Twin Cities legislative districts, including the first GOP-endorsed Somali candidate in House District 60B.

Omar Podi works as a part-time political organizer for the DFL Party on outreach to St. Cloud-area Somali voters. He explains how to register to vote, how to fill out the ballot and the different views of the candidates.

Although he's a Democrat, Podi tells Somali voters that it's important to vote no matter what party they support, for the future of the country and the Somali community.

"That's why we have to be engaged," he said.

St. Cloud-area candidates say they see Somali voters just like any others — diverse, with a wide range of views on issues.

“If you talk to white voters, they’ve got lots of different opinions about lots of different things, and I guess so do Somali voters,” said Rep. Jim Knoblach, a St. Cloud Republican.

Knoblach spoke at the Somali Independence Day celebration and touted legislation he sponsored last session that helped Somali families. But he said he doesn’t treat his Somali constituents any differently than others.

“I meet with them and listen to their concerns, just like I meet with other groups and other people," Knoblach said. "I think it’s just part of being a legislator — you need to reach out to your constituents and do your best to listen to them.”

Despite the tendency of minority groups to vote Democrat, Knoblach said he thinks many Somalis lean more GOP. Two years ago, Knoblach said he reached out to some Somalis expecting to hear about issues such as jobs and education. Instead, all they wanted to talk about was same-sex marriage.

“I don’t think a person can stereotype them any more than you can stereotype white voters," he said. "But I think that many of them find more conservative values attractive.”

Many first-generation Somali immigrants, especially older men, have conservative views on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and women’s rights, Lindstrom said. However, “that doesn’t mean that they vote Republican,” he said.

In some ways, Republicans have missed the boat on recruiting Somali voters based on social issues, Lindstrom said.

“I do see firsthand the Democrats playing a very active role in recruiting Somali-Americans to their campaigns,” he said. “And Republicans have been kind of late in the game on this.”

A complicating factor in this election is that boilerplate social issues such as abortion have largely taken a backseat with Trump’s candidacy. Still, some Republicans also see potential for connecting with the Somali community on pocketbook issues.

Many Somalis are entrepreneurs and small business owners who struggle with paying taxes and keeping up with licensing and regulations, Knoblach said.

“If you talk to them, they have the same concerns about high taxes and regulations and stuff as if you talk to a white, Republican small business owner,” he said.

Since the 2012 election, the state Republican Party has been making an effort to connect with groups with whom it hasn’t traditionally done well, such as minorities, women and young people, Downey said. That included moving the party offices from St. Paul to a Minneapolis neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of Somali residents in the state.

“I think most new Americans, Somalis included … want the same things that everybody does for their family and for themselves — better opportunity in life,” Downey said. “That’s why they came here.”

Somalis are starting small businesses, struggling with taxes and regulations and living in areas with failing schools, Downey said.

“You talk to them and you realize those are kind of fundamental Republican issues,” he said.

Still, anti-Muslim statements from national candidates like Trump are likely to alienate many Somalis and make it more difficult for local Republicans hoping to gain Somali votes, even if they don’t share the same views as Trump.

Rep. Tama Theis, a St. Cloud Republican in House District 14A, said she can't control what national candidates say, so she tries to focus on local issues.

"He’s going to do on a national level what he’s going to do," Theis said. "But I’m here in St. Cloud, in this state, and that’s where my concerns have to be."

Follow Kirsti Marohn on TwitterFacebook or contact her by phone at 320-255-8746.

January 6, 2015

Reopening economic ties between the U.S. and Cuba will benefit both countries

Reopening economic ties between the U.S. and Cuba will benefit both countries

By Michael S. Hartz and Louis D. Johnston | 12/19/14
President Obama’s announcement that the United States and Cuba will resume full diplomatic relations came as a surprise, but it isn’t surprising that the United States and Cuba are rebuilding their economic relations.
Cuba was an important American trading partner before the U.S. trade embargo began in 1960. For instance, exports from the United States to Cuba were about 13 percent of total exports to Latin America in the late 1950s, with the dollar amount of exports from the U.S. to Cuba were equal to American exports to France over the same period. Imports from Cuba to the U.S. were of a similar magnitude.

Limited incomes

With renewed trade, American businesses will gain access to a new market for their goods, but the demand for those products is limited by Cuban incomes. The figure below shows Cuba’s income per capita from two perspectives: in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars and relative to U.S. GDP per capita.
Cuban GDP per capita, 1947–2008
Cuban GDP dropped precipitously after the fall of the Soviet Union and only recovered its 1988 level in 2005.
Created with Highcharts 4.0.4Chart context menuGDP per capita in 1990 dollarsGDP per capita relative to U.S.1950196019701980199020005%10%15%20%25%30%$1,500$2,000$2,500$3,000$3,500$4,000
GDP per capita in 1990 dollars: $3,764
GDP per capita relative to U.S.: 12%
Cuban income per person grew steadily from the mid-1960s until the collapse of the Soviet Union. From 1988 to 1993, Cuba’s income per capita fell by almost 40 percent and did not reach its 1988 level until 2005. All of this meant that Cuba fell further behind the United States in terms of GDP per capita, falling from 22 percent of the US level in 1947 to 12 percent in 2008.

Bright prospects for exports

The prospects for Cuban exports to the U.S. are brighter. First, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba refocused its economy to encourage tourism. With reduced restrictions on travel, more Americans will head to Cuba to relax with a nice cigar and a bit of rum and they will be able to bring back more of what they sample.

Commodity exports to the U.S. are another potential source of growth for the Cuban economy. Cuba’s sugar is famous around the world, but will likely face a tough time in the United States because we give our sugar producers a defensive barrier through quotas on sugar imports. You can bet that Red River Valley sugar beet farmers will not allow these barriers to fall without a fight.
In addition to sugar, Cuba also exports nickel, a mineral that is used in many industrial processes such as the creation of stainless steel. The U.S. imports around 43% of our nickel from the rest of the world and Cuba could benefit by entering the U.S. market.
Another policy change that President Obama unveiled in his speech was that he was planning to loosen limits on remittances, i.e. money that people living in America can send to friends or family living in Cuba. This will benefit Cubans by increasing the flow of dollars from the U.S. to Cuba.
One of the most important policy initiatives was that the United States is going to begin helping Cuba to develop better internet infrastructure. This is a big change that indicates Cuba is willing to work with U.S. companies and investors, something it was not willing to do during the Cold War and not able to do with the embargo in place.

Unanswered questions from 1959

Thinking about U.S. investments in Cuba is where things start to get a little bit messier. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, there was over $1.8 billion worth of U.S. capital in Cuba and all of those assets were nationalized by the Cuban government. This remains a touchy issue because the existing law that enforces the U.S.-Cuban embargo, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, specifically states that the ownership of all $1.8 billion of U.S. investment that was confiscated after the Cuban Revolution has to be addressed before the embargo can be fully lifted.
President Obama outlined in his speech that he would engage Congress to change the law, but the incoming Congress looks to be very hostile. So it is not without some pressure from home that President Obama has decided to pursue this.
So what will this look like in the long run? Well, don’t buy your plane ticket just yet — there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done for Cuba and the U.S. to have a normal economic relationship. However, with around 2 million Cubans and Cuban descendants living in the United States and serious reforms in Cuba over the last few decades, this looks to be the first of many steps to recovery.
President Obama said something during his speech that would stand out to anyone from Latin America, “Todos somos Americanos,” “We are all Americans.” This, in a sense, is the most convincing piece of evidence that there has been a serious change in attitude towards Cuba, and that we’ll see some serious changes to U.S.-Cuban economic policy. So go ahead, open up a bottle of rum to celebrate — it’s the beginning of a new chapter with Cuba.

Michael S. Hartz is a senior at St. John’s University and a student coordinator at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement.