Kirsti Marohn, email@example.com 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.
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.
It’s not just candidates targeting potential Somali voters. Somali community groups have organized forums and events and are inviting candidates to speak.
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.
“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."
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