MINNEAPOLIS — In a neighborhood dubbed “Little Mogadishu,” Mohamud Noor can’t walk more than a block without being stopped by someone who wants to shake his hand.
Juggling two cell phones and a stack of campaign fliers, he chats them up on his bid for a seat in Minnesota’s House of Representatives. They already know. He’s one of theirs.
“You’re going to succeed, keep on going,” Noor said, translating the encouraging words of an elderly Somali woman.
Noor, 36, has been door-knocking, phone-banking and fundraising in a race that could make him the first Somali-born state lawmaker in the U.S. With the backing of many in the city’s growing Somali-American population, Noor is pressing the longtime incumbent Democrat in a hotly contested primary.
Minnesota has become home to an estimated 30,000 Somalis who began fleeing civil war in their homeland a generation ago, drawn here by welcoming churches and social services. Many have settled in Minneapolis in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, where ethnic restaurants, markets and shops huddle in the shadow of massive high-rise apartment buildings.
So established is the community that members are rising in politics, with Somali-Americans capturing a Minneapolis school board seat in 2010 and a Minneapolis City Council seat last year. A win by Noor in November could add another milestone. Somali-American leaders said they know of no other state legislators.
Noor narrowly lost a race for state Senate in 2011. But he has raised about twice as much money for this campaign and hopes that running in the smaller House district, where about a fourth of the residents are foreign-born, could make a difference.
Noor is taking aim at Rep. Phyllis Kahn, 77, who has been in office for 42 years and routinely crushes opponents by 50 points or more.
A liberal Democrat, she touts her seniority and position atop the committee that controls arts and environmental funding. Among her top achievements, she lists the nation’s first indoor smoking restrictions passed in 1975.
Noor’s asset is Somalia. He fled the violence in his home country before his teen years. He and his family escaped to Kenya’s refugee camps, “living in tents, eating what we got,” he said. In 1999, the nine Noors moved together to Minnesota.
Today, he works at a local center that helps immigrants learn English and find work. He and his wife have four children.
On a recent weekday pounding the sidewalk in the district, Noor wore jeans and a dress shirt as he sought out potential votes. He waved down passing cars and leaned his slender frame inside to chat up drivers in Somali or English — or Amharic, Oromo or Swahili, other languages used in East African countries whose people have settled in the area.
Noor brings up issues, criticizing Kahn for not doing more to restrain tuition increases or to get more state money to expand a cultural center. But for many Somali voters, what’s important is, “He’s Somali. He’s a Muslim. He’s a good guy,” said Khadija Hirsi, 76, who lives in the community.
“I’ve been there. I understand their challenges,” Noor said.
In her first primary in years, Kahn isn’t conceding anything. With the energy that befits someone who still runs marathons and plays hockey, she is out door-knocking and putting up signs. The district is so heavily Democratic that their Aug. 12 primary is the de facto election.
Kahn has about twice as much cash on hand, $16,000 to his $8,000, for the last two weeks before the primary. She has the backing of statewide unions, Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.
Noor’s marquee endorsement comes from popular former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, and he’s also supported by several local progressive groups.
Kahn isn’t without support in the Somali community. She backed the Somali-American who won a spot last year on the City Council, Abdi Warsame, and has Warsame’s backing in this race. Warsame’s move sparked a divide in the community. A February caucus degenerated into a near-melee between Noor’s and Warsame’s supporters.
Sadik Warfa, a community member who himself made two unsuccessful bids for the Legislature, said he believes the race is “very close.” No matter how it turns out, he said, Minnesota’s Somali community has shown its political importance.
“We opened the doors for many people,” Warfa said.