Diversity in Action: Minneapolis Elects Its First Hmong, Somali and Hispanic City Council Members

It is hard not to feel good about these elections. Though they are local, they demonstrate how important the American democratic process is to communities recently arrived in the United States.
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In an off-election year, the most interesting news is often at the local level. Minneapolis has scored a first for this city. It has elected its first Somali, Hmong and Hispanic city council members. This represents a major change in city governance, and a sign of progress for recent immigrants to the area.

Many people see the Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin Cities area as a quintessentially white community, down the road from Garrison Keillor's fictitious Lake Woebegon with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran churches. Few people realize that the African-American, Asian and Hispanic populations make up nearly half of the population of the Twin Cities.

The Somali population is the largest in the nation at this point with 14,000. They began migrating to Minnesota in the mid-1990s at the beginning of the Somali Civil War Somalis have a major business presence in the city, and they are a growing population in the universities and colleges of the city.

The Hmong, who come from northern Thailand and Laos, have a longer history of immigration to the United States. Supporters of the United States during the Vietnam War, they were targeted after the U.S. withdrawal and were allowed to emigrate to the United States. With more than 50,000 residents in the Twin Cities area, they constitute the second largest Hmong community in the U.S. (after Fresno, Calif.). The Hmong have also made great strides in business and education.

The Twin Cities Hispanic population in the Twin Cities has doubled since 2000, and now stands at more than 140,000. This matches growth in other mid-sized cities in the U.S. but it has had a dramatic impact in Minnesota. Like the Hmong and Somali populations, the Hispanic population has become prosperous and educated over the past two decades.

Minnesota is seen as a progressive state. In fact, however, it exhibits a close balance between liberal and conservative political persuasions. Tea Party Caucus leader Michele Bachmann's Congressional District is next door to that of Progressive Caucus Leader, Keith Ellison. Between 2010 and 2012 the State Senate and House had a Republican majority. In 2012 both houses switched to a Democratic majority. Even though the urban areas are the most liberal, it is still a real sign of political change when the City Council of Minneapolis exhibits such a dramatic change.

The new Council members are highly qualified for their new offices. Blong Yang from the Hmong community is a local attorney. Mr. Yang has a law degree from the University of Minnesota, and an undergraduate degree from UCLA. He served as an investigator for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and ran his own law form. He also worked for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis.

Mexican-American Alondra Cano has been a communications specialist for the Minneapolis Public Schools and and a long-time activist for Hispanic civil rights. She has close connections with officials in City Hall, a point on which she campaigned.

The first Somali Council Member, Abdi Warsame, received 64 percent of the vote in his district. He had nearly 1500 volunteers working for his election. Mr. Warsame spent much of his life in England before moving to Minneapolis in 2006. He heads a tenant's association in an award-winning housing complex where a large proportion of residents are Somali. Mr. Warsame defeated the 12 year veteran incumbent, Robert Lilligren, who is a member of the White Band of Ojibwe Indians, showing a shift in the population of the district, which also contains a large proportion of American Indians.

It is hard not to feel good about these elections. Though they are local, they demonstrate how important the American democratic process is to communities recently arrived in the United States. None of these candidates were elected only by members of their own community. They were supported by a broad spectrum of voters in Minneapolis, and their elections were widely celebrated in the Twin Cities.

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