POLITICS

Ilhan Omar Wants To Build Progressive Power. She’s Starting With This Muslim Candidate.

Can progressive stardom build resources for new candidates?

In the final months of the 2020 election cycle, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is exercising her influence as a national progressive leader, endorsing Ihssane Leckey, a former Wall Street regulator and an immigrant Muslim woman.

Leckey — running on a platform backing the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All,” and canceling student debt in a packed, nearly all-white field of candidates to take over Rep. Joe Kennedy’s Massachusetts House seat — is the kind of candidate lawmakers like Omar want as an ally in the halls of Congress. 

But the progressive movement has struggled to build a robust infrastructure around candidates like Leckey. 

Without major corporate donors, the party’s backing or name recognition, first-time progressive candidates have struggled to find footing. Those like Charles Booker in the Kentucky Senate race came within striking distance of the Democratic nomination with a fraction of their opponents’ spending, but still, the resource hurdle proved too big to overcome. Just two years ago, not a single candidate backed by the Sen. Bernie Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution won a seat in Congress. 

Now, as the majority of the 2020 primaries are done and gone, some of the highest-profile progressives who won in the 2018 cycle are making a concerted effort to put more resources toward new progressive candidates.

Omar’s endorsement of Leckey is the first through her political action committee, the Inspiring Leadership Has A Name PAC (ILHAN PAC), a leadership PAC she established less than a week after getting elected to Congress in 2018 as one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the House of Representatives. 

For Omar, endorsing Leckey through the PAC is the start of what her campaign sees as a long-term project to build out a more robust bench of progressive leaders in Congress. Alongside fellow House progressives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, collectively known as “the squad,” Omar has a uniquely large platform as a freshman House representative that can energize progressive voters and — hopefully — bring in donations. 

So far, the PAC has been dormant. In 2019, it raised $5,000 from an agricultural cooperative in Minnesota and now sits on roughly $85,000, despite Omar’s personal campaign raising more than $3.3 million. Omar’s campaign says fundraising will become a priority through the PAC going forward, but wouldn’t comment on how much money it was hoping to spend on progressive candidates. 

Ihssane Leckey attends the Brookline Democratic Town Committee as one of the candidates for Massachusetts's 4th Congressional
Ihssane Leckey attends the Brookline Democratic Town Committee as one of the candidates for Massachusetts's 4th Congressional District on Oct. 20, 2019. 

“I launched ILHAN PAC because my election was never just about me—it’s about people in Minnesota around the country who feel they don’t have a voice in the political process,” Omar told HuffPost in a statement. “It’s about fighting for bold policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, student debt cancellation, and a peaceful foreign policy. It’s about fighting for a system that reflects the diversity of our country.”

Leckey said this kind of national involvement can make a real difference in her race.

“It’s the building blocks for making sure that progressive candidates win these seats, especially when we are the insurgents,” Leckey told HuffPost in an interview. “It’s not just about funding. Funding is important, but it’s about the energy it generates to make those calls, to make sure that voters will cast their vote.”

Progressive candidates often face the same barriers to getting elected: They’re not well-known and are under-financed. National progressive groups still don’t have a wealth of resources to buck experienced establishment machines. 

Leadership PACs play an important role for lawmakers to help their colleagues — particularly those in the highest ranks of the Republican and Democratic parties. House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has a PAC, for example, that’s disbursed more than $1.5 million dollars to Republican candidates. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has likewise spent more than a half a million dollars in donations to Democratic candidates.

But so far, progressive elected leaders haven’t had the same organizing power. Until now, Omar’s PAC has only cut one check to a candidate: $2,000 to Nabilah Islam. A former congressional candidate from Georgia, Islam was endorsed by both Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, but she lost her primary in June and has since backed her Democratic rival.

Endorsements from progressives like Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and California Rep. Ro Khanna helped Islam earn some national attention and collect tens of thousands of dollars, mostly in small-dollar contributions. But it was too little too late, Islam said, recognizing the lack of progressive institutions with the capital to support people like her. 

Typically, a lot of people of color that run for office have a working-class background. ... It’s not a level playing field. You have to work 10 times harder. Nabilah Islam, former congressional candidate

Islam is hopeful the PACS created by Omar and the squad are a good starting point. 

“I think it’s incredibly important and crucial that they continue to do things like this. It’ll be really helpful for progressive women of color, minority candidates, Muslim candidates, and candidates that look like the squad to get elected office,” she said.

The daughter of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants, Islam ran on a progressive platform including Medicare for All, tuition-free college and a Green New Deal. She said a lack of funds was her biggest obstacle. (She also pointed to the voting obstacles caused by the pandemic.)

“My parents are working-class; I don’t come from money. I’m not a billionaire, and typically, a lot of people of color that run for office have a working-class background. So the challenging part of that is that your friends aren’t maxed out donors. It’s not a level playing field. You have to work 10 times harder,” said Islam, who relinquished her own health care plan and put her student loans into forbearance to run her campaign. 

“It’s so hard for us to get a seat at the table, and it shouldn’t be that hard,” she added.

Leckey sees the same need. 

“It’s a cycle of the progressive movement fighting for everyday Americans to become the power to become our faces in Congress, and when we elect them, then they come around and help us build that political bench,” she said. 

Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), colle
Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), collectively known as "the squad," hold a news conference on July 15, 2019.

Last week, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley launched “The Squad Victory Fund,” an independent expenditure to raise money for both their own campaigns and their respective leadership PACs, which can in turn fund up-and-coming progressive candidates’ campaigns.

Notably, Omar and Tlaib are facing primary challenges in the Minnesota and Michigan August primaries. Ocasio-Cortez easily fought off a primary challenger in the state’s primary election late last month, in a campaign that unexpectedly cost millions. Omar is expecting a similarly expensive race.

“Her first priority is leading the movement to get justice and equality for her community, but in order to do that, it will take having other progressive leaders in Congress,” said Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s campaign spokesperson.

Omar and Tlaib, the first two Muslim women in Congress, have since inspired more progressive Muslim American women to run for public office. Across the country, Muslim civic engagement skyrocketed and 2018 was dubbed the “Muslim blue wave” when nearly 100 American Muslims, almost all Democrats, ran for public office.  

Subsequently, in 2018 and 2019, Muslim women won an unprecedented number of local legislative seats. In Virginia, Ghazala Hashmi became the first Muslim person elected to Virginia’s state Senate. Also from Virginia, 24-year-old Abrar Omeish became one of the first Muslim women elected in the state and the youngest woman to hold elected office in Virginia’s history. In Minnesota, Nadia Mohamed made history by becoming the first Muslim and Somali person elected to the St. Louis Park City Council.

More recently, Nida Allam became the first Muslim woman to hold office in the state of North Carolina last March, and earlier this year in Massachusetts, Sumbul Siddiqui became Cambridge’s first-ever Muslim mayor.   

These Muslim women’s successes demonstrate the increasing diversity of progressive candidates and that they don’t have to minimize their religious and racial identities to win. But to create substantial and permanent change beyond the freshmen congresswomen, running a progressive platform as a person of color isn’t enough on its own.

“We need to be supporting our candidate from the beginning, just like the establishment institutions are. That’s why their candidates are usually the ones that succeed, because they understand that we need to coalesce around candidates earlier on,” noted Islam, adding that “early money makes more money come through the door.” 

“At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, it’s contributions from people that really propel these progressive candidates to be able to cross the finish line.”

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