“The Residents in My District Don’t Have the Luxury of Incremental Change”

Omar Fateh

Democratic Socialists of America–backed candidate Omar Fateh scored an upset primary victory and will almost certainly represent the Minnesota State Senate district where George Floyd was killed. We talked with Fateh about the working-class agenda he put forward, why he’s a democratic socialist, and how Floyd’s killing transformed the political landscape.

Omar Fateh, candidate for Minnesota State Senate in District 62 of Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy Omar Fateh)

Interview by
Nicholas Rea

Omar Fateh is a first-generation American, a community organizer, and a democratic socialist who is one of the latest Democratic Socialists of America–endorsed candidates headed to public office. Fateh’s campaign and political pedigree are very much of the Minneapolis left, reflecting his district’s East African, Latino, indigenous, and African American activist history — the center of which is Lake and 38th, where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May.

A member of DSA, Fateh pulled off an upset against longtime incumbent Jeff Hayden by securing the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL, the Minnesota Democratic party affiliate) endorsement and then winning outright in the primary election. In heavily Democratic Minneapolis, he’s all but certain to win next week’s election.

Minneapolis labor organizer Nicholas Rea spoke with Fateh over video call about his campaign, what he learned from the killing of George Floyd, and his plans for bringing democratic socialism to the Capitol in Saint Paul.

Nicholas Rea

Since you announced your candidacy, we’ve had a truly unprecedented year in Minneapolis, and in your district specifically. Let’s start with the beginning of your campaign.

Omar Fateh

We announced in the first week of December 2019, and prior to announcing, I met with different community groups to speak to them about the idea of running and also to help put together a platform.

For example, I wanted to speak on the issues going on in the indigenous community, in Little Earth, so I sat with them a few times, put together some ideas, sought their approval, and released that part of my platform. The same with the Latino community — youth leaders spoke about some of what they’ve fought for at the Capitol in the past and the change they want to see. Then I met with environmental activists, housing justice activists, and so on.

It was a community platform. I asked them for their support at the end of it and told them, “We’re looking to build a multiracial, multigenerational campaign. To win this, there’s a caucus system that will take a lot of effort to win.”

We had a really good showing at the caucus. We brought a lot of folks who weren’t normally engaged in politics, and a lot of people who were enthusiastic about a working-class agenda. Then COVID-19 hit. A lot of people were struggling, a lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of the poorest people in Minneapolis live in District 62 — people in the service industry, making low hourly wages. But we got a lot of people to make calls, we reached out to every delegate to get their support, and we got 72 percent of the delegates to support us.

Nicholas Rea

So you’ve won the endorsement of the DFL, and you’re running against incumbent Jeff Hayden in the primary election, and then on May 25, George Floyd is murdered in your district. What were your thoughts when that happened? How did it change your perspective on running for office?

Omar Fateh

What we saw, immediately after that, was that people took to the streets and started protesting. We saw the National Guard sent down to attack protesters. But we also saw some good things start happening. Neighbors got together, neighborhoods started organizing and taking public safety into their own hands. This was a time when people felt safer by relying on each other than relying on the police. It was amazing to see the amount of effort and care people put into those projects.

We paused the campaign because my campaign office was on Lake Street and Park Avenue, where a lot of the rioting and fires were. The gas station right next to my office was burned to the ground.

We opened my office overnight for protesters to come by, administer first aid, provide food and water to people. It brought a lot of community people together. I was really glad to see that, as a result of this devastation, a lot of people started waking up. Especially when the whiter, more affluent folks in South Minneapolis started showing their support, saying there’s no excuse. That this can’t happen ever again.

So what can we do at the state level? I have a few plans. I don’t ever want to see tear gas being used — a wartime weapon being used on civilians. We saw the National Guard and the police pelt people with rubber bullets, some people take lifelong injuries. That should be banned.

In 2012, the Minnesota legislature passed a law that prohibited civilian boards from issuing a finding of fact or determination against an officer, only recommendations. That needs to change. We need civilian oversight. I’d like to end qualified immunity at the state level, that would be powerful.

Nicholas Rea

What were the main difference between you and the incumbent state senator, Jeff Hayden?

Omar Fateh

District 62 is one of the poorest and most diverse districts in Minnesota. The incumbent wasn’t supportive of a $15-an-hour statewide minimum wage, whereas I think that everyone should be able to afford rent. One job should be enough. Only midway through the primary election did we see my opponent start to adopt some of these stances I was pushing.

I want a universal health care plan for Minnesotans, while my opponent would tiptoe around “access to affordable health care.” For a lot of people in the district, that isn’t enough. I think those are the two major areas of difference between me and the senator.

In heavily Democratic Minneapolis, Omar Fateh is all but certain to win next week’s election.

I ran as a democratic socialist — my campaign was about the baseline rights we ensure to everyone. Hayden would frame himself as a pragmatic progressive, where we would take what we can get. That divide ended up helping us in the campaign, especially after the murder of George Floyd. People didn’t want to wait around. A lot of people are struggling and realizing their neighbors are going through the same struggle. That’s what we achieved with this campaign.

Nicholas Rea

Knocking doors, you introduced yourself to voters as a democratic socialist. Why do you call yourself a democratic socialist? What does that mean to you?

Omar Fateh

It has a specific meaning to me. You believe that everyone has a certain level of basic rights that need to be met. Housing is a right. Education is a right. Health care is a right.

What bothered me about the term “progressive” is that it shifted from having a meaning to being a spectrum — where “progressive” candidates don’t have to support these rights, that they take corporate and oil money.

Democratic socialism is about those convictions about what everyone deserves, those rights. It’s a yes or no question. I wanted the voters to know that. I truly think our neighbors have those beliefs, and that’s why we won.

Nicholas Rea

You’re joining Jen McEwen of Duluth as another DSA member who is very likely to head to the Minnesota State Capitol. You’re both members of the DFL as well. What does it mean that there are two socialists in the DFL caucus now?

Omar Fateh

I believe that the election successes for both me and Jen McEwen are going to open the eyes of a lot of more moderate DFL members that have been more comfortable with incremental change. The reality is that a lot of the residents in my district don’t have the luxury of waiting, of incremental change. People are being evicted, people are losing their homes, people are struggling without health care. We know that Minnesota is the second worst in the nation for serving students of color in our education system.

Especially for these two races, mine and McEwen’s, people have seen two pretty powerful incumbents get knocked out because we ran on the issues and what people care about. That’s a powerful message that people are ready to see meaningful change at the state level. We’ve pushed for renewable energy, free public transportation. Those are ideas that are supported by the majority of our district and residents in our state.

What I hope to see is that there is more focus on prioritizing our people and not focusing just on the next election. If we don’t act, we’re going to get primaried ourselves.

Nicholas Rea

Looking forward, what are your plans for remaining accountable to this coalition you helped organize?

Omar Fateh

In this campaign, we wanted to make sure that we were connecting all of the residents in a way that hasn’t been done before. For example, East African elders really care about the preservation of public housing because they’re living on a fixed income. But then we talked with them about climate change — connecting the drought and famine in Somalia to local decisions in Minneapolis. Articulating how we’re connected globally. The project that I took on in this race was having people not only vote for their issues but vote for their neighbors also. That’s something that I’m really proud of.

We can set up committees within the African American community, the Latino community, with DSA — I want to make sure that I’m accessible to everybody and that, just as I formed my platform with the people, I want to serve with the people at the Capitol, too. I’m not going anywhere, I’m still here in the neighborhood.