Green New Deal backer Ilhan Omar faces climate challenger

By Daniel Cusick | 08/03/2020 06:56 AM EDT

MINNEAPOLIS — As a founding member of “The Squad,” Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota shares a conviction with New York colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that climate change can’t wait.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is facing a primary challenge from Antone Melton-Meaux. Both candidates promote aggressive strategies to combat climate change.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is facing a primary challenge from Antone Melton-Meaux. Both candidates promote aggressive strategies to combat climate change. Francis Chung/E&E News (Omar); Antone for Congress

MINNEAPOLIS — As a founding member of "The Squad," Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota shares a conviction with New York colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that climate change can’t wait.

It’s an approach that should be a green light for reelection in liberal Minneapolis, which recently declared a citywide "climate emergency."

Yet the signals are flashing yellow for Omar, who faces an unexpected challenge in the 5th District from a fellow Democrat and political neophyte.


Her primary opponent is Antone Melton-Meaux, a soft-spoken 47-year-old mediation lawyer with a hefty campaign bankroll.

From April to June, Melton-Meaux raised more than $3.2 million in campaign cash, according to federal campaign disclosure documents.

Omar trailed far behind, depositing just $471,000 into her reelection account over the same period.

An additional alarm bell for Omar: She was late to a full-press advertising battle and launched her first TV ad late last month. Meanwhile, Melton-Meaux has spent $1.7 million in ad dollars to get in front of voters.

Melton-Meaux is selling himself as a progressive alternative to Omar, whose brief tenure in Congress has been defined as much by Twitter battles with President Trump as by moving bills through the House of Representatives.

Few saw Melton-Meaux coming. Six weeks ago, Omar’s reelection prospects were as good as or better than those of any Democrat running in a major urban center where progressive ideals are baked into the political cake.

The congresswoman — who overcame racial, gender, religious and national origin discrimination to become one of two Muslim women elected to the 116th Congress — remains popular among her core constituents in Minneapolis, where her family settled in the 1990s after fleeing a civil war in Somalia.

Yet Omar has found a formidable challenger in Melton-Meaux, whose pedigree and policy positions are also solidly liberal. He supports the core tenets of the Green New Deal, a carbon tax and the restoration of America’s role in the Paris Agreement.

Even so, most major green groups are backing Omar in the state’s Aug. 11 Democratic primary.

"Rep. Omar has been a champion for climate justice, and we share her vision for 100% renewable energy, an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to a green economy, and zero-waste communities across the country," said Margaret Levin, state director for the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, which endorsed Omar in June. "She has forged strong coalitions with those most affected by environmental and racial injustices and is a fierce challenger to corporate polluters."

Home is where the votes are

But Omar also brings political liabilities. Since skyrocketing to Washington in early 2019 after two years in the Minnesota Legislature, some say, she has tested a long-standing truism about Minnesota politics: Don’t lose sight of the kitchen table issues back home.

Melton-Meaux says she has failed on that front by cultivating a national profile — last year she appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and New York Magazine — at the expense of the hot-button issues in Minnesota. "I’m dedicated to service, not celebrity" is among Melton-Meaux’s campaign catchphrases.

"I don’t recall Rep. Omar talking at all about the core environmental issues in this race," said David Schultz, a political scientist and professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., who has handicapped Minnesota elections for decades. "She seems to be talking at the national level, which is perfectly fine. But if you don’t pay enough attention to your constituents, that early support can quickly erode."

Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s communications director in Washington, defended Omar’s job performance, saying she is highly engaged with her constituents, including on climate and environmental issues. The suggestion she’s not is "a false narrative," he said.

For example, Omar introduced the "Zero Waste Act" last year to steer federal funds to reducing landfills and incinerators "that emit toxic pollution into our communities, especially in low-income communities or communities of color."

She was also one of five Democrats last month to introduce the "End Polluter Welfare Act" aimed at stripping taxpayer subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.

"It’s a record she’s proud to stand on," Slevin said.

Still, there have been self-inflicted wounds.

When a state court ruled in favor of environmentalists seeking to block copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota, Omar put out a tweet conflating hardrock mining with fossil fuels, saying, "This is what happens when communities come together to oppose mining projects that will line the pockets of fossil fuel execs at the expense of our planet."

The copper-nickel mine proposals have nothing to do with oil or gas. Pro-mining conservatives pounced, charging her with being uninformed about an issue she claimed to care about. "It’s funny, but also sad," wrote Isaac Orr, a policy analyst with the Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota-based conservative advocacy group.

Omar also alienated Jewish voters, a core constituency, with a series of controversial statements and tweets about U.S. policy toward Israel. Only weeks after arriving in Washington, Omar used an anti-Semitic trope to criticize current U.S.-Israeli policy, drawing a public rebuke from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and anger from Jewish constituents back home.

One of Melton-Meaux’s largest primary donors is the pro-Israel super political action committee Americans for Tomorrow’s Future.

Slevin, Omar’s spokesman, said efforts to stoke the controversy for political purposes come from Republican operatives hellbent on evicting Omar from Congress, even if it means replacing her with another Democrat.

Little room to differ

It’s unclear how Melton-Meaux would compare with Omar on Minnesota’s most divisive environmental debates, including a new oil pipeline sought by the energy conglomerate Enbridge Inc. that would carry Canadian crude to a terminal near Duluth, Minn.

Omar wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in early 2019 asking the agency to deny federal wetland takings permits to the pipeline project.

Melton-Meaux says a transition away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels would make "massive pipelines unnecessary."

As for the copper-nickel mine plans, Melton-Meaux said he would "fight to ensure that mining proposals are rigorously assessed for their environmental impact, and … oppose proposals that fail to prove that mining will not cause harm to our environment or cherished wildlands."

That doesn’t sit well with many urban liberals who want a permanent mining ban.

Omar has aligned herself with environmentalists on mining, though she has been quiet compared with her colleague Betty McCollum, the 10-term Democratic congresswoman from neighboring St. Paul.

McCollum inserted language into the fiscal 2021 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies funding bill that bars the use of federal dollars to review or approve new mining permits in northern Minnesota’s Rainy River Watershed.

Slevin said Omar, McCollum and other Democrats in Minnesota’s delegation work closely together, including on environmental issues. "In terms of the work, we’re in constant communication on this stuff," he said. "We don’t see those [issues] as more or less important. A primary concern for the 5th District is that we can legislate on the national level, and we’re doing that."