Q&A: Rep. Ilhan Omar talks first session, Republican control and President Trump

Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in her office on West Bank on Friday, Jan. 27.

Chris Dang

Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, answers questions for the Minnesota Daily in her office on West Bank on Friday, Jan. 27.

Ryan Faircloth

As the 2017 Minnesota Legislature’s session ramps up, newly elected Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, sat down to talk with the Minnesota Daily.

Omar, the University of Minnesota area’s House member, talked about her transition into the legislature, her goals for the session and her thoughts on Donald Trump’s presidency and how it could impact Minnesota.

What’s it been like being the first Somali-American lawmaker in the U.S.?

It’s been great. I think for me there’s a lot of … talk about freshman and the learning curve, but I find that I know a lot of the people in the caucus, and I’m able to maneuver around and [I’m] kind of getting a really good start. We’ve figured out a way to keep the community engaged and keep the conversations going. So it doesn’t really feel like we’re starting, it feels like it’s a continuation of something.

What’s it been like going from candidate to representative?

We’ve been really intentional about it just being a continuation, and so we’re just continuing the work of engaging the community and the ideas of co-governance …come to fruition.

Has there been anything about the job that’s caught you by surprise?

I think how quickly the day moves is something I didn’t really expect … There is a lot of people who come to the capitol to visit their legislators, and then you also have your set of meetings already scheduled. You’ve got your committees, and so by the time all of those things happen you feel like you haven’t even had a cup of coffee.

What’s it been like so far to work with a Republican majority in your first year?

It’s been OK. I am able to get some of the Republicans to cosign on my bills. I’ve cosigned on some of their bills. I think my committee leads are all great in welcoming us and giving us proper time to ask the questions that we need. It’s been better than others would imagine.

What are your priorities for the University of Minnesota and [higher education] this session?

The really big priority at the moment for this particular session is the appointment of the regents. I’m looking for people who understand that that’s not a management role, but it’s an oversight role and … finding people who are aware of what the University does, they’re doing it for the right things and have pride in advancing the cause and the mission of the University.

Do you have any plans to address tuition costs or student debt this session?

Where I’m looking at is how much money the University, and MNSCU and all of the higher ed institutions spend on overhead and see what are some cost-saving methods that they could deploy that would have a trickle-down effect on the amount of tuition students are currently paying.

What did you think of the University of Minnesota’s budget request?

I’m OK with the University’s budget request. I have asked for meetings to get a deeper understanding and to see where cuts could be made …

What are some of your priorities for the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood?

My priority right now is that the community understands that they have a legislator that is going to prioritize their issues and their voices and bring them in to the process and [be] an advocate for them.

How well has the Legislature been working together this year? Has it seemed like people are more willing to work together this year?

I think there is a clear understanding that Minnesotans are really interested in seeing all of us work together. At least for now, it looks like there might be [a] move in the right direction, even though the compromises that are being made might be a little lopsided, and some of us are finding ourselves not being able to truly advocate for the real needs of Minnesotans …

How optimistic are you about the Legislature tackling a bonding bill this year?

I am optimistic that … that’s going to get done. It looks like there is moving pieces already. The conversation seems to be going on the right track, and I hope that the Republicans keep their promise of saying that they will get it done this year.

How have you felt about Trump’s presidency so far?

It’s alarming … to see these plans now, inked as part of an executive order, and to kind of see the strange hypocrisy of his presidency kind of play out, where for years, as a civilian, he criticized former President Obama’s use of executive orders, and this now … in the first week, we have a trail of many executive orders.

How do you think he could have an impact on Minnesota?

I think what I see is a missed opportunity. I think, when you think of elections, it’s one thing for us to have conversations that are a bit polarizing because we’re trying to excite our base, but when you become the leader of a nation, you have great opportunity to unite that nation. You have an opportunity to … prioritize the actual needs of the nation, and I think right now where energy is being spent isn’t on the things that I think the American people really care about.

We’re not having a conversation on student debt, we’re not having a conversation on health care, we’re not having a conversation about mental health. And so it is really sad to see the conversations still centered around dividing the nation and not uniting it.

I also see that Trump’s proposed a ban on refugees coming from Somalia and other Muslim countries. How do you think this could affect our Somali community here in Minnesota?

I’m not sure yet. I think we would have to see. I know some of the community members who’ve reached out to me, [have voiced] some concern because they have family members who have been going through the process of the resettling here. I know a friend of mine who’s an organizer in St. Cloud, his wife just had her last screening. And he doesn’t know what happens now because she’s just waiting for her papers for resettlement, and has been going through the process for three years.

And so when we have a conversation about vetting the refugees before they’re settled here, it is important to note that it takes three, five, ten years for people to go through the process of being vetted through enormous scrutiny before they’re reunited with their loved ones.