Abdi Warsame makes history, wins seat on Minneapolis City Council

Following his landslide victory, Ward 6 City Council candidate Abdi Warsame gets a hug from volunteer Ali Saleh Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Minneapolis, Minn., at the victory party at Mixed Blood Theatre.  (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

In his first run for elective office, Abdi Warsame won the race to represent Ward 6 on the Minneapolis City Council, soundly defeating incumbent Robert Lilligren, who was the first and only Native American city council member.

In winning the seat, Warsame became the first Somali-American elected to the council, just seven years after arriving in the United States. He also is among the first Somali-Americans in the nation to win a municipal election.

With all 9 precincts reporting, Warsame won nearly 64 percent of the first-choice votes and more than 40 percent of second choice votes and 20 percent of third-choice votes, according to unofficial results from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website.

Lilligren received 32 percent of first-choice votes, nearly 27 percent of second-choice votes and 13 percent of third-choice votes.

After winning the DFL endorsement in April, Warsame fought a vigorous campaign that tried to mobilize the East African community. A Seward resident, he pledged to represent the broader community.

“We had a good strategy and we had volunteers,” Warsame said after learning of his victory. “And we had a message, an inclusive message, a message that resonated with the voters of Ward 6.”

Celebration at Mixed Blood Theatre after Ward 6 City Council candidate Abdi Warsame was declared the winner Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Minneapolis, Minn.  (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

Warsame also aims to address the concerns facing his community, which include jobs, roads, housing and young people who need mentors.

Born in Somalia, Warsame moved as a young child with his family to London where he later earned a master’s degree in international business.

In Minneapolis, he is the executive director of the Riverside Tenants Association, which advocates for the 4,000 people who live in the Riverside Plaza high-rises.

Warsame became involved in politics in 2011, when he worked on the campaign of Mohamud Noor, who narrowly lost the DFL primary for a state Senate seat.

At a series of public hearings last year, Warsame urged the Minneapolis Charter Commission to redraw the city’s political districts in a way that maximized the East African community’s voting power.

The commission complied, drawing a new map that concentrates as many East African voters as possible in a single city council ward. As a result, more than half the precincts in Ward 6 were new.

Warsame said his campaign aimed to knock on nearly every door and persuade as many voters as possible to come to the polls.

“We did our homework; we worked very hard,” he said. “In every measure, we out-competed our opponent — in terms of fundraising, in terms of having a presence in social media. Our campaign is probably the most grassroots campaign the city has seen in many years.”

Some Minneapolis voters said it was time to elect someone who hails from the East African community.

“He’s kind of our kind of person because we’re in the middle of a Somali community here and I think he’d be a really interesting representative for the City Council,” said voter Maggie Catambay, who lives in Riverside Plaza. “It’s good to have good people on the City Council.”

Celebration at Mixed Blood Theatre after Ward 6 City Council candidate Abdi Warsame was declared the winner Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Minneapolis, Minn. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

Abdiyabdiwahab Shiil, a Cedar Riverside resident who became a U.S. citizen last year, was impressed with how well Warsame focuses on the community.

“The City Council race is very important, because that is my home where I live, and I want to see someone who understands my problems, someone who I can knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, this is the issue you need to deal in our neighborhood,'” Shiil said. “And fortunately this time we have a candidate from my neighborhood, Abdi Warsame, and I’m not shy to say I voted for him. I wish he makes it. If he doesn’t then that’s ok, still we have very potential candidates.”

Lilligren, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who has served on the council since 2001, told voters he has reached across cultural barriers and worked with the East African community.

He also said he had created jobs in the neighborhood and made the city cleaner, greener and more welcoming.

Democrats Mahamed Cali, Abdi Addow, Sheikh Abdul and Abukar Abdi also were on the ballot for Ward 6.

MPR News reporters Liala Helal, Elizabeth Dunbar and Jon Collins contributed to this story.