Immigrants get help deciphering political processby Jon Collins, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When DFL State Director Nimco Ahmed trains groups of Somali Americans to participate in Minnesota's upcoming caucus, a political institution that mystifies even many Minnesota natives, she tells them they have a responsibility to participate for the greater good of their community.
"You all are privileged not only to be in this country, but privileged to be United States citizens," Ahmed tells trainees.
As Minnesota's Feb. 7 caucus approaches, both the state DFL and, to a lesser extent, the Minnesota Republican Party, are pushing the state's immigrant communities to get involved in this first step in the political process, where planks will be proposed to party platforms and delegates will be chosen for county and district conventions.
"It's a global society we live in now, and I think that people are realizing it's not just a society of fully English speakers," said Mona Langston, Minnesota DFL outreach director. "We want to be sure that they have access to our precinct materials and our precinct caucus in their language."
State DFLers set up a video center at their headquarters in St. Paul where volunteers shoot videos explaining the caucus in Somali and Spanish. Those videos are making the rounds of websites, and finding traction on Facebook pages. The videos also target the elders in the community who may not be able to read or speak fluent English.
"Sometimes Somalis will show up to the caucus, but they don't know what's happening," Ahmed said. "We actually went step-by-step in this video of what's happening, so at least in their heads they can still remember the video and be like, 'OK, this must be selecting delegates, I want to be a delegate.'"
DFL activists are also recruiting multilingual caucus conveners to run the caucuses in areas with high immigrant populations. The volunteers are to reassure caucus-goers to whom a lack of English skills would be a barrier, and they've organized a series of in-person caucus trainings in Somali across the Twin Cities.
Minnesota Republicans are pursuing the same groups by posting ads and explanations of the caucus process in publications like Latino Midwest and the Hmong Times.
Local Republican groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus are also organizing on the ground, said Minnesota Republican Party Communications Director Heather Dodgers-Rubash.
"That might be done more on a local level by people in the heart of those communities that are reaching out to other folks to get them to come," Rubash said. "Our approach is that we want everyone to come, and we'll utilize any way — whether that's in a newspaper or social media or working with our affiliates — to encourage them."
While it's important for both parties to attract volunteers at caucus time, University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said Democrats have more to gain this year from recruiting as many newcomers as possible.
"Republicans have an advantage in the inherent interest in the presidential nominating caucus this year," Pearson said. "It's going to be tough for the DFL to get voters to turn out just in general, because of the lack of a contest at the presidential level, so any mobilization efforts they do will be useful in boosting turnout."
"You're much more likely to turn out for a general election, and you're much more likely to persuade your neighbors and friends to turn out for a general election if you've been involved in the process since the beginning," Pearson added.
The caucuses are obviously political, Ahmed said, but it's also a way that immigrant communities, whose members often feel left out of the political system, can ensure their issues are represented by a political party.
"The benefit of a caucus is a group of people in your neighborhood coming together and actually addressing their issues and bringing the resolution forward to the party," she said. "We want to be sure that the culture of caucusing becomes the norm for the Somali community as well, that they do this regularly and attend their caucus and become delegates."
Somali Americans in recent years have become increasingly politically active in Minnesota, DFL Somali American Caucus Chair Jamal Abdulahi said.
Hussein Samatar was elected to the Minneapolis School Board in 2010, becoming the first Somali American elected to public office in the state. And Somali American candidates narrowly lost two legislative special elections in Minneapolis last year.
"It's just a matter of time until you see a Somali get elected," Abdulahi said. "This is no different from any immigrant community. In that first five, 10 years you see a high level of yearning to go back to the homeland, but as time goes on people realize, 'I'm going to be settling here, so I may as well just get involved and become part of the process.' "