Running against Ilhan Omar would have been a political suicide mission even without a virus that made traditional campaigning all but impossible. Then, on May 25, a white Minneapolis police officer choked a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd to death on video. The atrocity that unleashed a global wave of protest and is now a synecdoche for all racism occurred in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, which Omar represents. Her opponent, a 47-year-old lawyer, part-time pastor, and political neophyte named Antone Melton-Meaux must now grapple with an emotional historic moment, a telegenic political superstar, and a killer virus. And his job only keeps getting harder.
A few days before Melton-Meaux and I met in a conference room at a midtown Minneapolis law office where his Democratic primary campaign rents space, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Omar, giving the polarizing congresswoman a seal of approval from a national party leadership that had once been sharply critical of her. Then, on July 20, Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison, an Omar backer and her predecessor as the 5th District’s congressional representative, held a press conference with Ken Martin, the chair of the state Democratic Party, in which they characterized Melton-Meaux’s primary challenge as a shadowy outside plot. The $3.6 million Melton-Meaux had raised was part of an effort to “silence a progressive champion rooted in xenophobia,” Martin alleged. “Minnesotans need to ask where is this mountain of money coming from and why are they doing it and what do they expect for it,” mused Ellison, a progressive icon who is also the state’s top law enforcement official.
It was clear from the moment I met him that Melton-Meaux has at least one quality that money can’t buy—he was already seated at the conference table when I arrived at 8:52 a.m. on July 21, meaning he had been at least eight minutes early. He was dressed in a sharp blue blazer and an almost-matching surgical mask that never came down from over his nose and mouth. Compared to his often thrillingly unpredictable opponent, Melton-Meaux is an image of modulation, always speaking at the ideal indoor volume, and at a cadence that’s never agitated or dull. This levelness is professionally honed: Melton-Meaux is a lawyer who leads a mediation-services firm that he founded seven years ago, a line of work that often requires him to sit down for days at a time with people who sometimes “can’t stand to be in the same room.”
He is slim—from what I could tell, almost completely fatless—in the way of someone who runs a lot. Melton-Meaux recalled a recent morning jog with his wife, who is a colorectal surgeon and medical-school professor, where they detoured to 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, the site of Floyd’s murder. “There was nobody else there,” he recalled, his voice slowing and his eyes reddening. He took a deep breath: “I kinda stood where he was murdered and I thought about being able to speak as a voice of the community going forward as the next member of Congress and it was a humbling feeling and one that was something of a heavy burden too.” Floyd’s murder, he said, “is something that has the potential of changing the course of our country and calls for the best of us at every level of government and civic service, someone who is willing to surrender to the moment and give their very all. And she hasn’t done that.”
A Minneapolis congressional primary race in 2020 should probably be about the incumbent’s record and the ramifying cruelties of the George Floyd episode, in whose aftermath entire blocks of minority and immigrant businesses were destroyed. Melton-Meaux rejects calls for police abolition. Instead, he believes in redefining the “core function” of law enforcement around fairly narrow public safety objectives and then exploring “how to move funds from the police function into more supportive services for homelessness, mental health crises, and then education in our communities.”
Melton-Meaux said that business owners on riot-hit Lake Street in south Minneapolis have complained to him that the police haven’t answered 911 calls since late May. He adds that residents have told him that there are now only eight active officers assigned to a vast and disproportionately Black swath of the city’s northern neighborhoods. “We’ve seen what happens when the police aren’t present and there’s been a lot more violence since then in Minneapolis, separate and apart from the civil unrest,” he said.
The candidate’s pro-defund yet explicitly anti-abolition stance presents a meaningful disagreement with Omar, who has called to “disband” the Minneapolis Police Department. Yet instead of this friction of ideas, the race is increasingly about Melton-Meaux’s money—which has made Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District a proxy battleground for another issue that’s also fairly distant from the concerns of most voters.
“It hasn’t been a top issue that people talk about,” Melton-Meaux said when asked how often voters bring up the U.S.-Israel relationship. “It’s come up in the context of campaign money.” Somali-American voters don’t seem to care much about the topic either. “I spent lots of time with Somali community leaders, elected officials, civic leaders, and they don’t raise the issue of the Jewish community or Israel.”
Melton-Meaux seems less concerned with policy specifics than with reclaiming the allegedly squandered goodwill between the district’s Jews—who are a majority of Minnesota’s Jews—and their congressional representation. “What would you have the Jewish community do?” Melton-Meaux asked, referring to Omar’s pro-BDS stance and various conspiratorial utterances. “You’re on the Foreign Affairs committee. You’ve said and done these things toward the Jewish community and Israel. What would you have them to do? They’re looking for someone who is consistent, who will listen—you may not agree on all things, but someone they can trust who’s going to be honest.”
That Israel has become a salient issue in this race during a national crisis around race and policing hints at the unhealthy obsession with the Jewish state in American politics—as well as at Omar’s talent for making that obsession work for her. Omar is on the wrong side of American public opinion on just about anything related to Israel. But she has made the world’s most emotionally resonant international issue her own, and can claim that any opposition is really about punishing her for daring to speak the truth or to step out of line. Thus a recent Omar campaign mailer wondered, “Can we trust Antone Melton-Meaux’s money?” accusing him of being in “the pocket” of both “Wall Street” and the “GOP” and noting contributions from three wealthy Jews as well as “Michael, a donor from Scarsdale, New York.”
However unsubtle the flyer’s message, the suggestion that Melton-Meaux is a sleeper agent for a right-wing Jewish conspiracy is potentially damaging enough for him to have to respond. “I have gotten strength and support from the Jewish community and I’m not ashamed of that,” Melton-Meaux told me, adding that “for her to harp on that particular subset of voters is inaccurate and concerning.” He claimed that Omar is talking about his funders to distract from her own potential money issues, alleging that 95% of her fundraising “comes from outside the state of Minnesota, and the dollars that she has raised, the large plurality, over 40%, goes to her husband’s firm.” Omar’s supporters have twisted references to Melton-Meaux’s “American story” in his campaign material into dark aspersions about the congresswoman’s origins, something that clearly bothers him. “I would say that some of the tactics that they use, certainly on social media, are frankly reprehensible, and not grounded in facts ... to call me xenophobic, Islamophobic, someone who supports cop killers is beyond the pale. But that’s the politics that she embraces.”
Far beyond individual magnetism or a talent for confrontation, Melton-Meaux’s opponent possesses the rarest and most valuable quality in American politics, one that negative campaigning might actually magnify: She’s famous. Since American politics is increasingly a battle of presentation and narrative, it’s possible that no pitch, no matter how rational or brilliantly formulated, and no sum of money, whether raised in or out of state, can make up for a fame deficit.
Melton-Meaux’s earnestness outstrips his charisma, another potentially decisive point of contrast with Omar. Professionally, he is a mediator who is also a part-time pastor—he says he’s still passably literate in biblical Hebrew, which he learned at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, a school he attended after several years of working as a lawyer.
“I’m not interested in writing a book or being a celebrity,” Melton-Meaux said. Earlier in the interview, he’d alleged that Omar had been absent from the first day of the George Floyd protests, which he had attended, because she was holding a virtual launch for her newly published memoir. “She came back when there was sufficient press for her to make an appearance, right? Because that is the way that she likes to have herself presented. What they really needed was someone to walk with them, simply to be there and to show solidarity with the frustration that the community was experiencing. But she opted to do her own thing for her own self.”
Melton-Meaux doesn’t seem to be challenging Omar out of egotism, though it’s also possible he’s underrating the chances that a calculated egomania helped Omar become so formidable in such a short time. Whatever Omar’s record, and no matter where the candidates stand on any issues, he will win only if the voters decide they want someone who is close to the opposite of the unique type of political celebrity they chose to represent them the last time around.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.