Early in her brief tenure as a member of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota received some advice on how not to sound like an anti-Semite. Local Jewish leaders met with the Democrat to provide a crash course in what’s so offensive about suggesting that for Jews “it’s all about the Benjamins” or that Jewish-American advocates have an “allegiance to a foreign country.”
Omar apologized and has, since then, largely avoided muttering or tweeting any alarming tropes about Jews or Israel. But a few months later, despite promising during a synagogue appearance in 2018 to oppose the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions policy aimed at crippling Israel’s economy, Omar was one of just 17 members of Congress to vote not to condemn BDS.
All of this propelled Antone Melton-Meaux, a 47-year-old Lutheran with a master’s degree in the study of the Hebrew Bible and ties to the Minneapolis area’s Jewish community, to abandon his previous support for Omar and launch his bid to unseat her in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary. The district is among the most Democratic in the nation, so winning the primary is tantamount to winning the seat.
“I’ve been sorely saddened and disappointed by the words and the rhetoric of Congresswoman Omar,” Melton-Meaux said in a Zoom interview. “Her tropes, which have been well-documented now, were hurtful to the Jewish community and I know this because I’ve spoken with them. There’s still a deep sense of betrayal and frustration with the use of those words and the sentiments. We don’t have the time for someone to be in this role whose principal vision towards Jewish community, Israel and many others, is that of a division.”
To be sure, Melton-Meaux has a significant uphill battle against Omar, who along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit was one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and is among the most famous House members. She’s raised more than $3.3 million and had $1.3 million on hand as of April. Melton-Meaux raised $470,000 and had about $199,000 left in the same period.
“I’m not saying he can’t win, because we have seen candidates who have been able to do that, but I would say he doesn’t have a dynamic, visible campaign of shaking things up,” said Larry Jacobs, political science professor at University of Minnesota. “His candidacy is practically invisible. Ilhan Omar already has the name recognition, she already has a bloc of voters, she has a campaign structure and is able to mobilize her supporters. He has none of those things.”
Yet the political newcomer’s decidedly calmer and less confrontational tone has earned him important endorsements from a wide range of African-American and Jewish figures in a sprawling Minneapolis-area district, the same one where 46-year-old George Floyd died at the hands of police in May. Both Omar and Melton-Meaux are black.
“Antone is a very impressive person who will work hard and won’t be involved in so much controversy,” said longtime Minnesota State Sen. Richard Cohen, who is Jewish. “Ilhan Omar likes speaking around the country. It’s my understanding that she’s not engaged with the district. You hear any number of complaints from folks in the 5th District that they don’t get the kind of attention they deserve.”
Indeed, the rap on Omar, beyond her controversial remarks and disagreements with her foreign policy views, is that she seems more interested in indulging her considerable fame than serving her constituents. She skipped 42 of 820 roll call votes in Congress in her 18 months in office, a 5.1 percent absentee rate that is more than twice the average for a House member.
“For that to be more than double is concerning to me and many members of the district,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue, a Conservative synagogue in the district. “There is a significant amount of disappointment in members of the district feeling that they have not been heard, they have not been responded to and they have not been dialogued with.”
Omar campaign spokesman Jeremy Slevin rejected that critique, noting that the congresswoman has held more than 30 town hall events during her tenure and, “leads the entire Minnesota delegation in amendments passed in the House, and in total number of bills and amendments introduced.” Among those, Slevin said, are measures to ensure students receive meals while out of school because of the pandemic and to enhance transparency around lobbyists who work for foreign governments.
Still, Melton-Meaux, a professional conflict mediator, sees that as an opening. His crossover appeal is to the district’s small but politically active Jewish community, as well as its substantial black population.
He’s the descendant of slaves whose owner emancipated them and gave them land on his Kentucky farm upon his death in 1828. His forefathers took the slaveowner’s last name.
Melton-Meaux’s father integrated the high school built on the former plantation property and became the first black man to earn an electrical engineering degree at the University of Kentucky.
Melton-Meaux earned a law degree at the University of Virginia before heading to New York to pursue a master’s at Union Theological Seminary in 2005. His focus at the seminary was the Hebrew Bible, which he learned to translate into English. He used that skill to teach the language in Harlem at the Abyssinian Baptist Church while also serving as a chaplain at New York’s New Jewish Home and Hospital. He practiced employment law in Washington D.C. until 2008, when he and his wife, a colorectal surgeon, moved to Minnesota for her job.
“I read the entire Bible as a young boy from Genesis to Revelations, and I found myself always coming back mostly to the Old Testament,” he said. “There’s something about the richness of the narrative and the stories about the struggle that people went through, the Exodus from the hands of Pharaoh and being delivered to a promised land. Those are very powerful narratives. And I think they resonate actually quite strongly with the African-American community and our struggle through slavery and Jim Crow and Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement and perhaps even now to George Floyd.”
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, is pleased that Melton-Meaux opposes BDS and regards Israel as a key ally – and appreciates his interest in the faith.
“He has genuinely impressed people with the depth of his understanding of Judaism and the connections between Judaism and Christianity,” Hunegs said. “The touchstones of his life, his family story and his philosophy are compelling.”
The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter demonstrations have complicated the campaign in different ways. COVID-19 forced most normal campaign activities to stop, depriving the challenger of the sort of face-to-face efforts that build name identification and support.
But since May 25 when Floyd was killed and the video of that incident ignited racial unrest across the nation, Melton-Meaux has tried to place himself at the forefront of local BLM protests and to draw that as a negative comparison to Omar.
“I’ve not seen her at any of the protests that I’ve been a part of, and I’ve been out on the streets since Day One making sure that people not just see me but have a chance to talk and hear how they’re feeling, especially when the murder just occurred,” he said. “I can’t speak for the Congresswoman, but I’m going to remain vigilant being on the streets and talking to the people and making sure that we are working together for the systemic change that has to be.”
Slevin said Omar has, in fact, been a prominent presence at BLM marches and events.
“Amidst threats on her life, a pandemic, the George Floyd murder, and even the death of her own father, she has been out nearly every night protesting with her fellow Minnesotans,” Slevin said. Referring to an opinion piece in the Star Tribune that Melton-Meaux wrote in 2015 critiquing some aspects of BLM, Slevin said, “Corporate donors are going to extreme lengths to support candidates who oppose and now conveniently support the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort to smear, discredit and quash a multi-racial grassroots movement. They failed this week and they will fail again.”
Still, Omar already had some challenges within the black before the George Floyd crisis hit. Former local NAACP president Nekima Levy Armstrong endorsed Melton-Meaux in April over Omar, writing about her disappointment with Omar in a Star-Tribune column.
“I have waited in vain for Rep. Ilhan Omar to rise to the occasion of prioritizing the needs of the Fifth Congressional District above many of her distractions,” she wrote. “I see every day the lingering effects of benign neglect upon our community as well as a desire for real change and access to opportunity.”
Jacobs pointed to the Armstrong endorsement to suggest Omar is “facing more opposition of a serious nature than I ever would have predicted,” even as he finds Melton-Meaux’s campaign ineffective. The disaffection of black voters and the intense anger among Jewish constituents do not bode well for Omar, he said.
“Candidate Omar made a concerted effort to reassure the Jewish community that she would be supportive of Israel, that she would be a friend of Jews, but once she was elected, we had the series of comments that were interpreted as anti-Semitic and hostile to Israel and that shock to the Jewish community in Minnesota lit a flame that I haven’t seen frankly in my 30-plus years here,” he said. “Does it mean Ilhan Omar is going to lose? No. But she has a real battle on her hand, and I would have thought she would be coasting to re-election.”
There has been no polling published thus far assessing the race, but Melton-Meaux claims his data indicates he is “on track.”
“Our polling has told us that our message is spot on and has been from day one and we have a path towards victory, and we’re going to execute on that,” he said. “The congresswoman has shown herself to be a divider. I am a uniter.”
Antone Melton-Meaux, Ilhan Omar’s challenger, calls her a ‘divider’