A Look at Mohamud Noor: the Man, Not Just the Candidate
August 11, 2014
Across the street from the most densely populated neighborhood in Minnesota, on a humid Thursday night in late July, an event was being held for a local icon of sorts. As I walked out of the crowded parking lot of a nearby Mosque unsure of where to go, a young man named Scot Isqoh Isqoox kindly approached me and asked if I was there to volunteer for Mohamud Noor.
“No, I’m actually a journalist,” I said. “I’m here to take pictures for a story I’m writing about the campaign.”
With a smile branded across his face, Isqoox led me through an unmarked door to the loft of a local family restaurant in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, to a room with no air conditioning and a roaring floor fan to compensate.
Occupying the room were campaign volunteers––some forty strong––ready to hear their chosen candidate speak about the final two weeks before the primary on August 12, and what each of them needed to do in order to help secure a Noor victory.
I asked Isqoox what made him support Noor, the local icon running to represent House District 60B, as opposed to his opponent, incumbent DFL State Representative Phyllis Kahn. “He understands our needs as a [Somali] community, and the unique circumstances we face,” he said. “We need to have our voices heard at the state capitol, and they are not at the moment.”
As Noor, DFL primary candidate for Minnesota House District 60B walked across the bright rugs that lined the floor, with a charming smile and air of comfort, I realized I was in the company of a man who was nothing less than remarkable––a man aware of his unique situation, but who wasn’t overwhelmed by the thought.
The race itself is not what has so many Minnesotans––politically aware and otherwise––so entranced in this year’s primary election. Mohamud Noor, the young Somali Activist is the reason so many are watching, and rightfully so.
Noor first came to the United States 15 years ago, flying from Nairobi Kenya to Minneapolis. “I was only 22 years old when I came here, and upon the initial arrival I had nothing,” Noor said.
In a new country, and with few resources, Noor turned to a place that many other Somali immigrants find refuge in. “On my second day here I was at the Brian Coyle Center,” Noor said, “I quickly found that there were many challenges I was going to face.”
Some of those challenges––housing, education, work, and equal treatment––were more easily helped than others. “I quickly learned that social services were through Hennepin County,” Noor said. “The process is complex for someone who’s new, but because I went through some of the same things myself, I was able to help others.”
Getting an education was one of Noor’s first goals, prompting him to enroll in college and balance working part time. “I would work at Brian Coyle in the morning, helping to bring people to Hennepin County, I would go to class, and I was also working at Macy’s,” Noor said.
All of this was for a very specific reason. “I wanted to be an IT––it was my dream from the get-go,” Noor said. “I bought a computer from the Gateway store for $2,000 with my first few paychecks, because that’s where I thought my future was at.”
This newfound access sparked a passion for Noor around technology and communication. “I wanted to have access to getting online to see what was happening,” Noor said. “It took me quite a few days to learn how to use the keyboard, but you end up playing around with it and then it becomes an excitement and very liberating.”
While there was a drive to learn for Noor, it wasn’t always easy. “Since I was not used to technology I often had to play catch up with some of the other students at MCTC who already had a baseline knowledge,” Noor said.
External factors also played a major role in Noor’s life while a student. “I was making minimum wage working during the day and going to classes in the evening like many students do,” Noor said. “Once you earn enough income, then you no longer qualify for financial aid, so I started to search for more work to supplement my income.”
Noor’s previous experience working alongside Hennepin County through the Brian Coyle Center prompted him to look for work with the County Government. “I was a financial worker, focussing mostly on families,” Noor said. “I would help them with SNAP, medical coverage, eviction, employment, childcare, determining based on their income, what services they qualified for.”
Working directly with members of the community and aiding new families in navigating the process also instilled a drive within Noor to become more involved with his local community. “I was elected to my neighborhood board, which was my first election process,” Noor said.
It would be this experience, in conjunction with his work at the county level that would move Noor towards further political involvement. “I started to learn how the city works with a neighborhood,” Noor said, “I felt that there was a lot to do and a lot of things I wanted to see changed in my neighborhood.”
Noor’s work in his local community continued to become a more substantial part of his life. “I became a board member for the Confederation of the Somali Community, I was appointed by Governor Ventura as the first advisor to the Governor and legislature for the East African Community in Minnesota, and I was appointed by Governor Pawlenty to the Council on Black Minnesotans,” Noor said.
After working for Hennepin County, Noor moved on to work for the State of Minnesota as a quality control reviewer, where he worked for over ten years. “I made sure that the rules for the state and federal government were being followed correctly,” Noor said. “I traveled around the state––87 counties plus tribal agencies––meeting with county employees and individuals to make sure that the programs in place were working for everyone.”
In 2013, Noor was appointed to the Minneapolis School Board after the death of board member Hussein Samatar. “They wanted someone with experience since it was only a one year term, and I was already working with the school board,” Noor said. “I felt compelled to be a part of the educational process as a former student and as a father.”
Noor has been an outspoken voice on disparities in education for his District. “One of my goals is to advocate for universal preschool,” Noor said. “We need to help kids early to help them succeed and work to close the opportunity gap.”
“According to the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we gain back almost 16,” Noor said. “That’s the return we’re looking for.”
With the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities located in District 60B, higher education has been a well discussed issue throughout the campaign. “We’re right at the ‘U’, where the future is being created, but the students are not being included in the change that is supposed to be happening in the neighborhood,” Noor said. “That is a major problem.”
“I’m passionate about education because I’m a former student, my wife is an educator, and my young kids are in school,” Noor said. “I’ve seen just how powerful of a tool it can be in changing lives, and I hear from people everyday that it’s their number one concern for the District.”
Much of Noor’s life has revolved around the Brian Coyle Community Center––the place Noor arrived on his second day in the United States. “My wife used to work at the Brian Coyle Center, so that’s how we met more than ten years ago,” Noor said. “She was more passionate about community issues than me, and when you’ve got someone who’s more passionate you get connected.”
Noor became even more invested when the Confederation of the Somali Community came close to closing, due to the former director moving out. “This was the place that helped me, where I found my new life, education, wife, and everything else. I didn’t want an organization that had been an integral part of the community for twenty two years to simply disappear,” Noor said.
Since becoming the interim Executive Director for the organization, Noor has realigned the organization to fit the present needs of the surrounding community. “My goal is to make sure we are connecting with the individuals in need of help, and then changing the strategic plan to fill those needs,” Noor said.
The Brian Coyle Center, like the Confederation of the Somali Community is a deep passion of Noor’s, and something he believes is critical to the community. “[The Brian Coyle Center] needs to continue to exist to help the highest density neighborhood in the state” Noor said.
Noor first ran for state office in 2011, when a special election was called due to the appointment of then Senator Larry Pogemiller as the director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. “It was a special election, so we only had four or five weeks to campaign,” Noor said. “By the time you put a plan together you only have two weeks, and you have to cover the whole District.”
The reason Noor ran for the seat is much the same as his current bid for the Minnesota House. “I felt that I could unite the needs of the whole District––new immigrants, students, mainstream, and progressives––it’s the same reason I’m running in this election,” Noor said.
Considering Noor’s opponent in the 2011 special election, Kari Dziedzic, is somewhat of a local political icon––having served as executive assistant to former US Senator Paul Wellstone, and her more recent work with Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglin––many believe that Noor had a strong showing. “We came close to winning the election––we only lost by six points,” Noor said, “And there was a lot of space to cover and very little time to do it.”
This time around, Noor will find himself in a more manageable position, with less ground to cover and greater name recognition. “The election was encouraging to me because 60B (where I’m running now) was the area where I received the most votes, I think 95% in the Cedar Riverside Precinct,” Noor said.
District 60B is considered to be one of the safest places for a Democratic Representative to run for reelection. That analysis hasn’t proven sound for incumbent Democrat, State Representative Phyllis Kahn, who’s represented the District for forty-two years, and faces a primary challenge.
The heated race to become the next State Representative for 60B began late last year for challenger Mohamud Noor. “We began our campaign in December of last year, so time has been on our side in terms of being able to talk about why I’m running to the voters,” Noor said.
The race soon turned contentious, when in February violence broke out at the DFL Cedar Riverside Caucus, forcing the caucus to be re-convened at a later date; the Minnesota DFL did not endorse either candidate.
Controversy continued through the summer, with an issue related to voter registration at a Cedar Riverside mailbox. “There was a petition filed by my opponent’s lawyer, saying that I conducted a coordinated drive to register people illegally at one address,” Noor said. “Only 16 of the 141 people registered there were registered in 2014––people had been registering there since 2008, and many simply because of a change of address.”
Having since been resolved––Hennepin County dismissed the charges––the Noor campaign has continued their massive effort to register people and get them to the polls. “I think the number was close to 1,200 people who had voted early last time I had checked,” Noor said, “Clearly we are engaging more people––voters are showing they are ready for change.”
Many democrats are hesitant to vote out a long time progressive champion without good reason, and it’s something that Noor has been conscious of. “It’s time for change. People say that I should wait my turn, but I always ask them about the things that are most important to them and ask if they’re being addressed now,” Noor said.
“No one’s championing the issue of the opportunity gap or inclusivity. If nobody wants to tackle those issues, then I think someone has to stand up and say enough is enough,” Noor said.
If Noor is successful in his bid to represent the voters of 60B in the State House, he will be the first Somali to serve in the Minnesota legislature, and the highest holding Somali in the United States. “It’s one thing to become the highest Somali elected official, and it’s another to address the needs of the residents,” Noor said.
“Being from the Somali community, and an immigrant, I think it brings me closer to the issues affecting those communities, and I look forward to addressing the issues and championing them,” Noor said.
Noor’s message is less one about being a voice for the Somali community, but instead, uniting the many voices in his community. “We need to be a more inclusive community––uniting the immigrants, students, and progressives––working on the issues that impact everyone,” Noor said.
Regardless of the outcome on August 12, Mohamud Noor has made history. Coming closer than most to ousting long time Democrat Phyllis Kahn, and successfully mobilizing thousands in the Somali community is unprecedented. Noor has already done a great deal to advance the needs of his community and to be an outspoken advocate for progress, and all signs show that he will continue to be a voice for change long into the future.