Omar, Melton-Meaux spar over campaign finance issue as race appears to tighten

Antone Melton-Meaux is challenging Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in the primary for Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. (FOX 9)

Antone Melton-Meaux, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's Democratic primary challenger, fought back Wednesday after coming under a last-minute attack from the Minnesota DFL over his campaign finances.

The DFL said it planned to file a Federal Elections Commission complaint against Melton-Meaux, accusing him of using "mysterious shell companies" to hide the identities of his campaign consultants ahead of the Aug. 11 primary.

Melton-Meaux said it wouldn't be necessary if the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hadn't decided to "blacklist" consultants who work for challengers against incumbents, like Omar. 

"It's a frivolous charge of falsities," Melton-Meaux told reporters after a rally at his south Minneapolis campaign office. "This is really a shameful chapter for the DFL and (party chairman) Ken Martin to usurp the will of the people."

It's unclear why the DFL waited nearly three weeks to raise the issue after MinnPost first reported on Melton-Meaux's consultants on July 17.

Martin did not attend a news conference with Omar and supporters at DFL party headquarters Wednesday afternoon.

The race has grown increasingly negative in recent weeks. Melton-Meaux, spurred by a $3.2 million fundraising haul in the spring, has run ads criticizing Omar, which prompted an Omar attack ad against Melton-Meaux. The DFL has blasted Melton-Meaux at a series of campaign events.

Omar disagreed when asked if the DFL's heavy involvement was a sign that she was in trouble in Tuesday's primary.

"Absolutely not. The party didn’t do anything to benefit me, the party did what it thought was right," Omar told reporters. As for Melton-Meaux's consultants, she said "I don’t think that is an acceptable thing to do, and we will see what happens with that complaint."

But Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said the race was clearly tightening.

"One of the best guides in studying a politician is what they do, not what they say," Jacobs said in an interview. "From everything we’re seeing from Ilhan Omar, from her negative ads to her increasing number of events to the charge of a campaign finance violation by her primary opponent, this looks like a candidate who is nervous."

Omar faces campaign finance concerns of her own. In 2019, she paid a small fine to settle a violation in a previous Minnesota legislative race. 

But the much more high-profile allegations involve the more than $1 million that Omar's campaign has paid her husband's political consulting firm in 2020. Omar has said the money ultimately went to vendors who placed ads and created mail pieces. She has acknowledged that her husband's firm, E Street Group, took a cut of the overall payments but has declined to say how much.

Jacobs said he thought the DFL's complaint against Melton-Meaux over consulting work was "flimsy" and an attempt to "blur the differences" between the two candidates.

"It’s fairly standard practice for those consultants to set up freestanding businesses that conceal their identity so they can work for a challenger. This is not the first time this has happened," he said.