Trump nemesis Omar challenged in Democratic primary over celebrity status

Antone Melton-Meaux says he voted for U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar in 2018 as she made history in becoming the first Somali-American elected to Congress.

But Melton-Meaux won't be repeating his vote in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary. He's challenging Omar, who has battled with President Donald Trump and faced a series of controversies during her first term, arguing that she's too focused on being a political celebrity.

"There was excitement. I felt the same," Melton-Meaux said in an interview this week inside his campaign office in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis. "But in the end, what we’ve seen is someone who doesn’t show up for us." 

The mediation attorney has become a surprise player in the Democratic primary that many expected Omar to win easily. Melton-Meaux raised an eye-popping $3.2 million in the second quarter, and has the backing of pro-Israel groups that are spending large amounts of money on his behalf.

Omar rejects the criticism that she's been too focused on celebrity and controversies to work for the congressional district, which includes Minneapolis and several inner-ring suburbs to the north, west and south of the city.

"I think that’s one narrative. The other narrative is that I have had a year and a half of great accomplishments, a year and a half of uplifting the voices of those who are marginalized in our communities," Omar said in an interview at Beltrami Park in northeast Minneapolis, where she rallied volunteers before a Sunday door-knocking session.

Omar questioned Melton-Meaux's motives in the campaign, pointing to the wealthy groups that are spending money on his behalf and accusing him of adopting her policy platform late in the primary.

Big money, out of state donors

The group Americans for Tomorrow's Future is running anti-Omar ads in the district, highlighting her 2016 campaign finance violations for which she paid a modest fine and the large payments her campaign has made to her husband's political consulting firm.

Americans for Tomorrow's Future, a pro-Israel group, has only a single target for its independent expenditures in the 2020 cycle: Omar's defeat. The group has spent $1.4 million on the effort, according to the tracking website Open Secrets.

Melton-Meaux has also gotten support from NorPAC and Pro-Israel America PAC, two other groups that support conservative policies in Israel and have donors who back President Trump.

He pointed to data showing that some of the groups also support Democrats.

"This is frankly an attempt to preserve a campaign that’s falling apart," Melton-Meaux said of Omar's criticism.

When it comes to out-of-state donations, both candidates are benefiting.

Eighty-five percent of Melton-Meaux's donors who gave at least $200 to his campaign are from outside Minnesota, according to Open Secrets data. But Omar's out-of-state percentage is even higher: 92 percent of those who gave at least $200 are from outside the state.

Seven of Omar's top zip codes for incoming contributions are in New York or California. For Melton-Meaux, it's four of his top 10.

Money to husband's firm

For a year, Omar has dodged some questions about where her money is going.

In 2020, Omar's campaign has paid her husband's political consulting firm more than $1 million, including $606,000 over just three weeks in July. It has led to allegations that her husband is profiting from her campaign.

Tim Mynett, whom Omar married earlier this year, runs Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm E Street Group. The company's top customer is Ilhan for Congress, which is responsible for 50 percent of the company's income from political spending, Open Secrets data indicate.

Omar said E Street Group acts as a pass-through, with money flowing from her campaign into the firm and then onto vendors who place ads and print mail pieces. She acknowledged that her husband's company is taking a cut of the money.

"When you read a headline that says, $600,000 went to this firm, it doesn’t express what the work is," Omar told FOX 9. "To me, it feels like malpractice when it comes to journalism."

Omar said E Street Group has 20 employees who do work for her campaign. She declined to say what the company's cut of the money was.

"That would be something that you would have to use your journalistic skills to get that information to the viewers," she said.

On the attack

Melton-Meaux has picked up several local endorsements, including civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong, civil rights activist Josie Johnson and Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris.

But Omar has the party heavyweights, like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, and the Minnesota DFL. The DFL and union groups who support Omar have been blasting Melton-Meaux over the campaign funding issue and his past work as an attorney.

Omar herself has gone negative in a new TV ad. It claims Melton-Meaux defended corporations that were accused of mistreating workers and firing pregnant women, using a theme that the unions have been hammering for weeks.

Melton-Meaux acknowledged working at the national law firm Jackson Lewis but said he never worked on a union case there. When asked about the specific accusations in Omar's ad, he did not directly address them.

"Let’s just dispel that notion that I’m a union buster, because that’s just not true," he said.

Omar's voting record has also come into question. Melton-Meaux criticized Omar for missing 40 votes in Congress in 2019, more than the rest of Minnesota's Democratic House delegation combined.

Omar responded that the criticism is off-base and said she missed votes for the loss of a family member and holidays.

The two share many policy similarities, though Melton-Meaux has staked out a more centrist position on several issues.

On policing, Omar echoes a majority of the Minneapolis City Council that wants to dismantle the city's police department after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the knee of a now-fired Minneapolis cop. She declined to say how many officers should remain in Minneapolis if the department is restructured.

Melton-Meaux said police will always have a role to play. But Minneapolis should take money from its police department and use it to address homelessness, mental health and schools, he said.

Omar accused her rival of adopting "every single thing" that she's campaigned on over the years.

"I don’t know what he’s controlled by. But what I do know is that until recently, there was no platform," she said. "Until recently, it was, 'We just need to get rid of Ilhan.'"

Lessons from 2018?

When Omar won the crowded 2018 Democratic primary over former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and two sitting state senators, she did so with huge support in Minneapolis. In many neighborhoods, on the northeast and south sides, she won with 40 percent margins over her then-rivals.

But Anderson Kelliher won the vote counts in several suburbs, including Fridley, Brooklyn Center, New Hope, Robbinsdale and Golden Valley. Today, there are many Melton-Meaux yard signs in the suburbs.

"I think he's got a better chance than many people do in terms of perhaps pulling one of the biggest upsets of the year," said Hamline University professor David Schultz, who recently wrote an editorial asking "Is Ilhan Omar one and done?"

Yet Minneapolis, where Omar performed so well in 2018, makes up 60 percent of the congressional district.

"In a race now that is effectively one on one – yes there are other candidates, but it’s effectively one on one – if she loses the suburbs big, can she hold Minneapolis strong enough that she can still win that election?" Schultz said.

It's a question voters will answer next week.