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Some Minnesota Democrats turn primary into a referendum on Gaza


Earlier today, the U.S. military began airdropping food over Gaza, where food security experts say more than half a million people are facing severe hunger. U.N. officials have warned that without a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, famine in Gaza is, quote, "almost inevitable." The push for a permanent cease-fire spurred many voters in Michigan's Democratic primary to vote uncommitted earlier this week, and that was meant as a warning to President Biden's reelection campaign over his ongoing support for Israel's war against Hamas. Activists are hoping to send a similar message in Minnesota, which holds its presidential primaries on Tuesday. Minnesota Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.


CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: It's Friday prayer at the Carmel Mosque in a Somali American neighborhood in Minneapolis. The service ends, and local activist Jaylani Hussein takes the microphone.

JAYLANI HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MASTERS: He tells the hundreds gathered about how large numbers of voters protested at the ballot box not too far from here, in Michigan. He encourages them to do the same and meets with a few people afterwards.

HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MASTERS: Like Michigan, Minnesota has an option for uncommitted on Democrats presidential primary ballot on Super Tuesday. And like some areas of Michigan, the Twin Cities have a significant population of Muslim voters. Many, like Hussein, are Somali American. Hussein says his group, Uncommitted Minnesota, is doing a number of get out the vote efforts this weekend.

HUSSEIN: People are so energized about what is happening in Gaza, and they feel helpless that this vote could be something we could see a large number of folks coming out.

MASTERS: On Thursday night, people from across the country joined a conference call to hear from members of the group Listen to Michigan that kicked off that state's protest vote.

ASMA MOHAMMED: Y'all, Michigan had three weeks. Minnesota now has 4 1/2 days.

MASTERS: That's Asma Mohammed. She's also a member of Uncommitted Minnesota who was on the call encouraging people to volunteer.

MOHAMMED: If you have not signed up for a ship, sign up for two. If you've signed up for two, sign up for another. We need you. In this moment, we need every single person making calls every single day until polls close.

MASTERS: Organizers see Tuesday's primary vote as an important moment to give greater voice to their community and call for a permanent cease-fire, and that pushes spilling into the most local levels. In Saint Paul, tensions grew this week when the city council president, Mitra Jalali, gaveled out of a meeting packed with protesters, just as council member Nelsie Yang tried to introduce a cease-fire resolution.


MITRA JALALI: I will personally chat with any constituents who want to connect with me. And with that, we are adjourned.

NELSIE YANG: Also, President Jalali, I have an item to put on, to...

JALALI: We just - I'm sorry. We just adjourned, Ms. Yang. I'm happy to talk to you about it, though, after this.

YANG: You know, I think that's...

JALALI: All right.

MASTERS: The other council members walked out, and Yang stuck around to talk with protesters and reporters.

YANG: I am determined to find out a way to get it on the agenda. And if, in the end, it doesn't work out, then you know what? It's not on me. It's on my colleagues, and that's the public risk that they have to take.

MASTERS: Both Yang and Jalali say they're voting uncommitted on Tuesday, but Jalali says the process in which Yang went about raising the issue is not in line with city council rules. In a state that helped Biden secure his party's nomination four years ago, some Democrats here don't want him to take their vote for granted. Ken Martin is the local Democratic Party chair and says his party is not mobilizing against the effort. He just wants voters to show up.

KEN MARTIN: I will tell you that that vote was relatively small in Michigan last week. I expect it to be even smaller here in Minnesota next Tuesday. If you look at the primary results throughout the country, the overwhelming of Democratic primary voters already are behind our president. He will be our nominee for sure.

MASTERS: Martin says the president is listening, but he suspects those uncommitted voters will come back around in the fall, when they're likely choosing between President Biden and former President Donald Trump. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR