Meet Antone Melton-Meaux, Ilhan Omar’s primary challenger who wants to end divisive politics
The mediator and Hebrew translator has the endorsement of Pro-Israel America in his Minnesota election bid
If there’s one thing missing in Washington, according to Antone Melton-Meaux, it’s people willing to work to find common ground amid opposing viewpoints. Melton-Meaux’s background as a mediator, he believes, has primed him to take on the challenges of a divided Washington. But first, he’ll have to face a different challenge: unseating one of the most well-known freshman members of the 116th Congress.
“I understand the power of listening, the power of taking in information from both sides and working to find creative solutions that work,” said Melton-Meaux, who is challenging Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) in the Democratic primary for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. “I see myself as a bridge-builder and we desperately need that at Capitol Hill.”
In 2012, during a Jewish Community Relations Council meeting in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Melton-Meaux delivered a Dvar Torah, expounding on the connections between Leviticus 19 and Matthew 26, which calls for all people to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He added: “If there was ever a time when Jews, Christians, and all people of faith need to be reminded that we share a common bond, the time is now.”
Melton-Meaux’s message appears to be gaining traction in the district. Local activist and civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong penned a column in the Star Tribune last week touting Melton-Meaux’s credentials and declaring, “the Fifth District deserves a leader who will put our interests first, and one who will be accountable and transparent.” Melton-Meaux also received the endorsement of civil rights icon Josie Johnson.
Melton-Meaux alleges that his opponent, who has risen to prominence as a member of “The Squad,” has not worked to find common ground with others, including many of her Jewish constituents.
“Omar has made statements that have been reckless and harmful to the Jewish community,” Melton-Meaux told Jewish Insider. “I have spent time with the Jewish community and have met with Jewish leaders, and there’s a deep sense of betrayal by her actions and displeasure with the way that she has handled herself in the process with regard to the residents in this district.”
Melton-Meaux, 47, is one of three Democratic primary challengers to Omar in the 5th congressional district, where voters are scheduled to go to the polls on August 11th. He has raised more than $483,000 thus far — largely from local contributors — according to the most recent FEC filings, though Omar has outraised him by almost $3 million. Two other candidates — John Mason, a community organizer who worked on voter registration for the Obama campaign, and Leila Shukri Adan, a Somali immigrant — are also challenging the first-term congresswoman in the primary.
Melton-Meaux is no stranger to Washington. While studying at the University of Virginia School of Law, he joined a Congressional Black Caucus fellowship, working for Congressional House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) — under then-Chief of Staff Donna Brazile, who later became chair of the DNC — on housing and early education legislation. Before moving to D.C., he studied Israel and the Hebrew Bible as a religious studies major at Washington University in St. Louis and worked at the local Hillel chapter. After graduating from law school and working as a labor employment attorney in Washington, he moved to New York City, where he received a master’s degree in theology, Hebrew and preaching at the Union Theological Seminary. Melton-Meaux also worked at The New Jewish Home, a nonprofit senior health care system in Manhattan.
The congressional contender told JI that he didn’t learn Hebrew as a spoken language, but he is able to translate the original text of the Old Testament to English. He described his time in New York, where he attended local interfaith services and lectures about Judaism, as a “transformative experience.”
Melton-Meaux moved to Minneapolis in 2008 when his wife took a position as a surgeon at the University of Minnesota; he eventually founded a law firm specializing in employment mediation.
The heart of Minnesota’s Jewish community is located in the 5th district, clustered in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, but also spread across the metropolitan area commonly known as the Twin Cities, according to Rabbi Avi Olitzky, a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, one of the biggest Conservative synagogues in North America. There’s also a large Reform synagogue and a small but engaged Orthodox community.
Olitzky, who has met with Melton-Meaux, told JI that the candidate is seen as a viable challenger and is “building momentum” because “a lot of Omar’s [past] supporters feel pretty disenfranchised that there are certain commitments to work in the district that haven’t been upheld.” Olitzky added that Melton-Meaux’s strong stance against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel is also appealing to voters who care about the U.S.-Israel alliance.
That the Middle East is an issue of focus in the race is not surprising. In fact, the only section included under “Global Affairs” on Melton-Meaux’s website is titled “Israel/Palestine.”
In early 2019, Omar ignited a political firestorm when she accused AIPAC of paying U.S. lawmakers to be pro-Israel, after tweeting, “It’s all about the Benjamins.” The tweets, which were condemned by Democratic leadership, came following an interview on CNN, where she boasted that her controversial views on Israel are sparking debate. Later in the month, in remarks first reported by Jewish Insider, Omar — appearing alongside Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — accused pro-Israel activists of having an “allegiance to a foreign country” and complained that antisemitism charges against Muslim members of Congress shut down criticism of Israel. In the weeks that followed, Congress passed a watered-down resolution condemning antisemitism and other bigotry.
Rhona Shwaid, a Minneapolis attorney who has known Melton-Meaux for several years and is now a delegate to the DFL state district convention, told JI that in addition to some of the congresswoman’s controversial statements and policy stances, her attitude and lack of engagement is concerning to members of the Jewish community, who were “rooting for her” to succeed when she was first elected.
Shwaid was part of a group of constituents who met with Omar following the tweet against AIPAC and asked the congresswoman to clarify her positions on a two-state solution and BDS. Shwaid viewed the meeting as an opportunity for Omar to start building a relationship with the local Jewish community, and even gave her some books to read — Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by American-born Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi and Antisemitism: Here and Now by Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt.
“She was nice in the meeting and commented that ‘this is the beginning of a conversation,’” Shwaid recalled. “But we never heard back from her, and after that she made additional comments that were questionable and some of her votes have been questionable.”
Melton-Meaux was troubled by Omar’s interactions with her Jewish constituents. “She made no effort outside of the very tacit apology to have a conversation with the Jewish community and develop a better understanding of the concerns that they had,” he told JI.
Shwaid, who serves as co-chair of the local Zioness chapter, described Melton-Meaux as a “very intelligent and compassionate” person who “seems genuine about listening to the community’s needs and being accountable to voters.’
Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, a political action committee supporting pro-Israel candidates for federal office, included Melton-Meaux among the 40 candidates his group has endorsed in the 2020 election cycle so far. Melton-Meaux is the only challenger to have earned the group’s endorsement. Mendelsohn explained that Melton-Meaux is the “strongest challenger to Omar, is seen as the candidate most likely to succeed in the efforts to unsesat her, and he has voiced his recognition of Israel as a strategic ally of the United States.”
An official with J Street told JI that Omar — who attended the organization’s national conference last year — will not receive the organization’s endorsement this cycle. The official said that J Street will not be making any endorsement in the race ahead of the August primary and rarely endorses challengers against Democratic incumbents. Jeremy Slevin, the congresswoman’s communications director, told JI on Tuesday, “Rep. Omar did not ask for J Street’s endorsement in her primary. That said, we continue to have a great working relationship with J Street.”
A reluctant supporter of what he described as an “imperfect” nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, Melton-Meaux says he’s open to supporting the easing of sanctions on a humanitarian basis to help Iran fight the coronavirus pandemic. In March, Omar signed a letter asking the administration to suspend sanctions on entities that “encompass major sectors of the Iranian economy.”
“I certainly do not want to reposition our overall strategy with Iran, but if there are ways that we can ensure the health and safety of people across the globe, whatever format that is, I’m open to considering that,” he said. Going forward, Melton-Meaux is in favor of a new deal with Tehran “with conditions that ensure Iran is discouraged from continuing its regional campaign of terror and is dissuaded permanently from ever pursuing the [nuclear] bomb.”
Further contrasting his views with Omar, who voted against the recent House resolution reaffirming U.S. support for a two-state solution (H.R. 326), Melton-Meaux told JI he is a strong supporter of a two-state solution in which the U.S. plays the role of an honest broker, “not as a party to dictate terms or put funding pressures on one side or the other, but to create space for the Israelis and Palestinians to do the heavy lifting.”
While Melton-Meaux believes “some of the recent actions of the Trump administration” have caused the U.S. to lose its standing as a mediator in the region, he hopes that the two parties will create conditions on the ground to negotiate a peace settlement. “That’s the reason why I do not support BDS — because it, in many ways, is delegitimizing the conversations between the parties, creating more strain and pressure, which is not conducive to them finding effective long-lasting resolutions.”
Asked how Congress should react if Israel moves ahead with settlement expansion — which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed is a priority for his newly formed government — or annexing the West Bank, Melton-Meaux called it “a complicated question”
“Any steps that will create additional tension or stress, or diminish the quality of life for the other side, would create possible headwinds for the parties to come together,” he said. “I think it’s really important that we focus on a two-state solution and not unilateral action by one side or the other.”
Melton-Meaux said he would not condition military aid to Israel as a way to pressure the government to cease annexation. “I am in favor of maintaining our current status of support for Israel,” he asserted. “That plan is in place. It has the right incentives that honor our relationship with Israel and I support that.”
In recent months, Republican Party leaders — including the president — have portrayed Omar and her progressive colleagues in the Squad as the “face” of the Democratic Party. While Melton-Meaux may not make headlines for his position on Israel, he told JI the stance he represents will help work towards “a lasting peaceful solution. It creates a better opportunity for that.”
Melton-Meaux said he would have voted in favor of last year’s House resolution against BDS (H.R. 246), which Omar opposed. But it would “be very difficult” for him to vote in favor of legislation that would give states the power to enact anti-BDS laws. “As a policy proposition, I am firmly against [BDS], but I also think it’s important for us to preserve people’s constitutional rights as well, and I think the legislation would potentially create an infringement on people’s right to free speech.”
Last summer, the Israeli government barred Omar and Tlaib from entering the country on an tour organized by Miftah, a Palestinian nonprofit organization, reversing an initial decision to allow them to visit as members of Congress. The decision drew criticism from a wide range of outspoken U.S. supporters of Israel, including AIPAC, which said that “every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
Melton-Meaux was reluctant to call the Israeli government’s decision a mistake. “I always think it’s better to have conversations with people to try to understand each other and to inform,” he stressed. “So while the Israeli government can make their own decisions about controlling their borders, I certainly would like to see us have more, rather than less, conversation on this issue.”
Melton-Meaux has never visited Israel but said it is something he looks forward to doing if elected. “I thought about what it would be like to go to Jerusalem or to some of the other sacred locations, and I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity to experience it firsthand,” he said.
If Melton-Meaux is successful in August of 2020, he may just score an invite to the Holy Land in August of 2021.
This post was updated.