Phyllis Kahn doesn’t act like someone who just suffered a major defeat.
Sipping iced chai Friday afternoon on the patio of the Aster Cafe, overlooking the Mississippi River in her Minneapolis House district, Kahn casually mentions the 22-mile bike ride she did earlier in the day with the “Hot Flashes,” a group of women riders who also work in public policy. She also recently caught a play at the Guthrie Theater and made time to go see “Cafe Society,” the latest Woody Allen flick. (Kahn, who grew up in Brooklyn, said that she likes all of Allen’s movies, even the ones that get bad reviews.)
Kahn’s had more time for such things since Aug. 9, when she lost a three-way primary for her House District 60B seat to Ilhan Omar, who is expected to cruise to victory in the general election in the heavily DFL district. In January, Kahn will end a 44-year career at the Capitol that began with a historic election in 1972. Back then, Kahn was a Yale-trained biophysicist working at the University of Minnesota when she became one of just six women serving in the Minnesota Legislature.
Things have changed, and the ranks of women legislators have grown, but Kahn would rather talk about the hundreds of bills she’s worked on over the years than her role as a political trailblazer. She’s had an eclectic career that includes work on everything from bicycle trails and Sunday liquor sales to the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act, which banned smoking in public places. “I just sort of put my head down and worked on stuff,” Kahn said.
MinnPost sat down with Kahn to talk about her accomplishments, disappointments and how St. Paul has changed over the last four decades.
On the Aug. 9 primary election:
“The margin was big enough so we didn’t have to do horrendous second-guessing, like, ‘Oh if we only walked this block.’ The kinds of things we hadn’t done enough of, that we would have done more of, wouldn’t have made a difference. We didn’t do any kind of second-guessing or fantasizing about what could have been done.”
On her accomplishments in St. Paul:
“With [the Clean Indoor Air Act], one of the reasons I did that was because I read the Surgeon General’s report the year before, which was the first place that talked about secondhand smoke. Everyone knew smoking was bad at the time, but that was the first place anyone talked about the effect on other people. This had kind of started in other places, but the thing that was different about the Minnesota law was that we said — instead of doing this escalating list of places where you couldn’t smoke — we starting with the phrase: Smoking is forbidden everywhere unless expressly allowed.”
“In the first years, when I was trying to get bikes and bike trails into transportation bills, it would get taken out every single time. One time when the final bill came back, I remember the minority leader said, ‘Rep. Kahn will be pleased to know that the word bicycle is in this bill.’ There was no real push for funding for biking back then, but over time, we got a lot built.”
On the offbeat bills she was well-known for authoring:
“Sometimes people make fun of me for working on things like Sunday liquor sales, ticket scalping, the water bong bill and industrial hemp, but I just saw problems around me that needed fixing. I would just pick up things that needed to be done.”
On the changing nature of politics at the state Capitol:
“Politics have gotten more partisan, of course. It’s harder for people to work together. I think the problem is people like [former moderate Republican Rep.] Dave Bishop can’t get a Republican endorsement and Republican support anymore.”
“The reason we got so much done years ago was because there was one state government finance committee, but now that’s split up into five separate committees. There was a lot more ability to look at big-picture things. There used to be only four different finance committees and now there’s something like 10. It’s a huge, huge number of committees. It slows things down.”
On transparency in the legislative process:
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen the level of lack of transparency of three leaders meeting for days essentially with nobody having anything to do with it. We were much better when we had fewer rules about how long public meetings could go on. And to say it’s abusive to have [a public meeting] go on after midnight, well to me, it’s more abusive to have meetings that no one can go to going on.”
On women in politics in Minnesota:
“I came from getting degrees in all-boys subjects in all-boys schools. The Legislature, which had legislated equality in a sense, was a lot better than what I faced professionally. I was a plaintiff intervener in the gender suit at the University [of Minnesota], and part of the reason I ran for the Legislature was my treatment at the university.”
“One of the stories I tell people, when I started going to college, my mother was a biology teacher and my father was a doctor but I headed into biology, and everyone I was hanging out with were going into physics. At first I thought, I’m not really smart enough to do that. When I applied to graduate school, I asked my advisor for a letter of recommendation. He said yes, and apparently he wrote a one-sentence recommendation which said: ‘This person has no ability for graduate school. She should be a housewife.’ The appalling thing about that recommendation was if he had ever been in my house, he’d have seen that my only hope was to go to graduate school.”
“Once I was in the Legislature, the standard way people would start their speech on the House floor is they would say, ‘Gentlemen of the House.’ The women serving at the time would take turns getting up and rising for a point of order. We had to train people to new habits.”
On what she feels she left undone:
“I have a set of bills I couldn’t get passed that I could pass on to somebody. One is the Idaho law, where bicycles can treat red lights as yield signs. I’ve tried to do that several times, without success.”
“Something I else worked on and something that’s important to the Somali community is first-cousin marriage. People still think that that’s a joke. I read a genetics paper that said that first-cousin marriages were no worse than any other interfamilial marriages. Plus, the fact is that about half the states allow it. That’s very important to a lot of our immigrant communities.”
“And then there’s 16-year-old voting, and I tried to cut down the on-sale drinking age to 18. There are just things that I kept trying to do, like Sunday liquor sales, that didn’t get done. I can’t pretend that they are the same as the Clean Indoor Air Act or getting good bicycle trails, but they were things I saw and thought needed to be done.”
On her next step:
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do next, but I’m not going to be a lobbyist, I’ll tell you that.”
“There was one time in my life when I was most exalted and most held up on a pedestal: When I was a very low-level undergraduate with natural resources, we were doing bat population studies. We would go into caves where bats were hibernating and see if they were wearing a band and we would record the band number or put a band on the leg and put them back in the cave. Every cave in New York and Pennsylvania comes to a point, and I could go further into those caves than anyone else. I have to find something like that.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.