Post-defeat, Kahn looks back on 44 years in the Legislature: ‘I just saw problems around me that needed fixing’

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Phyllis Kahn: “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.”

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. 

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 08/25/2016 - 10:36 am.

    I feel incredibly lucky to have been represented by Phyllis Kahn for the 22 years I have lived in Minneapolis.

    I hope my luck holds now that I cannot take Phyllis for granted.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 08/25/2016 - 10:51 am.

    One small bad act…true of false?

    It is an interesting article and does fortify the fact that Kahn was an active feminist – second wave of course, The twenties were the first wave, which many of our mothers, grandmothers supported?

    Not knowing too much about Kahn’s political life, I appreciated her responding with her extensive list of her accomplishments, yet I have always been puzzled by an old story that may be a myth…but didn’t Kahn pull up the lawn signs of her political opponent; one campaign incident at one earlier campaign?

    Funny how a life of positive political activism can be washed away by one act which certainly gave me a sense of another side of a strong minded politician with some positive accomplishments?

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 08/25/2016 - 01:01 pm.

      False, as I don’t recall anything about lawn signs. I think it was a whole lot smaller than you think.

      There was an incident where she picked up literature instead of just dropping hers off, something that residents might appreciate in or out of election season (I mostly gather it up and toss it in the recycling), but was certainly an aberrant bit of behavior, perhaps just absent mindedness.

      Of course there are a plethora of bad acts, depending on your frame of reference and the fact that we are all human beings, but all in all this is a nice article about a very nice person.

      • Submitted by James Jarby on 08/25/2016 - 03:08 pm.

        Kahn job?

        You respond “false”? I remember an illegal incident, too, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, “In 2004, Kahn was charged with theft for removal of Republican campaign literature from doorsteps of several houses. Kahn pleaded guilty and paid a $200 fine.” They cite the Minnesota Daily. Please let’s not whitewash or minimize reality, even if you share a surname.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 08/25/2016 - 11:52 am.

    Thank you Briana…

    Well-written, no bravado…’just the facts, mam’

  4. Submitted by Andrea Feshbach on 08/25/2016 - 12:08 pm.

    “gender” suit or Rajender suit at U of MN?

    Was Ms. Kahn referring to the landmark class action lawsuit of Rajender vs U of MN?

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/25/2016 - 03:12 pm.

    didn’t Kahn pull up the lawn signs of her political opponent; one campaign incident at one earlier campaign?

    Ah yes, the one misstep in 44 years of great service to the people of Minnesota. Phyllis, that rascal, did indeed get caught pulling campaign lit from the doors of the opponent of a candidate she was helping out, a major embarrassment at the time, and something that will live on in the lore of Minnesota politics. Thankfully, the candidate after severely chastising Phyllis and banning her from the district for life (something I didn’t even know was within the authority of a state legislator) went on to win the election. Phyllis, although forced to live with the shame of the incident ever since, seems to be, since last I saw her, holding up quite well.

  6. Submitted by Walt Rupp on 08/25/2016 - 04:12 pm.

    comments about opponent

    From Alpha News: “The young woman,” Kahn said, neglecting even to use Omar’s name, “has done a very good job mobilizing students to get out to the caucuses and she’s also very attractive to the kind of, what we call the young, liberal, white guilt-trip people.”


    Back in April, just after the stalled endorsement convention, Kahn was similarly dismissive — and just as backhandedly complimentary — of Omar’s gifts as a candidate, saying she’s “younger” and “prettier” than Kahn, and “agrees with anything anyone says to her.”

    I’ve never been a Khan constituent. But when I read this, as a progressive voter, I thought the comments were indication of Kahn being out-of-touch to say the least.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/25/2016 - 07:53 pm.

      Non-constituents who are upset about what Phyllis Kahn said during the campaign have to be reminded that lots of Omar supporters actually cited her youth, attractiveness and “newness” to the process as reasons to abandon Kahn, for whom many had voted for years. They said repeatedly that Kahn had been in office too long and that it was time for someone new. Read: ageism combined with sexism (there’s another legislator, a male, who’s been in St. Paul for just as long, but he’s not being hit with that label). Phllyis Kahn has been a great representative of a diverse district, and there was no complaint from her constituents about her excellent work in the Legislature. On the contrary: you’d be hard-pressed to find a better state Rep.

      Phyllis, as a scientist, tends to be blunt sometimes. Politicians usually aren’t blunt in her way, so it upsets some folks to see her say out loud what some voters were saying repeatedly to each other across the district. White liberal voters, who were the factor that chose Omar in the primary, while the Somali vote was split.

  7. Submitted by richard owens on 08/26/2016 - 10:19 am.

    Her humor is one of her best attributes

    ‘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.”

    Watching Legislative sessions on TV these last years demonstrates the extent to which Phyllis has been the Legislatures’ “Institutional Memory”. Experience of the kind she brought to work is priceless when new election winners arrive with brand new ideas that aren’t. She routinely gave background and historical perspective to bills being debated.

  8. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 08/30/2016 - 07:54 am.

    All i can say is good luck and who knows what comes next…

    For someone like Phyllis Kahn who has put in so many years working as a powerful voice within the system…maybe now dawns a whole new role waiting for her as one working outside the political system; an advocate unbound by the restraints of institutionalized justice …on to social justice issues still, yet to be addressed .And she has all those years to know, understand the system; its weakness and its vulnerability?

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