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Leah Phifer is a different kind of candidate for Congress. But politics in Minnesota’s Eighth District are different these days, too

In 70 years, northeastern Minnesota has been represented in Congress by just four men. But fractures in the DFL over the future of mining might mean the district is ripe for change.

Phifer began exploring a bid for office over the summer by touring Minnesota’s vast 8th Congressional District on the back of her Yamaha motorcycle.
Courtesy of Leah Phifer for Congress

Leah Phifer is not your typical candidate for Congress. She’s 33 years old, and teaches at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, where she arrived after a stint working on counter-terrorism issues at the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Minneapolis.

She began exploring a bid for office over the summer by touring Minnesota’s vast 8th Congressional District on the back of her Yamaha motorcycle. Phifer said she logged 7,000 miles crisscrossing the district, which encompasses most of northeastern Minnesota, from the northern Twin Cities exurbs to the border with Canada, and from Lake Superior to the Brainerd Lakes.

Phifer’s age, résumé, and unconventional way of launching a congressional bid might make her stand out in most districts, but it makes her stand out particularly in this district, which has a long, rich history of DFL politics. For only two years since 1947 — 2011 and 2012 — has this district’s U.S. House representative been a Republican; that was also the only stretch where the district’s representative wasn’t named Blatnik, Oberstar, or Nolan.

DFL politics in northeastern Minnesota are defined by household names like those, as well as storied institutions like labor unions, and complex alliances and rivalries that go back generations — all of which make it harder for a newcomer like Phifer, who is seeking the party’s endorsement, to break through.

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But things may be changing. In recent years, a rift has grown within the 8th District DFL over several issues, particularly mining, splitting progressive voters in places like Duluth and pro-mining voters on the Iron Range and elsewhere. The DFL has lost some folks in that latter camp — Donald Trump carried CD8 by 15 points last year, winning precincts a Republican hasn’t won in 80 years.

The position of three-term incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan, whom Phifer is challenging for the party endorsement, has grown tenuous, some in CD8 say, because of his increasing alignment with pro-mining forces. It may not be enough of an opening for Phifer to secure an endorsement, but her candidacy could provide the clearest proof yet of a troubling fissure in the DFL.

Finding an opening

Phifer, who grew up in Two Harbors and currently lives in Isanti, said the seeds of her run for Congress were sown when Trump won the 2016 election. On her blog detailing her 80-day motorcycle journey across the 8th, Phifer explains that when it was clear Trump had won, her boyfriend said it was the right time for her to fulfill a longtime goal of running for Congress.

“I had been thinking about running, but I thought it was one of those things I’d do when I was 50,” Phifer told MinnPost. “It never occurred to me to do it at this stage in my life. I started thinking, after the election, the direction we were headed as a country, state, district, became more and more distressing to me. I thought, why am I waiting? Why shouldn’t I run now?”

For a few months, it seemed as if Phifer might have chosen the right opening: This spring, Nolan publicly flirted with a bid for governor of Minnesota, even saying in April that he was close to running. However, by early June — a few weeks before Phifer would embark on her exploratory trip — Nolan declared he wouldn’t run, saying there was too much to do in Congress.

Phifer went ahead with the tour anyway, and she says that it convinced her there was an opening for another candidate on the DFL side. “What I’ve found, as I traveled through the district, is we’re not in a great position as the DFL base here in the 8th,” she says.

“It was never my intent from the get-go to challenge a sitting incumbent,” Phifer says. “It’s a difficult endeavor.” But she explains that it became increasingly apparent that “if I didn’t at least try, we weren’t going to be able to hold this seat in 2018.”

The issue that made this clear, Phifer says, is mining — specifically, how the government should approach the regulation of mining exploration and activity in northern Minnesota.

A bridge too far?

Fresh tensions over mining in CD8 began at the end of 2016, when the outgoing Barack Obama administration moved to deny the company Twin Metals a renewal of leases it held on a valuable trove of copper, nickel, and other metals in the Superior National Forest, a few miles from the protected Boundary Waters Area Canoe Wilderness.

That also set in motion a process to potentially impose a 20-year moratorium on any mining exploration or activity in a quarter-million acres of land. The U.S. Forest Service stated that the kind of technique that would be used to extract these metals, sulfide mining, is unlikely to be conducted in a way that does not seriously pollute the water and soil of the surrounding area.

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Nolan, fresh off another close election victory, condemned this move harshly, and framed it as a “slap in the face and a punch in the gut” to the Iron Range and its economy. The Democrat joined 6th District GOP Rep. Tom Emmer in sending a letter to Trump, asking him to reverse the Obama decisions; the duo has met with the relevant Cabinet secretaries, Agriculture Department chief Sonny Perdue and Interior Department boss Ryan Zinke, to urge them to reverse the decisions as well.

Since arriving for his second stint in Congress in 2013 — he served for a few terms in the 1970s — Nolan has walked a fine line on mining, aiming to keep pro-mining and pro-environment DFLers behind him, even as they increasingly grew at odds with each other. Nolan allies believe that balance is why the congressman has continued to survive here, narrowly winning hard-fought re-elections in 2014 and 2016.

To hear some in CD8 tell it, however, Nolan’s actions this year have upset his balance on mining. The Timberjay newspaper of Ely, in a recent editorial, pointed out a notable moment from May, in which Nolan appeared at the Twin Metals office on the Iron Range alongside Emmer and a handful of Republican congressmen from the so-called Western Caucus — a group that pushes strident right-wing views on resource extraction and public lands — to advocate for action to reverse the Obama decisions on the Twin Metals leases.

“His recent alignment with some of the Republican Party’s most radical anti-environment and anti-public lands members of Congress has left Nolan incongruously positioned to the right of the Trump administration on the environment,” the Timberjay wrote.

Privately, some DFLers express befuddlement over Nolan’s recent moves, and believe he could be doing himself more harm than good.

“Certainly,” Phifer says, “the legislation the congressman has pushed forward, especially throughout the summer, that has been the last straw for a lot of folks willing to overlook militant, pro-mining stances that could put the regulatory process in jeopardy.”

“It’s gotten to the point where we’ve lost quite a few people,” Phifer says of Nolan’s stance.

For her part, Phifer believes the Obama decisions should stand, and she is against defunding the U.S. Forest Service’s two-year study evaluating whether or not to place a lengthy mining moratorium on the swath of Superior National Forest identified by the government. Nolan supported an amendment onto a spending bill that would have defunded the Forest Service’s study, effectively killing it.

“If we’re not allowing the regulatory process, due process, to play out, we’re undermining people’s trust in the system,” Phifer says.

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Phifer did not say specifically whether she believes, like some Minnesota Democrats, that sulfide mining cannot be conducted in an environmentally responsible way. “Really, I’m a subject matter expert in legal areas, and not in areas pertaining to environmental science,” she says. “I leave that to the professionals. … What I think there is absolutely room for is a better process.”

‘It gets messy in the big tent’

Beyond mining, on most other issues, Phifer’s positions align closely with Nolan’s. On her website, Phifer emphasizes health care, and her support of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ push for legislation to create a single-payer health care system. Nolan has been a vocal supporter of single payer, and is a co-sponsor of Rep. John Conyers’ “Medicare for All” bill in the House.

On economic issues, both Nolan and Phifer share an outlook of economic populism: They both advocate for raising the federal minimum wage, for example, and protecting organized labor and workers’ rights.

Their similar views on most major issues besides mining has prompted some skepticism among Nolan allies about Phifer’s candidacy. Nolan supporter Tessa Hill, who is active in DFL politics in Chisago County, said “it doesn’t make sense to me that she’s running.”

Justin Perpich, chair of the 8th District DFL and a former Nolan aide, said that Phifer is “not saying he’s doing anything really wrong.”

Those familiar with DFL politics in CD8 believe Phifer has talent and an intriguing backstory, but generally feel her bid is a longshot. However, if her campaign is able to raise some money, it could make life more difficult for Nolan, and spotlight the mining issue in a way that could hurt his candidacy in the general election.

Already, there are concerns among DFLers that third party candidate Skip Sandman could pick up a sliver of the general election vote, peeling off progressives who couldn’t stomach a vote for Nolan based on mining. That could be dangerous for the incumbent, as his last two re-election margins have been under two points.

Through a spokesperson, Nolan declined to comment for this story. Campaign manager Annie Harala said, “We are focusing on our own campaign, and Congressman Nolan is focusing on solving problems and getting things done for Minnesota’s 8th District — which is what the voters have elected him to do.”

Republicans are hopeful a strong challenge from Phifer could buoy their chances to take CD8, which they believe is clearly trending in their direction. Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County Commissioner, is running for the GOP endorsement and is seen as a strong candidate. Meanwhile, Stewart Mills, who lost to Nolan in 2014 and 2016, hasn’t ruled out a third try.

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Phifer believes that her challenge will make the DFL stronger, not weaker, regardless of which candidate earns the endorsement. “There’s a lot of infighting,” she admitted. “That happens when you’re the big tent party. It gets messy under the big tent.”

But her biggest obstacle may be Nolan’s longstanding relationships with the DFL activists who decide the endorsement. While he is not known as a particularly strong fundraiser, Nolan is a tenacious retail campaigner, ubiquitous at union hall dinners and mining shift changes around the district during campaign season. He is fond of saying that no one can outwork him.

There may be some disagreement among DFLers about the efficacy of Nolan’s recent moves on mining, but most seem willing to trust the campaign veteran’s political judgment. “I’ve sometimes questioned some things working for him,” Perpich says, “but I learned you don’t question him because his political compass is probably the best I’ve ever seen, when it comes to the sense of his district and the people who are going to vote for him.”

Phifer says that her travels around the district have led her to believe there is appetite for a change in leadership and a fresh face.

She suggested Nolan may not be the party’s best candidate for a changing political climate: “This isn’t a repeat of 2014 or 2016,” she said. “The climate is different, it’s a very different election this time. We need to think long and hard about the best person to represent the DFL in the general election.”

“Everyone is hungry for a change,” she said. “We saw that in 2016. That desire for change has not been satiated. People are ready for people who want to make government work again.”

People in the 8th, she says, “exhibit a strong desire to see someone come into this seat, and hold it for years to come.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Phifer’s role at the FBI.