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Leah Phifer announces candidacy in 8th; will challenge Nolan

Leah Phifer

Leah Phifer will put away the motorcycle she rode to tour Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District this summer, but carry forward her campaign — convinced the DFL needs a voice in the 2018 midterm elections other than three-time incumbent Rick Nolan.

Phifer, a political novice, announced her candidacy with a news release late Saturday. On Sunday, she spoke with the News Tribune, and explained what made her “Around the 8th in 80 Days” motorcycle tour so convincing as to prompt her to run for office.

“I talked to a lot of people across the entire district, including people very active in the party, and they’re disappointed where we’re headed,” the 33-year-old Two Harbors native and Isanti resident said. “They’re frustrated to the point we might not be able to put our best foot forward right now, and we deserve a choice in the matter.”

Phifer is currently teaching a course titled “Immigration Policy,” at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, having traded in a 10-year federal career — first at the Department of Homeland Security, then working counter-terrorism for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Minneapolis Field Office — for a shot at federal office.

It’s her “legal-training background,” she said, that leaves her loathe to weigh in on what she described as “due process” in matters such as the hotly contested copper-nickel mining on the Iron Range.

She opposes the Nolan-penned House bill that would push through a land exchange needed for the PolyMet copper-nickel mining project to proceed north of Hoyt Lakes. She said the potential legislative solution would bypass four lawsuits challenging the swap, and take away citizens’ abilities to shape the issue.

“This level of office doesn’t (need to) and shouldn’t be involved in these decisions,” she said. “This should be determined at the state level. … I fundamentally believe that something affecting Minnesota’s resources, landscape and environment should be decided in the state and not in Congress.”

Also regarding the expansion of mining in what was once her backyard and is still home, she said, to lots of her relatives, Phifer cited a successful amendment from Nolan and fellow Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer in September that would defund a proposed U.S. Forest Service study of all mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Phifer described such activity as “undermining what makes democracy great,” and said it risks “eroding public trust.”

“As I traveled the district it became clear to me there’s a lot of smart, passionate people who can look at it from angles that I can’t,” she said of mining expansion. “I’m not a hydrologist. I’m equipped to look at this from a legal perspective and understand how incredibly important due process is.”

Phifer branded herself as a millennial and said it’s something people responded to on her exploratory tour which began in June.

“There’s a lot of excitement about putting forth a new face,” she said, backing up her generational status by saying she was in the process of setting up a Facebook Q&A to engage with prospective voters.

Phifer’s entry into the DFL race means she’ll go head-to-head with Nolan for the party’s endorsement on April 14 at the 8th District DFL Convention in Duluth, at the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites downtown.

Health care, mining and a lack of governmental transparency, she said, were the three issues she heard about time and time again during her tour. Phifer supports universal health care, specifically U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All bill.

In working her way across the district, she noted a Democratic party still divided over the “Bernie and Hillary (Clinton) issue, and really trying to work through that.” She described herself as a unifier, who is more apt to listen than to bloviate.

“We have a lot of armchair experts when it comes to big controversial proposals,” she said, “and I want to make sure I’m not one of them.”

In addition to Phifer and Nolan, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber entered the race in July for the Republicans, and Duluth’s Skip Sandman announced in May his candidacy as an independent. Nolan’s Congressional office couldn’t not be reached for comment on the election development.

As far as where Phifer’s campaign goes from here, it’ll begin fundraising and heading back on the road.

“I’ll get in my car,” she said. “The motorcycle is retired.”