When she was 12 years old, Leah Phifer's parents sat her down in their Two Harbors home to tell her their expectations.

Phifer's family has deep roots in northern Minnesota. Her mother was a small business owner in Two Harbors and her father worked at Northshore Mining in Silver Bay. One set of grandparents opened Shari's Kitchen, which eventually became the Vanilla Bean. Her other grandparents each spent 30 years working in the Ely school system.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The family wasn't really political. Phifer said she wasn't really sure how she fit into this family of "doers" and "makers," so she was excited to finally get some "clarity" on what her parents expected.

"So my mom and dad sat me down and said, 'We expect you to be a good citizen,' and I thought, 'What kind of career path is that? What about doctor, lawyer?'"

"How do I work with 'good citizen?'" she said.

"It really wasn't until I grew older that I realized how difficult it is to be a good citizen, because being a good citizen means actually seeing where your neighbors and friends are hurting and doing something about it, even if it means going outside your comfort zone."

Phifer kicked off her campaign in front of more than 40 supporters Sunday at Carmody 61 in Two Harbors. She will challenge incumbent Rick Nolan for the DFL endorsement in the 8th District Congressional seat.

Phifer grew up on the North Shore, graduated from Two Harbors High School in 2002. She pursued a career in national security as an Immigration, Customs and Enforcement agent and then as an FBI agent specializing in counterterrorism.

After the contentious 2016 election and a divided population, Phifer saw friends, neighbors and nation itself struggling to address a long list of issues, she believed she wasn't being the best citizen she could be.

"So I left the FBI," she said. "I left my job in national security that I loved and I got out of my comfort zone because I want to improve the laws I've been enforcing.

"I wanted to improve the lives I've been touching, and I wanted to do it in the area where we need it most - in our nation's capitol, in Congress," she said.

Phifer crisscrossed the district on her motorcycle during her "Around the 8th in 80 Days" listening tour over the summer, traveling more than 7,000 miles and visiting all 18 counties and connecting with thousands of voters along the way.

"I didn't ask party affiliation - I just asked what mattered to them," Phifer said. "What I found was a whole lot of people trying to figure this out, too. There are a whole lot of people in our district who are trying to figure out how we can pull together and make the changes we need in this country."

Gerry Henkel of the Clover Valley area said he doesn't particularly like the world of politics and doesn't usually get involved in campaigns, but he found something different when he met Phifer over the summer. It inspired him to support her.

"When I look at Leah and talk to her, she genuinely listens and responds intelligently and compassionately and looks for ways to unify all of us," he said. "She's moved me out of my own cynicism and given me a reason to become involved once again in the necessary world of politics. There are many people like me in this district, and we need to reach out to them."

Phifer is seeking the DFL nomination in a deeply divided district that narrowly re-elected Nolan in 2016. It was also one of just 12 districts in the U.S. to elect a Democratic congressman, but also vote for President Donald Trump in 2018.

Those divisions were laid bare for the entire country last week when activists Beck Rom and Reid Carron made comments in a New York Times Magazine article, "In Northern Minnesota, Two Economies Square Off: Mining vs. Wilderness." The story explores the controversy of the proposed copper-nickel mining projects just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Some residents believed the activists' comments disparaged miners and other skilled trade workers living and working on the Iron Range. Rom is the head of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters that opposes the proposed Twin Metals and PolyMet mining projects near the boundaries of the BWCAW.

Phifer said she was "disappointed" in the characterization of the mining communities on the Iron Range, but that she has a broad perspective of life in the 8th District since growing up in Two Harbors and now living and working in Isanti. She hopes the two sides warring over the proposed copper-nickel projects can come together to talk about what is best for the 8th District.

"Really, acknowledging the divide and then moving on is a good plan because we need to start looking at this in a broader perspective and not letting these wedge issues completely suck the oxygen out of the room," Phifer said.

During her listening tour over the summer, Phifer found four issues on which most 8th District residents can agree: Children in the district deserve safe neighborhoods with access to clean water and air; older residents deserve to age with dignity and reliable access to health care; those working full time in this country should earn a "living wage that can put a roof over your head and food in the pantry;" and all 8th District residents' lives are better working together.

"We can all agree that we can't do this alone," Phifer said. "No single party, no single person, no single demographic can make the changes that we desperately need. We need each other, we need to do this together and we need to acknowledge that we all do better when we all do better."