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Millennial Phifer aims to take on Nolan

Leah Phifer of Isanti recently announced she would challenge incumbent Democrat Congressman Rick Nolan for the DFL endorsement in the 8th Congressional District. Photo courtesy of Leah Phifer campaign1 / 2
Phifer worked for the FBI from 2015 to 2017, when she left to explore a possible campaign for the 8th Congressional District seat. She embarked on a summer motorcycle tour of the district, talking to voters about issues. Photo courtesy of the Leah Phifer campaign. 2 / 2

Leah Phifer represents a new generation of challenges to incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in the 8th District.

The 33-year-old grew up in Two Harbors on Lake Superior's North Shore, and now lives in Isanti. A fluent Spanish speaker, from 2008 to 2015 she worked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She later transferred to the FBI, working as an intelligence analyst for two years. She now teaches politics and government as an adjunct faculty member at Augsburg College.

Phifer and Nolan have already bumped into each other multiple times on the campaign trail (including at a barn dance), and the tone was amiable despite the fact they're competing for the DFL endorsement, she said.

"This was never about one person or one issue, this has been about getting more voices to the table and changing the way we talk about keeping our country safe," she said.

The Millennial generation is comprised of people who came of age around the millennium, like Phifer. It holds only five seats in congress, but currently forms the largest generation in the United States, she said.

"We're really looking at a disadvantage where we don't have a representative democracy, because we're not actually proportionally representing the voices in the country," she said.

Meeting with the people who live in northern Minnesota during a 80-day motorcycle tour of the 8th District this summer motivated Phifer to run, she said. A hard look at the political situation facing Democrats in the 8th also pushed her to try and offer a new voice among the candidates.

"(I believed) that if I didn't try, we might be in serious jeopardy in 2018," she said.

Proposed projects such as the Line 3 crude oil pipeline replacement and the Polymet copper nickel mine were driving a wedge between Democrats in the 8th, Phifer said. The ensuing divide between labor and environmental factions of the party threatened to harm their chances in the next election. Many of the people she talked to on the tour were so dissatisfied that they planned to vote for a third party or not vote at all, she said—and to her, it was a call to action.

The Hatch Act prevented her as a federal employee from taking part in political campaigns. It was only after she left the FBI in May that she was able to put her foot in the water.

"I've always considered myself a DFLer because my values just align more with that platform," she said. "But, I've never been one to really show up at all the party insider events, because I couldn't. And I think that's something that actually resonates with people. The general electorate is tired of the career politicians, the folks who make decisions behind closed doors and have been doing so for years. They're really excited about someone who isn't on the party insider track, and just wants to get government working for people."

Phifer wants to energize people who wouldn't otherwise be involved in politics. Through social media, new entrants into politics can circumvent the traditional party power brokers, she said.

Asked whether her issue regarding Polymet was with regulatory process hiccups or with the project itself, Phifer said it was the former. She pointed out her family had been in mining for four generations, including her father and grandfather.

But, politicians putting their thumbs on the scale has resulted in a regulatory process that doesn't reflect what the people in Minnesota want, Phifer said. She gave as an example Nolan legislation that intended to facilitate a land swap for the space the Polymet mine would be built on.

As to whether or not she was in favor of the project, Phifer demurred.

"I'm always in favor of any projects that are going to provide good paying jobs, but I'm also in favor of letting the process determine whether those projects carry too much risk," she said.

Her professional field was criminal justice, not hydrology or biology, she said. It was up to the law and due process to decide. When politicians weigh in on projects like Polymet and Line 3, they bring their political agendas with them—so Phifer is trying not to let her opinion exert too much influence, she said.

Furthermore, mining impacts only one portion of the 8th District, Phifer said, while issues like health care and education impact all of it. Her experience in the national security sector of the government taught her that stability in people's lives leads to a safer environment.

"The mining industry doesn't put food on everybody's table," she said. "It helps the Iron Range economy, it's a critical backbone to the Iron Range economy, but I left the Iron Range at 18 and I moved down to Isanti. Here in Isanti, our economy doesn't depend on the mining industry. Our economy depends on agriculture, we have a commuter economy where folks like myself commute down to the Cities and drive home at night. So, when we're talking about the 8th District economy, what works, what doesn't work, we have to make sure we're not derailed by this one issue that doesn't actually affect everyone's lives throughout the district, but one portion of the district."