Despite rivals, Kahn remains

In 32 years, the DFL state lawmaker has defeated her share of student challengers.

Hank Long

Many students have tried, but none have succeeded. That will not keep University junior Amanda Hutchings from trying to defeat a state legislator this November.

Since 1994, at least one University student has unsuccessfully run against 32-year incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, in every election.

“She’s definitely hard to beat,” Hutchings said.

Kahn’s closest race in recent memory was in 2000 when she earned 63 percent of the vote against Republican Ben Bowman, a former University student.

But history has not deterred Hutchings, who studies political science, from trying to become the first to unseat Kahn, the University’s representative.

Hutchings knows running as a Republican is her biggest challenge in facing Kahn, who has won every district race since her first run in 1972.

“The district itself is hugely Democrat,” Hutchings said.

But she said another hurdle is appealing to the mix of students, who have a high turnover rate, and permanent residents.

Hutchings, who is pursing a degree emphasizing campaign management, never intended to run her own campaign until she became involved with the community through the Minnesota Student Association.

As MSA legislative affairs chairwoman, Hutchings had many discussions with students about tuition, affordable housing and safety.

Hutchings said many of those students did not know who their legislator was.

“I want to change that, and I feel like I’m in the unique position to do that,” she said.

Past campaigns

In 2002, Kahn had her easiest victory after her Green Party opponent, former intern Jason Samuels, became ineligible because he lived two blocks outside the district when he registered for the campaign. His name was taken off the ballot two weeks before the election. No Republican ran.

Kahn’s 2004 run will be her 17th campaign.

The 66-year-old said her staying power comes from her constant support of University funding and involvement with students and the academic community.

“I have pretty good connections with the University community,” she said. “I’ve been consistently involved in issues that students are very interested in, like environmental issues and issues of women’s equity.”

Kahn is proud of her strong numbers in her 16 consecutive victories. But she said Bowman, who garnered 37 percent in 2000, did the best job of getting support from students on campus.

Getting support

Hutchings knows student support is crucial, but said she will also reach out to permanent residents.

Hutchings has been to neighborhood meetings in Marcy-Holmes, Prospect Park and Southeast Como neighborhoods to ensure she understands residents’ issues.

Tom Gromacki, who ran against Kahn as a student in 1996, said the key for student candidates is to get name recognition early and often.

During a presidential election year, Gromacki said many resources for state-level candidates are spread thin because of local involvement in national campaigns. That can make it more difficult for student candidates to get a message out.

“Most of the voters on election day are voting for the higher-level offices, so you want to work hard to get your name to stick in their head when they get to the ballot,” Gromacki said.

Gromacki spent many of his resources to win the Republican primary against another candidate, hurting his fund-raising abilities, he said.

The district party gave Hutchings a pre-endorsement advantage and there are no challengers, said Steve Sumner, District 59 Republican Party chairman. Hutchings will seek the official endorsement at the March caucuses. If endorsed, she will have access to party and state election funds.

“We think Amanda is a great fit for this district,” Sumner said.

Other involvement

While Kahn boasts degrees from Yale, Harvard and Cornell universities, Hutchings received most of her political experience working for former Sens. Rudy Boschwitz, and Rod Grams and a host of current lawmakers including Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Hutchings is also an active member of the College Republicans, Students for Family Values and the Student Services Fees Committee.

This fall, Hutchings will drop most of her extracurricular activities to balance her campaign and her last semester of school.

“My friends are already used to me not having a social life,” Hutchings said.

She has also deferred her acceptance into law school at Georgetown and Harvard universities, should she win.

Lessons learned

Although Gromacki and Samuels experienced different struggles on their campaigns, both succeeded to balance schoolwork and political aspirations.

“It was very hard (getting schoolwork done), but I actually had a pretty a good semester,” Samuels said.

He learned valuable lessons before his 2002 campaign was cut short.

“I tried to run independently and I was overwhelmed with forms and deadlines,” he said. “You have to have solid support to help run your campaign.”

Samuels also said Hutchings should anticipate an influx of mail during her campaign.

“Hundreds of letters come in from different interest groups across the state,” he said. “There is a lot of stuff that gets thrown at you all at once.”

Hutchings already has a campaign committee in place and started fund raising in November so she could be ready to meet the challenges that come her way.

“None of us have actually run a campaign before,” Hutchings said of her team. “So we don’t know what to expect, but if anything we will be enthusiastic.”