Editor’s note: This story is the last of three profiles on the candidates for state Legislature in District 59B. Next week, the Daily will profile the nine candidates for governor.
Phyllis Kahn didn’t burn bras, but the feminist has scorched each of her rivals for her seat in the state Legislature for the last 26 years.
With only 12 days left before the election, her race is heating up as the women’s advocate prepares to defend her post representing the University-based district for the 14th time.
This time, the gray-haired grandmother faces two University students vying for the seat. Republican Robert Fowler, a 22-year-old law student, and communications senior Eric Hanson, 24, an independent candidate, both covet her office.
But the former University research staffer said she’s not worried. Kahn, 61, has captured at least 63 percent of the vote in each of her elections since 1974.
In addition, District 59B — which includes the East Bank of the Minneapolis campus and the surrounding student-saturated neighborhoods — naturally swings to the left politically. About 70 percent of the district votes Democratic in any given election, said Sally Todd, 60, Kahn’s campaign manager.
Rather than traditional hand-shaking and baby-kissing campaign techniques, Kahn said she plans to win the election on her reputation. She’s served her constituents, she said, and they’ll remember at the voting booth.
“That’s not campaigning; that’s serving in office,” Todd said.
Kahn has passed plenty of bills for her constituents to remember. She authored the Minnesota Clean Air Act of 1975 which prohibits smoking in public buildings and numerous bills increasing opportunities for women in sports.Hear her roar
Kahn spent the first 27 years of her life on the East Coast. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Cornell University and a doctorate in biophysics from Yale in 1963.
She and her husband, Donald, moved to the Twin Cities two years later and both started working at the University, he as a math professor, she as a research assistant in genetics and cell biology in the cancer research center.
Kahn said the moving trucks hadn’t even pulled into her Minneapolis duplex before she started helping out local political grass-roots groups by handing out civil rights literature door-to-door.
While she participated in civil rights and anti-war activism even before coming to the University, Kahn said she was always on the periphery of the movements, a marcher but not a leader.
All that changed in 1971. Kahn wrote a letter to The Minnesota Daily advocating abortion rights. Through an extended printed debate, Kahn met other activists for the cause.
As her involvement escalated, Kahn climbed the steps of the state Capitol for the first time to lobby legislators for women’s health issues.
“I really knew what this one was about,” said Kahn, who experienced discrimination at the University.
Less than a year after her initial trip to the Capitol, Kahn won her district’s election and entered the same doors as a legislator. Only one woman served in the House in 1971, but during the next session Kahn was one of six women to invade the legislative chamber. Since then the proportion of women in office has steadily risen, she said; today 36 of the 134 representatives are women.
“They were trailblazers,” said legislative colleague Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, 53. “She has opened doors that might not have been opened for a long time.”
Kahn said everything changed in the House during her first year in office. The Democrats gained control of the House and Senate, so there were new leaders and committee chairs. She said that helped the new women.
“I think that’s what made it less of a traumatic change,” Kahn said.
Kahn said her male colleagues continued addressing the full chamber as “gentlemen.” In response, the women took turns reminding the room of a rule against offensive language in debates.
During her first session, Kahn co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment Bill, one of the first state-wide discrimination policies in the nation. She also engineered the passage of two anti-war resolutions, a difficult task for any representative, especially a freshman.
Kahn resigned from her University position after a year of working two jobs, citing time restraints and sex discrimination.
She filed a lawsuit against the University in 1970, claiming the University refused to allow her to receive research grants in her own name, instead using a male “figurehead” name. She maintained that the University did not have a commitment to affirmative action for women.
Five years later, when Shyamala Rajender sued the University for discrimination, Kahn intervened on the Rajender’s behalf. After Rajender won her case, Kahn settled her own dispute out of court for about $20,000. After settling legal dues, Kahn donated her reward to women’s and other charities.
In the House, Kahn continued her crusade for women’s rights — from allowing women to keep their maiden names to accruing money for battered women’s shelters — but focusing on the sports arena. She authored numerous bills expanding women’s athletic opportunities, both regulatory and funding sports facilities. Her legislation is largely responsible for the advent of women’s hockey in Minnesota high schools and at the University, she said.
“What we’ve done, essentially over time, is introduce a new sport for women,” Todd said.
During the hockey season, Kahn hits the ice herself. She coaches hockey clinics for girls and organized a legislative “social” league for elected officials, staff and families. The league is for women and men who understand the concept of social competition, she said. And while they’ve never turned away a female player, she’s had to give a few men the boot.
Kahn doesn’t stop with hockey, either. She’s an avid bicyclist and in-line skater; she even ran the Twin Cities marathon earlier this month.26-year legacy
While Kahn concentrated on abolishing sex discrimination in Minnesota law, she said she is not a one-issue politician.
Kahn said she has improved the overall quality of life for students. Dubbed the “Patron Saint of Bicycles,” she has worked to create and maintain bike paths and to give bicyclists the rights of a motor vehicle.
Stemming from her scientific background, Kahn also delved into environmental initiatives. As a member of the legislative commission for Minnesota resources, Kahn said she has been instrumental in including city problems in environmental concerns.
“The urban forest is a very important forest to maintain,” Kahn said, adding that she provided funding for urban gardening and tree preservation projects.
Though not on the Higher Education committee, Kahn said she’s supportive of University funding issues and financial aid programs.
Twenty-six years of legislation also gives Kahn’s opponents a ripe field to attack, but Kahn said she stands behind her votes. For example, her adversaries often bring up her bill which reduces the voter age to 12.
“The serious reason behind this is that the needs of children are continuously ignored in the political process,” she said.
Kahn compared them to the elderly, who make up a powerful special interest group.
“The elderly vote more than any other group and children can’t vote,” Kahn explained.
Challengers often accuse Kahn of ignoring her district — sometimes with force. Six years ago Aric Nissen made such a claim when he competed with Kahn for the Democrat-Farmer-Labor endorsement. Kahn won, but it took five ballots for her to rack up the 60 percent majority.
But Kahn cites the problems as purely political and defends her responsiveness.
“It was just a false charge,” she said.