Kahn overcomes hurdles, returns to state House

Sarah McKenzie

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, an eclectic DFL lawmaker, ardent feminist and committed environmentalist, has several passions but the Brooklyn Dodgers ranks perhaps highest on the list.
Kahn, 63, grew up a few blocks from Ebbots Field. One of her most prized possessions — a 1950s baseball signed by Dodger stars Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson — sits in her living room enclosed in a glass case.
The 28-year veteran legislator considers Robinson her key mentor because of his “ferocity.” In fact, she convinced the chairman of the House finance committee to postpone a budget discussion in April 1997 because she had tickets to attend the Jackie Robinson 50th anniversary commemorative game with an old pal from Brooklyn.
So it is fitting that the first black professional baseball player, lauded for his ability to brake racial barriers, inspires a woman who broke ground for women politicians in the state Legislature.
The Brooklyn native with a thick New York accent was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1972 as the representative for District 59B — a Democratic stronghold in southeast Minneapolis.
“Phyllis is a pioneer. She was part of that group of first women to step up to the plate and take on the responsibility of government. She is one of my mentors,” said state Rep. Betty Folliard, DFL-Hopkins, who serves on the Governmental Operations and Veterans Affairs Policy Committee with Kahn.
Highlights of Kahn’s legislative career include authoring the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, lobbying for funding of the Great River Road on the west bank of the Mississippi River, pushing for equal ice time for boys’ and girls’ high school hockey teams and advocating for gender equality laws which allowed women the option of keeping their own name after marriage.
A relentless determination
But not everyone admires Kahn, who holds a physics bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a doctoral degree from Yale University and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard.
Her opponent in November’s race, University of Minnesota student Ben Bowman, claims Kahn has lost touch with her constituents, namely college students.
Bowman points to Kahn’s absence on the House Higher Education Finance Committee as evidence that she has neglected her duty to represent the University’s interests.
“Phyllis’s window has passed. She makes token appearances at the University,” said Bowman, a 22-year-old Republican working on a degree from the Carlson School of Management.
Bowman, who served as the Minnesota Student Association president during the 1999-2000 school year, said he became dissatisfied with Kahn’s abilities to legislate while interning with Republican lawmakers in the House. He argues she has a reputation for forging ahead with outlandish bills without support from other lawmakers.
For instance, Kahn was criticized during the 1999 term for pushing a repeal of the state’s sodomy laws. Four other state representatives withdrew their names from the Kahn-authored bill legalizing prostitution, adultery, sodomy and bestiality after facing pressure from conservative groups including the Minnesota Family Council.
Kahn refuted Bowman’s criticism, arguing that Bowman campaigned as if he was running for student body present, not a seat on the state Legislature.
She said the management student underestimated the district’s diversity and said she doesn’t serve on the Higher Education Finance Committee because she prefers other more “substantive” committee posts.
She serves on the Governmental Operations, State Government Finance, Commerce Policy, Regulated Industries and Electric Energy Task Force committees.
State Rep. Philip Krinkie, R-Shoreview, who chairs the State Government Finance Committee, said Kahn’s greatest strength — her tenacity and determination — at times also works against her.
“When she sets her objective she becomes relentless. But sometimes she pushes issues on the fringe which leads people to marginalize her,” Krinkie said. “Kahn doesn’t easily move on.”
Kahn has also come under fire for proposing that 12-year-olds be granted suffrage. Even members in her own party conceded that the 63-year-old DFLer stood alone on that issue. Additionally, she has been criticized for pushing public ownership of the Twins.
“I can’t always vote with her,” Folliard said. “But she is never afraid to jump into the fray. She tends to throw in red herring amendments to illustrate a point — to underline the superfluous.”
A different voice
Kahn’s husband Donald admits the lawmaker is often short on patience, but he commended his wife for shaking up the state political establishment.
“Before Phyllis was elected, the Legislature was mostly farmers and lawyers,” said Donald, who works as a mathematics professor at the University. The two met as undergraduates at Cornell University.
They moved to Minneapolis in 1965 and both took jobs at the University. Kahn worked as a research associate in the Department of Genetics and Cell Biology until 1974.
In 1971 she devoted considerable time to lobbying the state Legislature to repeal the state’s criminal abortion law, establish a child care act and to add gender to all laws prohibiting discrimination. She also was one of the founding members of the state’s chapter of the National Organization for Women.
“I was literally holding a test tube and working on an experiment when one of my friends ran into my lab and convinced me to join her in the lobbying effort,” Kahn said.
Since 1972, she has remained a fixture in state government. Kahn said she is content as state representative and has no ambition to run for a more prominent office. She said her current position gives her more time to travel and work on national causes.
Besides carving out a formidable political and academic career, Kahn has raised two children with her husband: a daughter who breeds horses and maintains a vineyard in Oregon and a son who specializes in computer science in Montreal.
She also finds time to run marathons and work in her garden at her home on Nicollet Island where she grows vegetables and flowers.
Kahn also continues to follow baseball. She said she roots for any team playing against the Yankees.
Looking ahead
The DFLer said she doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon but did admit that she is getting tired of serving in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
She spends her days fielding calls and responding to e-mails in her second-floor office in the State Office Building. Her office reflects her unique style: A post card of baseball player Roger Maris figures prominently on the wall. A University of Minnesota women’s hockey poster hangs on her door.
As for next term, Kahn said she plans to work on privacy legislation that would guard against insurance companies screening patients for genetic problems. She also wants to develop tougher environmental enforcement policies that factor in hazards to children’s health.