Kahn runs for 18th term in Minn. House

by Courtney Blanchard

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL, has devoted nearly half her life to politics.

First elected to represent the University area in the Minnesota House in 1972, the 69-year-old is running for her 18th term in November.

“This is a very good district for a liberal, issues-oriented woman to run in,” she said.

In an interview at her house on Nicollet Island on Friday, Kahn explained her history, starting as a Cornell- and Yale-educated biophysics researcher at the University and later breaking into the women’s movement and politics.

Surrounded by jazz and classical CDs, policy magazines, a sleeping cat and a framed Jackie Robinson Wheaties box, Kahn said access to higher education is the key to a better quality of life.

A female politico
Kahn said her experience in higher education piqued her interest in policy. As a research associate, Kahn said, the University promoted people less qualified than her, but when she applied for a faculty position, she was turned down.

So she filed a formal complaint and thus launched into the women’s rights movement, “just as it was becoming more political,” she said.

A friend introduced Kahn to the Minnesota Legislature, and soon, she said, she was sucked into the political scene.

“I did my experiments at night, and lobbied by day,” she said.

Kahn soon abandoned her research to devote herself to lawmaking.

Beth Lareau, chairwoman of the candidate assistance program for the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus, said that when Kahn and a handful of other women were elected in the early ’70s, it was a big step toward gender equality.

“Unfortunately, it was not carried much further,” she said.

Lareau, who helps women interested in running for office find resources and mentors, said women still need a bigger role in politics. She said Kahn has volunteered for conference calls to female candidates.

“She is an extremely serious legislator,” Lareau said. “She’s also extremely bright and capable of looking at an issue at both sides.”

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said that when Kahn entered the Legislature, many men were hostile to women at the Capitol.

During a particularly tiresome session, after which many were sick of hearing about a bill Kahn wanted to pass, Greiling said, Kahn came into the chambers with fresh cookies. The bill promptly passed.

“If she was going to argue the facts or bake the cookies, she was going to do what she needed to do,” Greiling said.

Busy in the offseason
Kahn extends her help to other candidates’ campaigns, attending events and knocking on doors. This election season, Kahn said, she is very active in Keith Ellisons’ campaign for the 5th U.S. Congressional District seat.

Kahn also helps other candidates, such as Greiling.

“Phyllis was my main mentor when I went to the house,” Greiling said.

She said Kahn helped her pass her first bill and prefers to give a bill away, as long as it passes.

When the Legislature isn’t in session, Kahn does more than just step out of her muddled office to help campaign. She also attends community events.

Florence Littman, co-chairwoman of the Prospect Park and East River Road Neighborhood Association zoning committee, said Kahn was the only politician to get involved when the neighborhood discovered a contaminated site that had been collecting spilled oil since 1906.

“It’s wonderful to have a state representative that’s interested in the community,” she said.

The opponents
Although Kahn divvies up her time among many things besides campaigning, she still will face opponents in November.

Independent Ron Lischeid is a 1988 University graduate who moved back to campus four years ago. This is his second attempt to unseat Kahn. He also ran for the Minneapolis City Council.

“I’m the answer to the trivia question, ‘Who’s lost the most elections in Minnesota since 1996?’ ” he said.

Lischeid said he’s motivated to run against the 34-year incumbent because she lost touch with the district more than a decade ago.

Lischeid said he wants to examine using University Avenue Southeast and Fourth Street Southeast for the Central Corridor light-rail line instead of Washington Avenue Southeast.

Kahn’s other opponent is Tina Quick, a student at Augsburg College and member of the Minnesota College Republicans. Quick could not be reached for comment.