Fowler hopes to defeat incumbent Kahn

Coralie Carlson

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series of three profiles on the candidates for the state Legislature in District 59B. Next week, the Daily will profile the nine candidates for governor.

Armed with a brown belt in Judo at age 14, Robert Fowler challenged adults to matches in martial arts. Now 24, the third-year University law student is still picking fights with his elders.
This time Fowler is taking on Phyllis Kahn, 61, the Democrat who has represented most of the University area in the state Legislature for the past 26 years.
He’s not the first young, male University student to confront Kahn in the political ring — or the only one this year. Eric Hanson, College of Liberal Arts senior, is also running against Kahn as an independent candidate.
Kahn’s Republican opponents in 1996 and 1994 were students, too. The elections were both knockouts, with Kahn garnering at least 60 percent of the votes. In fact, Kahn has taken that percentage or more every year she has run as an incumbent.
But Fowler said he isn’t intimidated.
Since he announced his candidacy in January, Fowler won the Republican endorsement, assembled a campaign staff and raised more than $10,000 in funding.
He’s out in the district meeting residents, listening to concerns, registering voters and vying for support on Nov. 3. — including the installation of yard signs, a campaign tool Kahn doesn’t use.
“I’ve got 50 of these bad boys in the district,” he boasted, holding a maroon and gold sign.
And should Fowler’s efforts fail this year, he said he’s laying the tracks for a clean sweep in two years.
“This will help us in 2000, because I’m not moving,” Fowler said. “And I’m running again.”

Sioux City to St. Anthony
Fowler was adopted at birth and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, 90 minutes from the Minnesota border.
He attended Catholic school until the seventh grade, when he switched to public school for the superior math and science programs.
“I was looking long term toward high school,” he said.
As a teenager, Fowler bused tables at a Chinese restaurant and sold suits at the local mall. He put his paychecks into a 1960 night-blue Mustang — until his mechanic crashed it into a telephone pole.
He was dead set on becoming an engineer and spent his summer breaks visiting colleges and checking out their math and science programs.
But after entering the ranks at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his plans quickly changed.
Desiring a more people-oriented career, Fowler switched majors midway through school to political science with a concentration in economics.
He enrolled in the University Law School in 1996, but still gets a chance to use his engineering skills; now he’s designing schematic plans to win the election.

The War Room
During a recent campaign meeting, Fowler rushed eagerly to the television and inserted a tape with his first television ad. His staff huddled around the set and watched still shots of Fowler at an activities fair on the St. Paul campus and in the Law Library, with Fowler’s voice expounding on tax and crime issues.
Watching the commercial and bursting with pride, Fowler couldn’t hide a wide grin. Although candidates for the state Legislature don’t typically run TV ads, Fowler ran his spot about 175 times on six or seven cable channels, from Oct. 4 to Oct. 18. The ads cost less than $1,000.
Invading the airwaves, Fowler came a long way since last Thanksgiving, when one of his Zeta Psi fraternity brothers first proposed he run for the state House.
Although relatively new to the district, a little research on Kahn’s legislative history was enough to convince him to run.
“I just didn’t like the woman from the get-go,” Fowler said. “Some of her votes were just outrageous.”
Fowler offered Kahn’s bill to lower the voting age to 12 as an example.
By April, Fowler came away from the party caucuses with the Republican endorsement — and the friendship of Bob Olson, who would soon become Fowler’s campaign manager and roommate.
Olson, 33, said he thought Fowler would represent moderate Republicans like himself. Now the independent contractor by day works as Fowler’s campaign manager by night.
When Fowler’s lease terminated at the end of the summer, a room opened up in Olson’s Riverside apartment and the political duo became roommates, too.
“He’s a very micro-managing type of guy,” Fowler said. “You don’t get much of a break.”
Olson, also a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, contributes a military flavor to Fowler’s campaign.
They even transformed Olson’s home office into a “War Room.”
Inside, bumper stickers proclaiming “Dump the Hump” and endorsing Republican candidates decorate the wall. A 6-by-8 foot map of the district adorns one wall, facing the actual district visible from their 22nd-floor picturesque window.
Fowler and Olson strategically color-coded the map; red sections represent neighborhoods Fowler has already covered on foot — door knocking, distributing literature and getting to know constituents and their concerns. Dots and boxes in rainbow colors indicate lawn signs, delegates’ houses and polling places, among other important locations.
Fowler said they hope to use the map to identify voter trends for use in 2000, whether he’s an incumbent or a challenger for the seat.
“This is doable. We can do this,” Fowler said, gazing at the red sections and the areas that will need to be covered before election day.
Diversity in the neighborhoods comprising District 59B is a factor Fowler and Olson keep an eye on.
The northern Beltrami neighborhood is blue-collar; only about 37 percent of residents have a post-secondary education. On the southern tip, Prospect Park boasts 90 percent with degrees beyond high school. Students fill dorms on the East Bank of the Minneapolis campus and students and other University staff rent homes in the Marcy-Holmes and Southeast Como neighborhoods.
The district also includes downtown — mostly business districts and the Metrodome. “Phyllis needs to be cognizant of the fact that a lot of her people are downtown,” Fowler said, calling her “anti-business” because of her tax policies.
“For a district like this, there really needs to be better representation,” Olson said.

Education, Taxes and Crime
Fowler said three major issues emerged from his conversations with constituents: education, taxes and crime. Even folks that want increased education spending want lower taxes, Fowler said.
In November, the Board of Regents is primed to review a $1.2 billion legislative request, but Fowler said school officials must have a convincing plan for the money before he supports it.
“If we’re going to spend money, spend it wisely,” he said.
Fowler said the University’s priorities should be repairing classrooms, increasing class space, reducing class size and improving campus parking and transportation.
He indicated another major philosophical difference between Kahn and himself: taxes.
Kahn said she does not believe Minnesotans are overtaxed; Fowler does. He favors lowering taxes, but not to a level that would cripple institutions.
Fowler also noted an increase in concern about crime in the district. Fowler, who works for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and is planning a career in criminal law, said he’s seen vandalism and theft go up since he moved to the district more than two years ago.
“Crime is such a no-brainer,” Fowler said. “You can’t vote against prosecuting crime bills.”
Brenda Paul, a political science senior who joined the campaign staff in the summer, said his message and methods are hitting home with constituents.
“He’s honest,” Paul said. “It’s so refreshing to find a politician that is honest.”