Representing the student bloc: Phyllis Kahn

Phyllis Kahn represents the University of Minnesota area in the state House.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks with representatives of the Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers in her office March 13 in St. Paul, Minn.  Kahn represents house district 59B, which includes the most of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.

Mark Vancleave

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks with representatives of the Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers in her office March 13 in St. Paul, Minn. Kahn represents house district 59B, which includes the most of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.

by Kevin Burbach


At 74-years-old, Phyllis Kahn hustles around the state Capitol, running from committee to constituent meeting with precious little time in between.

A 12-hour work day — leaving time to only eat the occasional raw carrot with a side of a microwavable bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup — is nothing for a woman who has run 50 marathons and has traveled to see solar eclipses around the world.

It’s with that energy Kahn has been able to serve as the state representative for the area surrounding the University of Minnesota for almost the past 40 years.

While she is currently in her 20th legislative session, Kahn is running for the seat again in the November election. On Saturday, 26-year-old University graduate Mike Griffin will faceoff with Kahn at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Senate District 60 Convention, where the DFL will endorse a candidate for state House.


First elected in 1972, Kahn represents the University of Minnesota area, including the Prospect Park, Southeast Como and Dinkytown neighborhoods.

Kahn, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., conducted genetics research at the University of Minnesota beginning in 1965 after receiving degrees from Cornell, Yale and Harvard. But in the early 1970s she joined a class-action discrimination suit against the University because she wasn’t granted tenure like her male colleagues. The case was later settled.

Before her election, Kahn began lobbying with the National Organization for Women at the state Capitol. She realized the Legislature was the place for her after successfully lobbying for the Childcare Facility Act.

Prior to 1972, one woman, Rep. Helen McMillan, had served in the entire state Legislature. In the 1972 election, 31 women were on the ballot to enter the Legislature, but only six were elected. Six was more than enough for Kahn.

“It was like we were taking over,” Kahn said.

She said male legislators had to change the way they talked and acted because of the new presence of women at the Capitol.

Because of the high volume of work, Kahn eventually had to choose between her career as a legislator and a research associate. Kahn said she chose legislator because she “can’t sit and wait for results.”

Three years after first being elected, Kahn authored a major piece of legislation: the Clean Indoor Air Act, which was one of the first laws in the nation to ban smoking in many public places. In 2007, the act was amended to include all indoor public places in Minnesota.

Larry Pogemiller, who served as the senator for the University district for almost 30 years before being appointed the director of the state Office of Higher Education last year, is a long-time friend of Kahn.

He noted this bill in the beginning of her legislative career, but also spoke on behalf of a bill Kahn coauthored last session with Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, that would consolidate all state IT functions.

Pogemiller said there were many, including himself, that didn’t think the legislation would pass and that its success is a testament to Kahn’s work ethic.

Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said over the years she’s been on opposing sides with Kahn but still said “She’s a very tenacious worker and a strong advocate for the area and a creative thinker.”

Kahn endorsed Dziedzic for her recent election into the Senate to replace Pogemiller.

Florence Littman, a board member of the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association, said she couldn’t speak on behalf of the association, but she has worked with Kahn often in her many years in the community and with the association.

Littman listed several instances where Kahn stepped in to work with the neighborhood when the city wasn’t cooperative.

Littman said Kahn worked with the neighborhood on the sound wall on Interstate 94, helped clean up a site in the neighborhood that had been polluted for more than a century and helped to stop someone who wanted to put a concrete crusher near the neighborhood that would have created noise problems.

Over the course of her 40 years of service, Kahn has authored legislation that others have questioned, such as a bill to reduce the voting age to 12 and another that would lower the drinking age to 18.

“I’m not afraid to put that forth,” Kahn said. “I’m not afraid if people sneer at me.”

Relationship with the University

Views on Kahn’s performance as representative vary from strong praise from those within the University of Minnesota and Legislature to some students who worry Kahn no longer represents the community.

Pogemiller said Kahn doesn’t always support the University and in the past has opposed its initiatives.

“When Phyllis is supporting a position the University is taking, it’s a position that she’s thought through and genuinely believes it’s the right thing to do,” Pogemiller said. “Not just because it’s the University asking her to do it. So in that sense, she’s an extremely powerful advocate for the University.”

Donna Peterson, the University’s former long-time lobbyist, agreed with Pogemiller

“She wanted the University to be strong and one of the best and the faculty to be the best,” Peterson said. “She had the same goals as the University.”

Although many who have worked with Kahn over the years have touted her experience and intellect, some feel her time is up.

“Rep. Kahn represents kind of an older part of Minnesota that doesn’t necessarily connect with her constituency, which consists largely of students,” said Ryan Lyk, a University junior and chairman of the Minnesota College Republicans.

Griffin, who has been campaigning for more than a year to replace Kahn, said he respects the work that Kahn has done, but that it’s time for a change.

Griffin said he would “engage the entire community in a way that has not been done.”

In an endorsement letter, former state House Speaker Matt Entenza showed his support for Griffin and said “After a long absence, the students and faculty in 60B need a representative to serve on the Higher Education Policy and Finance committee. That representative should ideally be a graduate of the University system, and it helps when that person has graduated recently.”

Entenza said Griffin, who graduated in 2010, would be that person and that he would serve with a “fresh perspective.”

Griffin said he thinks the district needs an “organizer legislator” that will engage students.

In an informal survey done by the Minnesota Daily, three out of 50 students surveyed knew who Kahn was.

Griffin vs. Kahn

The district convention Saturday will decide whether Kahn continues her 40-year career or turns it over to Griffin.

Both Griffin and Kahn said they would respect the endorsement and not run if they don’t receive the nod.

Although the district has shifted over the years, the area of the current district has been held by the DFL for decades with Republican challengers garnering little of the vote.

Minnesotans have endorsed both candidates. Entenza, who served six terms in the state House, endorsed Griffin while U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis, and Gov. Mark Dayton have endorsed Kahn.

Kahn said Griffin is one of the more serious candidates that she’s faced over the years.

Regardless of whether Kahn wins the endorsement, her friends and colleagues say her time in the House has benefited the area.

“She’s a renaissance person,” Pogemiller said. “She’s iconic.”