Editor’s Note: Our coverage of Leah Phifer is part of Running Women, a project following 15 compelling women candidates for U.S. political offices in 2018. Read the latest on her campaign below.
Leah Phifer resigned from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to mount a campaign to become the representative of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District to the U.S. House. The 33-year-old first-time candidate faced a tough mission: winning a battleground district sure to attract national attention.
Phifer gained notoriety over the summer for her folksy and unconventional “Around the 8th in 80 Days” listening tour, in which she traveled 7,000 miles on her motorcycle and connected with residents in all 18 counties of her sprawling rural district along the way.
She initially faced the prospect of ousting Rep. Rick Nolan, a 74-year-old three-term incumbent and fellow member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor (DFL) Party. But in February Nolan said he would retire, opening the door to a competitive open race. In March, third-term State Rep. Jason Metsa jumped into the race, becoming the fourth Democrat to seek the DFL endorsement since Nolan dropped out. On the Republican side, Pete Stauber is running unopposed, and Green Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman is also running.
At the DFL convention in April, Phifer led over 10 rounds of voting, but failed to secure the 60 percent of delegate votes needed to secure the nomination and avoid a primary. Several days later she bowed out of the race, citing the lack of party support. In an interview with The Story Exchange, she said the party’s male power structure stood in the way of raising money and mounting a successful candidacy.
Phifer, who received candidate training from the nonpartisan, female-focused VoteRunLead, formerly launched her campaign in October and hired a campaign manager in December. She raised about $90,000 before dropping out of the race. By comparison, Stauber had $556,200 as of March 31.
Related: VoteRunLead Wants Women in Power, Regardless of Party
Phifer’s professional background is primarily in national security, immigration and anti-terrorism efforts. She worked for several years as a contractor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and alongside deportation officers in the ICE St. Paul field office. She also worked as an intelligence analyst in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Minneapolis office, where her primary focus was on counter-terrorism investigations, including cyber-terrorism. She resign from the FBI to launch the “Around the 8th in 80 Days” tour.
Unsurprisingly, one of Phifer’s top priorities is national security. However, she has said she felt called to pursue a new kind of public service. “I wondered how to continue a career in national security when issues of housing, food and economic security plagued too many families in my community and the nation as a whole.”
In December, Phifer learned that her own personal information may have been compromised in a hack on DHS. She has promised to use her expertise to address these kinds of threats. “Americans remain extremely vulnerable to cyber attacks by individual malicious actors, as well as nation states,” she says on her site. “The unfortunate truth is Congress lacks the knowledge and sense of urgency to effectively combat this threat.”
A native of Two Harbors, Phifer’s working-class mining family has lived in the Minnesota Iron Range for four generations. The women in her family have run small businesses, while the men worked as miners, and they instilled in her the value of hard work and a desire to protect her home state. She studied Spanish at the University of Connecticut and later graduated from University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Phifer currently works as an adjunct professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. She (of course) enjoys riding her motorcycle and is an avid sporting clay shooter.
The Latest on the Campaign
May 18, 2018:
This Woman Candidate Took on Minnesota’s Male Power Structure, and Lost. She’s Not Sorry
Political newcomer Leah Phifer mounted a grassroots campaign for Congress that took her to the top of a crowded Democratic field, but she won’t be on the primary ballot. She explains why in our interview.
April 20, 2018:
A Woman’s Campaign for Congress Comes to an End, Despite Frontrunner Status
After struggling to win establishment support, insurgent Democratic congressional candidate Leah Phifer has dropped out of her Minnesota race. Read the full story.
March 2, 2018:
Candidates Rush to Challenge Phifer for Democratic Endorsement
That didn’t take long. Three weeks after incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan announced his retirement, leaving Leah Phifer as the lone Democratic candidate to represent Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, four new candidates have joined the race.
Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, the second-term mayor of North Branch, was the first one to step up to seek the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination.
She was quickly followed by Joe Radinovich and Michelle Lee. Radinovich is a former one-term state representative from Cuyuna Range and was Nolan’s 2016 campaign manager. His decision came just weeks after he took a job as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. Lee is a newcomer to politics, but has name recognition in the state. She anchored for Duluth’s KBJR-TV newscast for 26 years, retiring in 2016.
The latest entrant is State Representative Jason Metsa, a big name from the Iron Range and third-term representative from Virginia who was encouraged to run by Nolan himself.
The DFL Party will meet to make endorsements at a convention scheduled for April 14 in downtown Duluth. If no candidate rises to the top, they will compete in primary elections on Aug. 14.
February 12, 2018:
Phifer to Fight to Keep Seat ‘Blue’ after Incumbent Drops Out of Race
Leah Phifer is now the only Democratic candidate running to represent Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, after incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan announced on Friday that he will retire.
“There is a time and purpose for everything and now is the time for me to pass the baton to the next generation,” Nolan said.
Phifer said she hopes to continue Nolan’s progressive legacy. “I look forward to uniting us around our core values of economic justice, human rights and environmental protections,” she said in a statement.
The race could attract more local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and Republican contenders now that Nolan has dropped out, and Phifer on Monday asked the national Democratic Party to remain neutral and “respect” the DFL endorsement convention, scheduled for April 14.
The district is sure to be a battleground in the 2018 midterm elections. Former President Obama won the district with 52 percent of the vote in 2012. But in 2016, President Donald Trump received 54 percent.
Phifer said she will stay focused on listening to district residents and preparing the “strongest case” possible against the eventual Republican nominee. “We will continue the hard work of ensuring this seat remains blue for many years to come,” she tweeted.
Meanwhile, Republicans rejoiced over Nolan’s retirement. “Rick Nolan, too liberal and out of step with his red district, saved us the trouble of defeating him this fall,” NRCC Communications Director Matt Gorman said in a statement.
February 6, 2018:
Phifer Releases Plan to Improve District’s Economy
Congressional Candidate Leah Phifer introduced an economic development plan for the rural Minnesota district she aims to represent in Washington.
The fruit of Phifer’s 80-day listening tour this summer, the plan would help local businesses to be more competitive, stabilize the mining economy and improve roads, bridges and high-speed internet access across the district. Read the full story.