Editor’s Note: This interview is part of our Running Women project following 15 compelling women candidates in 2018.
Leah Phifer fought the power that be. And lost.
It’s a sobering reminder that, while a record number of women are running for political office and many are winning, it’s not easy to change the status quo.
After completing an 80-day motorcycle “listening tour” across her rural district last summer, Phifer ran a scrappy grassroots campaign to win the endorsement of the Democratic Farmer and Labor (DFL) Party (Minnesota’s version of the Democrats). When incumbent DFLer Congressman Rick Nolan dropped out in February, four more candidates jumped in, launching a spirited contest for the party’s endorsement.
At its convention in April, Phifer won the most delegate votes in 10 rounds of voting. But her peak of 53 percent of votes fell short of the 60 percent needed to lock down the endorsement, forcing the party to a primary scheduled for August. Several days later, Phifer bowed out, citing the lack of party support. Four candidates remain in the race, including two other women and Joe Radinovich, a former state legislator and campaign manager for Nolan, who was second-highest vote-getter at the convention.
We spoke with Phifer about the challenges she faced as a woman candidate taking on a male party establishment, and how former FBI Director Jim Comey’s firing prompted her to leave the agency and run for Congress. Excerpts from our conversation, below, have been edited for length and clarity.
What led you to run for Congress this year?
When our incumbent, Rick Nolan, was thinking about running for governor, I looked at the short list of people who were going to allegedly replace him. And they were all men who fit into the exact same category as the same men that we’ve had representing this seat for 75 years. They were white males who are very strong on the mining issue, especially copper and nickel mining, which is an issue that is dividing us in my district right now. I decided to run because I wanted more variety on that list of potential candidates.
Why did you stay in the race when Nolan decided to instead run for reelection to Congress?
I left my job [at the FBI] just a few days after Jim Comey was fired in May, before [Nolan] had made up his mind. I did an 80-day listening tour, and I wanted to finish my tour, hear from people and decide if there was a large enough demand out there for a new type of representative. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of encouragement for me to get in the race, so I did.
We largely ran on our issues, and it wasn’t anything ugly or dirty. We were very respectful and had a lot of good conversations, and just differed on a few different issues. Then on February 6, my campaign had a lot of people show up to caucus. And 3 days later, he announced his retirement. I’m sure our very, very strong turnout at the caucuses was at least a factor.
Did you resign from the FBI because of Comey’s firing?
Yes. I had been looking at leaving the Bureau ever since President Trump took over, because he was pushing policies I knew I could not support. For example, intelligence reports tailored to support the travel ban or pushing border enforcement measures that I knew, having worked in immigration law and border enforcement, were counterintuitive to keeping our country safe.
I spent those 6 months watching and waiting for Congressman Nolan to make a decision. And finally, when President Trump fired Director Comey, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. That’s when I submitted my resignation.
Were there particular issues driving your campaign?
Our economy and how its changing. The mining economy used to be the lifeblood of our district. I come from four generations of folks who depended on the mining industry.
Now the mining industry has become so automated that they’re employing less and less people, and we’re seeing more people going into healthcare, small business, clean energy. But those other industries aren’t getting the same attention. I wanted to bring an economic development plan to the table that embraced these new facets of our economy.
At the convention a couple of weeks ago, I was the largest vote-getter, largely because of my message, economic development plan and the changing demographics of the district.
Explain why you decided not to go on to the primary even though you were the frontrunner.
There were a lot of people in positions of power within the party who wanted to make sure that the power structure remained the same.
The endorsement process really favors grassroot candidates, because you don’t have to raise that much money to be successful. And then you have the full weight of both the national and state and local parties behind you. Having never run for office before, I really needed the support of the party behind me to be a viable candidate in a primary or in a general election.
We would have had to raise about $750,000 to get to a primary in August. Up until the point where I left the race, we had raised about $90,000, just to give you some perspective.
What was it like, being a woman running for office in your district?
It was fascinating. I come from a very male-dominated career sector, having spent the past 10 years in federal law enforcement. So I’m used to some of the overt sexism and have learned to combat it pretty effectively. But the sexism that was apparent in running for office is far more insidious and far more difficult to really effectively combat.
When people would spread fliers about me or rumors about me, it tended to always be men. I brought that up with a few people, and they found that to be pretty consistent with a lot of what they had seen when other women had tried to run in the district, either at the local level or the city level.
I think that there’s a power base that is primarily composed of men who feel that their economic livelihoods [in mining] are being threatened and are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.
We’re in a broader cultural moment of #MeToo and Time’s Up. Did it affect your race?
People are obviously talking about the increase in women running for office. And I think that, when given the opportunity to choose between a very qualified woman and an equally qualified man, many people are leaning toward supporting the woman. That’s been very, very heartening for me.
But the long-standing power structures are very difficult to overcome.
What do you think is going to happen now in the race? Could the seat go to the Republicans?
I think it’s going to be difficult. While the Democrats continue to battle this out until August, the Republican [nominee Pete Stauber] has at least 4 months ahead of him to just get his message out there, connect with people, and not have to challenge or battle anyone in his party. It absolutely leaves the Democrats at a disadvantage.
What is next for you?
I was an adjunct professor while I was on the campaign trail, so I’m wrapping up my semester. I could always go back to the government. But right now, what I find very intriguing is helping the private sector navigate issues that are facing the government.
For example, Facebook is hiring a lot of cyber security professionals right now because of what happened with the Russian interference in our election, and I think that would be an area that I would be well-suited for.