Phyllis Kahn reflects on her 44-year career at the Capitol
When she began clearing out her St. Paul office, Rep. Phyllis Kahn posted on her door a letter from the Minnesota Historical Society that she’d held onto since 1975, not long after she’d been elected to the second of her 22 terms in the state House.
Those 44 years at the capitol had the veteran DFLer tied with Rep. Lyndon Carlson of Crystal as the state’s longest-serving state legis- lator. But four decades ago she was notable for another reason — as one of six women elected to the overwhelmingly male legislature in 1972, five of them for the first time.
“The letter says because you are such an important historical figure, we are very inter- ested in what you do, so don’t throw anything away,” she said. When she recently spoke again with someone at the historical society, in the weeks after she lost her District 60B seat to Ilhan Omar in the Aug. 9 primary, Kahn pointed to the letter and said, “That’s the problem.”
Dealing with the clutter that accumulates over a long legislative career is Kahn’s primary focus at the moment. In a recent conversation at the Aster Cafe, not far from her home on Nicollet Island, Kahn said she is still pondering her next steps.
“I’m putting everything off until January, but the Loft (Literary Center) has a memoir-writing class, and I think I’m going to take that,” she said. So, there will be the box — or boxes — for the historical society, and a pile of papers for herself, too.
Besides her many years representing the neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, Kahn is also known as the legislator who bikes and plays ice hockey, who holds a doctorate in biophysics (Yale University, 1962) and is, at age 79, as feisty as ever. It shows when she is asked to reflect once again on the primary, which turned out to be a stepping stone to Omar’s historic election as the first Somali-American state legislator in the country.
Some argued Kahn should have retired gracefully after 44 years instead of running against Omar, who had a stronger showing in the city’s DFL convention and was propelled into office on a wave of support from the district’s large East African community and endorsements from prominent DFLers, including former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and state Sen. Scott Dibble. When she was reminded of this, Kahn was taken aback.
“What?” she exclaimed. She said a friend made the same suggestion early in this year’s re-election bid “and I kind of really took him on, and he backed away from that.”
“You know, if I hadn’t (run) I would’ve always thought it might’ve been different,” she said. “My characterization is you always have to go down fighting.”
Kahn said she didn’t believe either Omar or Mohamud Noor, the third candidate in the three-way primary, “really were qualified to be in the legislature — except as a symbol.”
Asked if she couldn’t have been considered a “symbol” back in 1972, Kahn replied: “Well, then. Not now.”
Kahn grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of a doctor father and a schoolteacher mother. Her mother taught biology at James Madison High School, which boasts an impressive list of alumni, ranging from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (’50) to Mad Magazine publisher William Gaines (’39).
The school also counts three U.S. senators among its graduates: Minnesota’s Norm Coleman (’66), New York’s Charles Schumer (’67) and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders (’59).
“I know she taught Norm Coleman, because we had a conversation about it,” Kahn said. “But I have a feeling she taught all of them, because you had to take a science for an academic degree in New York, and you know those guys didn’t take physics or chemistry.”
One of Kahn’s signature accomplishments came early in her career, when she authored the 1975 Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, pioneering legislation that created no-smoking areas in public settings. She is proud, too, of years championing bike paths and trails, as well as her push for gender equity in sports funding.
She has also, over the years, backed some offbeat causes, authoring a “bong water” bill that changed the law so that the weight of the water in drug paraphernalia couldn’t be used as part of the calculation in drug possession cases, even if it contained traces of illegal substances. In 2015, a Waseca man’s four-year drug conviction was tossed out because of Kahn’s legislation.
She has also made recent attempts to change the law so that 18 year olds can drink in bars.
“The other thing I pride myself on is I have the wettest voting record compared to the driest lifestyle of any legislator, I think,” she joked, noting she was also behind a successful 1970s effort to allow alcohol to be served in Dinkytown.
Kahn is particularly proud of a recent accomplishment, a money-saving plan to consolidate the state’s computer data centers. It demonstrates how a legislator with experience and an eye for details can take on an issue that has gone overlooked.
It’s common these days for long-serving elected officials to comment on the increasing partisanship they’ve witnessed over their careers, and Kahn is no different. She also lamented the proliferation of omnibus bills, which she said reduce opportunities for individual legislators to author legislation and shepherd it through the process, as well as what she described as a trend toward secrecy and behind-closed-doors negotiations.
After two bruising primary battles — an eight-point win over Noor in 2014 and then her third-place finish behind Omar and Noor this summer — Kahn said she was finally tiring of elections. This would have been her last whatever the outcome, she said.
“I woke up on Wednesday morning (after the primary) and I thought, I never have to go to a meeting I don’t want to go to and I never have to be polite to a (jerk) again,” she said, using a term that couldn’t printed in a newspaper. “Although the reaction from many people has been: We’ve never observed you being polite to anybody.”
Kahn is able to see a silver lining to what was a disappointing election season.
“There were three things I was totally glad about in the election,” she said. “Obviously, Hillary (Clinton) won the state and she won the popular vote.
“Then, Rick Nolan won in the 8th District,” she went on, adding that she and the DFL U.S. representative from Crosby were friends who had many conversations over the years, and she admired especially the way he could dig into specifics of bills and find ways to direct resources back to his district.
There was one more thing.
“I was certain we were going into the majority (in the state legislature), and I was really looking forward to another term in the majority with (Mark) Dayton as governor,” she said. “And, you know, even though I’ve continually gotten things done in the minority, I’m not so anxious to spend another term in the minority, particularly in this climate.
“I think being outside throwing stones is better than being inside trying to get something done at the moment.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Kahn attended James Madison High School, where her mother was a teacher. She attended nearby Erasmus Hall High School.