ELY – Iron Range resident Leah Phifer quit her job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation just days after President Donald Trump fired her boss, James Comey.
The former FBI terrorism analyst, 33, a native of Two Harbors and current Isanti resident, is looking to help change the federal government by challenging incumbent Congressman Rick Nolan in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional district. She joins three other candidates vying for the DFL endorsement.
Phifer made a stop in Ely last week to speak to a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 100 people at Tuesday Group and to attend a fundraising event.
Phifer spent 80 days touring the district in northeast Minnesota last summer, logging 5,000 miles on her motorcycle visiting all 18 counties in the district. She heard a lot of anxiety about health care, she said, and about what she called a lack of transparency in politics.
She is basing her campaign on “a frustration over where the money is coming from, how decisions are made, and feeling left out of the process,” she said.
Phifer’s connection to Ely goes back to her childhood.” My mom met my dad here in Ely, and they got married here in Ely. We have a cabin on One Pine Lake,” she said. Her grandparents, Jack and Linda Jensen, worked for some 30 years in the Ely School District.
“Ely is genuinely my second home,” she said. “I spent every summer here, going to kiddie college at Vermilion, and picking through rocks and picking off leeches at the cabin.”
Phifer said her comfort zone is not speaking to a large audience, but rather listening to individuals about their own community. “I want to replicate that at the federal level,” she said.
She hails from a mining background. Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked in the mining industry. Her grandmother founded Sherry’s Kitchen (now known as the Vanilla Bean) in Two Harbors. She said she remembers picking taconite pellets out of her father’s shoes and shooting them around like marbles. “My family understands how the service industry and mining industry must and can pull people together,” she said.
Phifer said she noticed in enforcing laws for the past 10 years under three administrations, “Far too often there is a very real human cost in political posturing. You would get whip-lash working in the federal government enforcing laws that are written by one president and immediately struck down by the next,” she said.
“We are relying far too heavily on policies being written by single people, such as the president, and we are not getting enough accomplished at the congressional level to get long-lasting policies that will benefit our communities,” Phifer said.
She said there is no coincidence “that public trust in government has plummeted as political intervention and manipulating laws has occurred to benefit a few folks.”
Several divisive development proposals in northern Minnesota are poised to be key issues in the 2018 race— Enbridge Energy’s proposed Line 3 oil pipeline project, PolyMet’s bid to open the state’s first copper-nickel mine, and the potential development of copper-nickel mines in the Superior National Forest just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Phifer acknowledged the issues have at times bitterly divided the DFL-base, between those concerned with the potential impact the proposals could have on the region’s prized lakes and rivers, and those eager for the economic stimulus and jobs the projects would create.
She said there are deep divides in the 8th Congressional District. “This past summer we saw our congressman override the judicial process and guarantee the Forest Service decision on the PolyMet land swap,” she said. “That was incredibly important to (Rep. Nolan). And the very next month he introduced an amendment to defund the Forest Service decision to study the Twin Metals proposal for two years. So when we see a decision being made to uphold an agency action in one month, and another decision to strike down the action the next month, it leaves people feeling that their lives and livelihoods are being used for political gain.”
“People say the DFL has left our values behind,” she said. “We need to make sure that elected officials can’t place their thumbs on the scales of these projects and ignore our system’s checks and balances because it prevents the regulatory process from working the way it was intended,” Phifer said. “We are, in the DFL, in very real danger of losing this seat.”
Incumbent Congressman Rick Nolan defeated GOP challenger Stewart Mills by less than half a percentage point last year in one of the most expensive races in the country. Nolan also defeated Mills in a tight race in 2014. Mills hasn’t announced yet whether he will run a third time. Republican St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber has launched a campaign, as has Green Party Candidate Skip Sandman.