Over her expansive and eccentric 44-year-career as a state legislator, Rep. Phyllis Kahn has let it be known that she loves bikers, hates smokers, doesn’t mind kissing cousins and thinks that anyone who objected to her plan to let 12-year-olds vote was an “adult supremacist.”
So it is only fitting that Kahn’s often entertaining, sometimes enlightened, occasionally baffling stint in politics tumbles to a heap in a three-way primary this year. Kahn, 79, could have chosen to ride off into the sunset as the credits and kudos rolled. Instead, she has chosen a shootout at the not-so-O.K. Corral.
At the recent DFL nominating convention, newcomer Ilhan Omar trounced Kahn by 22 points but fell short of the needed 60 percent of votes. The other challenger, Mohamud Noor, refused to give his delegates to Omar, who would be the first Somali woman to hold legislative office in the country. Kahn did everything but challenge opponents to wrest her seat from her cold, dead hands.
Over the years, Kahn, a known brawler, has introduced bills to ban boxing. She ranks second in the nation in longevity among females who hold legislative office, yet she once lobbied to reduce the number of Minnesota counties from 87 to 10. Too much government.
Kahn has worn her feminism as a badge for decades. Yet, when asked why Omar beat her, Kahn said it was because Omar was younger, prettier and nicer than she is. Not that Omar is smart, or well spoken, or even that Omar might better represent the people of the diverse district.
Prettier. Younger. Nicer. If a man had said that, he would be labeled a sexist pig, and rightfully so. I told Kahn it was hard to believe that as a young woman she would have appreciated such a derogatory comment from an opponent.
“What I said about my opponent was true,” Kahn said. “No one has ever said I was pretty, or nice. They have never, ever said that about me.”
Kahn said she would embrace such compliments, should they ever come.
So here it is: Phyllis, you are beautiful. You are crazy smart. You are, in my limited experience, capable of being nice.
Now hit the road.
I say that as a fan of gumption and guile, a promoter of genuine characters regardless of political affiliation. I don’t think Kahn is too old to represent, nor do I think she is incapable. During her tenure, she has consistently argued against term limits, but ironically, she has become the poster child for them. Four decades is enough, especially when she has the opportunity to step aside for a young woman of color.
“It’s not about hanging on to my seat,” Kahn insisted. “I’m still competent and still have things to do.”
Kahn cited her institutional knowledge of issues as invaluable to her district. Recent news about problems with the metal shredder on the North Side, for example, brings up an issue she tackled 20 years ago.
Kahn went on to talk about some of the wonky tasks she embraced, such as helping to fix state computer issues (“I can see your eyes glazing over even over the phone”) that saved $45 million over three years.
“Besides doing that, I have the most liberal, radical record of anyone in the Legislature. I voted against every major crime bill over the years” because they targeted minorities and filled the prisons, Kahn said.
Why not mentor young women interested in her job?
“You don’t mentor someone from the outside,” she said.
Kahn said she isn’t stepping aside for Omar because “I know a whole bunch of people interested in running and I think the district would be better served by an open, honest race to replace me, rather than anointing someone.”
Sounds like Kahn is the one who wants to anoint a successor.
Kahn is, and should be, especially proud of authoring the pioneering Clean Indoor Air Act in 1975. It probably saved lives.
It was a remarkable achievement for a rookie, but it may have been her signature moment. I told Kahn that in 1975 I was a running back for the high school football team and took the homecoming queen to prom; friends could reasonably say that I had hit my peak and it has been all downhill from there.
So, was 1975 also Kahn’s peak?
She laughed and ticked off more accomplishments.
With all the rancor and declining civility and politics, why not just walk away?
“And do what?” she snapped.
I suggested retirement would give her more time to spend competing at the Minnesota State Fair, where she has won ribbons for her chocolate cake and cheesecake. She scoffed.
I asked her if she had something constructive in mind in the likely event she is defeated.
“No. Why should I?”
Kahn said a recent story about a disease among bats did make her think that her college science experience banding bats for research might be background to work with bats. As a student, Kahn studied the bats by going into New York caves. Because of her small stature, she was able to squirm into tighter caves than anyone else to deal with the bats. If there is a more apt metaphor for a 40-year career in politics, I haven’t heard it.
Now that such prominent DFLers as R.T. Rybak and Sen. Scott Dibble have endorsed her opponent, Kahn acknowledged her positions and persona have garnered both friends and foes over the years. She told an amusing story of riding her son’s moped to the State Capitol, crashing it on the sidewalk as the bike fell on top of her. She looked up to see a pair of legs pass by, the man refusing to help. It was her opponent from eight years before.
“Talk about holding a grudge,” Kahn said. “Friends are transitory and enemies are permanent.”
Kahn has had enough of both. She should recognize that life is short and there are other productive things she could do. Heck, even a 12-year-old could tell her that.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin