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In Minn. 8th District congressional race, DFL challenger to Nolan wants end to 'partisan chicken'

Leah Phifer (Courtesy photo)

BRAINERD, Minn.—First-time congressional candidate Leah Phifer aims to resist President Donald Trump, engage a neglected voter bloc and be a voice of moderation—all at the same time.

The 33-year-old Phifer is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in the DFL primary for the 8th Congressional District. She worked from 2008 to 2015 for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and later transferred to the FBI, working as an intelligence analyst for two years. That ended last year, when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Phifer said she submitted her resignation three days after the Comey news came down.

"I knew that that was, for me, the breaking point: that the FBI was going to be used as a political pawn in this game of partisan chicken," she said.

She always planned on running for office, but intended that to be several decades down the road. The election of Trump and the rise of hyper partisanship made her ask herself what she was waiting for, Phifer said.

"What is happening in this country right now is one of the bigger national security threats I've seen in my lifetime," she said.

She wants to bring a more "level-headed" voice, she said—one that speaks more to average people caught in between the political sides.

Phifer was in Brainerd Thursday to attend a meeting of the Crow Wing County DFL ahead of precinct caucuses Feb. 6. The caucuses form part of the primary process—delegates supporting a particular primary candidate (in this case, Phifer or Nolan) will be elected to go on to higher levels of caucuses, and eventually the statewide DFL convention.

Asked about her strategy ahead of the caucuses, Phifer said she aimed to be present in all parts of the district. She said the residents of southern areas of the 8th District—like her town of residence, Isanti—felt ignored by Nolan and one of his predecessors, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. It was that feeling of abandonment that helped result in the 2010 election shocker of Republican Chip Cravaack ousting Oberstar, she said.

"A lot of times, Jim was ... sort of accused of only working for the Iron Range," she said. "And we hear that with Nolan as well—that the only economy that seems to really be on his radar is the mining economy."

Phifer's goal is to reconnect the DFL with those people who felt neglected, and subsequently motivate them to turn out for caucuses. Phifer acknowledged the southern area was a more conservative part of the district, but said the aftermath of the 2016 election had progressives coming out of the woodwork. She referenced attending meetings of Indivisible, a progressive grassroots group forming after Trump was elected to resist his agenda. Her neighbors are popping into the local chapter meetings, too.

"I've seen folks that I used to see out on the streets all the time, showing up to Indivisible meetings," she said. "And I had just assumed they were conservative. So that's giving me at lot hope. It's giving me hope that ... maybe the southern part of the district will never be blue, but it could be purple. It could absolutely be purple."

Besides her geographical background, Phifer also said her background in law enforcement could be appealing to voters in the southern edge. They were attracted to Republican candidate Pete Stauber's storied background in the Duluth Police Department, so it was important the DFL candidate could match that, she said.

Her policy ideas were largely populist, including an economic plan slated to be released in the next few weeks, she said. It includes an attempt to shift the conversation away from the jobs vs. environment narrative dominating the debate over mining in the 8th District, she said. It also fosters consumer availability, like making grocery stores available in areas that otherwise would be food deserts.

As for foreign policy, Phifer said she favored the U.S. realigning its defense strategy away from conventional tactics and toward cybersecurity defense—the same area she worked on at the FBI. The average member of Democratic leadership in Congress is in their early 70s, with Republicans in their late 40s—one of the oldest congresses in history. That leaves the body ill prepared to deal with ever-changing modern issues like cybersecurity, she said.

She also was in favor of trying to curb the attempts of Russians and other bad actors to influence American elections. Specifically, she suggested a reform of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. The law, which dates back to 1938, was intended to keep tabs on people who lobby Washington on behalf of foreign interests. However, in practice the law doesn't have much teeth.

"I would like to see that used a little more strenuously," Phifer said. "Because if we don't start cracking down on foreign agents like Russians trying to infiltrate our elections and our democracy, it's going to be a slippery slope very, very fast."

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