REGIONAL— Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan’s full-throated backing of controversial copper-nickel mining projects in northeastern Minnesota has earned him a challenger for the DFL …
REGIONAL— Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan’s full-throated backing of controversial copper-nickel mining projects in northeastern Minnesota has earned him a challenger for the DFL endorsement.
Leah Phifer, a Two Harbors native who now lives in Isanti, spent the past summer on a listening tour around the district and it left her uneasy about the prospects of the DFL holding a once-safe seat in a district that has changed considerably in recent years.
Phifer, whose connections to the mining industry go back four generations, isn’t running as an opponent of copper-nickel mining. She said she’s heard from both sides in that debate and wants to see due process play out as intended, rather than be short-circuited by congressional action, as Nolan has sought to do in recent months. Phifer said the issue is roiling DFLers, who remain deeply divided on the subject.
“This was the number one issue I heard wherever I went,” said Phifer, who visited all 18 counties in the sprawling district and had in-depth conversations with thousands of residents— and it has left her thinking that Nolan may have miscalculated the degree of anger his recent actions to back such projects have generated. Nolan has recently advanced bills to eliminate funds for a study of a proposed federal minerals withdrawal that would impact a proposed copper-nickel mine near Ely as well as one seeking to thwart the legal process surrounding a land exchange for the PolyMet project.
Phifer said she understands that Nolan is hoping to win back some of the Iron Range voters who voted for Donald Trump in November, but she said it’s clear that Nolan has deeply offended many DFL voters in the process. “I think it backfired on him,” said Phifer. “I think he underestimated the backlash.”
Some of those DFLers who have grown disenchanted with Nolan are party faithful, the kind who pound signs, and write checks and letters to the editor in support of campaigns. Lee Peterson, a Greenwood township resident, is one of them, but he said he’s had it with a congressman he’s actively supported in the past. “I put out Nolan signs, I wrote letters for him. But I would really have a hard time voting for Nolan again,” Peterson said. “He’s been dealing with the devil on too many things.”
Peterson went to see Phifer last month when she met with residents in the Cook area and said he was impressed. “I wanted to see her in person, to see if she’s for real. She’s for real all right. And she’s a good speaker.”
Greaney resident Leah Rogne gained a similar impression when she met Phifer. “I’m very impressed with her,” said Rogne. “She has a tremendous amount of presence and poise. And she’s speaking to the need for younger people to get involved.”
Indeed, Phifer, at just 33, is leading by example. And she has a ready answer when asked if she’s too young to be considered ready for the Congress, noting that Nolan was first elected to represent what was then Minnesota’s Sixth District when he was just 31 years old. Despite her relative youth, Phifer does bring a considerable background in government, having served in the Department of Homeland Security, and more recently as an FBI agent based in the Minneapolis field office. She said her law enforcement and national security background may help her weather some of the GOP’s attacks on issues like terrorism, on which Nolan has been a frequent target of Republican attack ads. At the same time, Phifer earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, further enhancing her credentials for the job.
The copper-nickel divide
While Phifer had originally jumped into the race when it looked like Nolan would run for governor, she decided to continue her listening tour even after Nolan announced he would seek to remain in Congress instead. She said her visits around the region made her concerned that the DFL was poised to lose the seat with Nolan as the candidate, as opponents of copper-nickel mining migrate to other candidates, particularly independent Skip Sandman, a vocal opponent of copper-nickel mining in the region.
She said Sandman picked up about five percent of the vote in his last bid, and she said she expects he’d do much better in a three-way race with Nolan and his expected GOP opponent, St. Louis County Commissioner Peter Stauber. “I think this could hand it to the Republicans,” Phifer said.
“I think she is very likely correct,” said Rogne, who said she’ll be backing Phifer for much the same reason. “The nature of the debate on this issue is so toxic,” she said.
Rogne, a longtime progressive, said she’s worked for Nolan in the past, but has lost confidence in his ability to be fair and open-minded on an issue of high importance to residents of the district. “I feel let down, not just by what he’s done, but how he’s done it. By hitching his star to Trump’s anti-regulation agenda and allying himself with members of Congress with such an anti-regulatory and anti-public lands agenda. I’m incredibly disappointed.”
Phifer said she’s read a tremendous amount on the copper-nickel issue and has an appreciation for both sides of the debate, although she acknowledged “serious misgivings” about whether it is right for Minnesota. Regardless, she said she’d prefer to foster due process that allows all sides a voice in the discussion. “Due process is sacred to me. I’ve seen how important it is to our democracy. When you cut out the courts, or the Forest Service as part of the executive branch, you are undermining the process that makes democracy great.”
She faults Nolan for leaving a large number of DFLers feeling they don’t count. “Many DFLers I met with feel they’ve been cut out of the conversation,” Phifer said. “I’ve heard so much disenchantment on this issue.”
The problem Nolan could face is that it is dedicated DFLers, like Rogne and Peterson, who show up at caucuses and endorsing conventions and spread the word to others. Phifer said she’ll bow out if she doesn’t win the endorsement. Nolan hasn’t indicated at this point whether he’ll do the same.