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‘Did I change anything?’ Phifer reflects on her now finished 8th District campaign

Minnesota 8th Congressional District Democratic candidates Jason Metsa (from left), Kirsten Hagen Kennedy, Leah Phifer, Joe Radinovich, and Michelle Lee gather to decide who speaks first at the 8th District Democratic convention in Duluth. Phifer is no longer in the race. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Three weeks ago today, Leah Phifer ended a congressional campaign which just days before led every ballot at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's 8th District endorsement convention.

Despite being the front-runner, Phifer failed to earn enough delegates for the party's endorsement. Instead of strengthening the campaign's resolve, the convention experience yielded a reversal and saw Phifer fold up her candidacy. She left the race saying her campaign was always reliant on winning the endorsement and that she saw no way forward in terms of fundraising without full party backing.

In the time since, Phifer used a sunny vacation to recuperate from seven months of campaigning. She returned home to schedule one last gathering with her supporters. They'll meet May 20 along the North Shore for a potluck and what Phifer called "closure."

"My supporters don't have anywhere to turn," Phifer said. "They're lost, angry and frustrated. I'm hoping the potluck will help out and bring a little bit of closure."

In the aftermath of her campaign, Phifer is also being candid about the deeper dynamics involved in her departure from the race. In describing the odyssey which began with an 80-day listening tour throughout the district in 2017, Phifer told the News Tribune about a lack of support from district leadership and a blind eye turned on her from the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Though I was in the race for seven months," she said, "I never received a call from the DCCC."

According to its website, the DCCC recruits candidates, raises money and helps organize campaigns from Washington, D.C. When presented with Phifer's claim, DCCC spokeswoman Rachel Irwin said, "She was challenging a DFL-supported incumbent and therefore we did not engage with her campaign."

But the DCCC never reached out to Phifer even after Rep. Rick Nolan announced his retirement in February, Phifer said, even though her supporters, including some elected officials, urged the DCCC to reach out to Phifer with its support.

Phifer said she believes she paid a price for challenging the popular Nolan and met further resistance for not supporting proposed copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota — to date, the critical issue in the campaign.

Irwin denied that the DCCC has taken a position on copper-nickel mining.

"We trust the candidates and voters on the ground when it comes to local issues and do not prescribe their policy positions," Irwin said.

For Phifer, the DCCC's lack of involvement was an example of a "disconnect between grassroots candidates and the groups that have the power to make these candidates viable or toxic."

There were more examples from within the district DFL, which Phifer said made efforts to push her from the race dating back to her motorcycle listening tour of the 8th District last summer.

Unlike the DCCC, which can pick and choose behind whom it throws its weight, DFL officers are supposed to remain impartial and help all candidates equally. But Phifer cited an email last June which she said illustrated the district party's approach to her candidacy. It came from then-8th District DFL chairperson Justin Perpich, a one-time Nolan staffer whose term atop the district DFL came to an end at the convention.

In the email exchange, which Perpich shared, he wrote Phifer to bemoan the amount of money an intra-party challenger might cost Nolan, and encouraged her to run for a state house race instead. He finished by saying, "I hope the tour goes well. If you need to, there isn't anything wrong with canceling it earlier than 80 days."

Phifer responded with a cheery "thanks but no thanks"-style email.

It was the beginning of a protracted effort to undermine Phifer's campaign, she said — one which she resisted parrying. Time was short and her campaign resources were limited, she reasoned at the time.

"You can spend your time playing insider politics or you can invest in the people whose lives you hope to improve," Phifer said.

Perpich told the News Tribune on Tuesday that he, Phifer and state DFL chairman Ken Martin met in a conference call to settle their differences early on following Phifer's official candidacy announcement last October.

"From that point on I was as neutral as can be," Perpich said.

Out of party office and now free to share his opinion, Perpich said he would have supported Phifer had she won endorsement, but that she "was in over her head" in a race for what he called "the most competitive seat in the country."

"She didn't have an experienced campaign team around her," Perpich said, citing the Jason Metsa and Joe Radinovich campaigns which came along after Phifer's but still out-raised hers by tens of thousands of dollars. "Look at what Metsa and Radinovich were able to put together in a short amount of time compared to what she had. She had a lot of grassroots support and activists. I credit her for organizing a good volunteer base and good team, but you need to be able to raise the money as much as people don't want to do it. You have to show you're serious by putting up a big number."

By ignoring slights and failing to fight battles along the way, Phifer said she arrived at the 8th District convention in Duluth in April to find "a full-fledged war." It included the event's most dramatic turn as a majority of delegates voted to cede the floor to the Latino Caucus, which took to the dais to ask the assembled delegates to deny Phifer the endorsement for having started her federal law enforcement career by working in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.

"Looking back," Phifer said, "I wish I would have fought back on things as they were occurring."

A native of Two Harbors, Phifer stormed onto the DFL scene in 2017 by challenging Nolan's legislative involvement in pushing for precious metals mining in northern Minnesota. She believed it was a state issue and not one to be settled in Congress. She also came in on a wave of anti-President Trump resistance politics and the rising collective female voice of the #metoo movement. She shared the cover of Time magazine with other female candidates and was featured in major newspapers. Pulling in young people and others from the Democratic fringe, she seemed to offer them an empowered new voice.

It's a bloc of voters she said is now struggling to migrate to another candidate.

Still, she believes she made the right choice to end her campaign — even if it has left her to question her own impact.

"I feel like now I'm back to square one, and that's been difficult," she said, before posing the question, "Did I actually change anything by being in the race?"

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