First-time candidate Leah Phifer doesn’t have many policy differences with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Rick Nolan — an original co-sponsor of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act — except on one issue.
Phifer thinks her fellow Democrat has gone too far toward siding with the mining industry. The former FBI counterterrorism analyst is seeking the DFL’s endorsement for Minnesota’s 8th District and kicked off her campaign over the weekend.
Striking a balance between environmental and mining interests has always been essential in the district, home to the mining region known as the Iron Range.
And for a long time, Phifer said, Nolan did it well. He held on last fall, narrowly winning re-election in a district President Donald Trump carried by 16 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.
But since then, Nolan has sought to undo a two-year moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters wilderness area, put in place so that federal agencies can review the effects of mining in the region.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration enacted the moratorium, declining to renew minerals leases for Twin Metals Minnesota, which hopes to build copper nickel mines near the Boundary Waters. Nolan and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer have pressed the Trump administration to reconsider Obama’s moratorium, which it hasn’t yet done.
Nolan has also introduced legislation to expedite a land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and Canadian PolyMet Mining. Environmental groups are challenging the exchange in court.
“I’m concerned about the elimination of due process here,” Phifer said. “It’s not an environmental stance or a mining stance.”
Phifer’s family has worked in the mining industry for four generations. She’s worried about the divide in her party’s base between environmentalists and mining interests, which was the subject of a controversial New York Times Magazine story last week.
“A lot of the decisions that are threatening our ability to hold this district stem from within the DFL base,” Phifer said.
She said she fears Nolan’s interference in the federal regulatory process will alienate environmentalists who could side with a third-party candidate running on a clean water platform in the general election.
“In the northeastern part of Minnesota, you have people, who, environmental or mining is their single issue. If even one or two percent of our base feels that way, that’s enough to lose the district,” Phifer said.
As the national party was still licking its wounds in November, Nolan stood up during a Democratic caucus meeting to implore his party not to ignore the economic anxieties of the white working class.
Responding to the New York Times Magazine story, Nolan didn’t mention environmental interests. “We are extremely proud of our miners and our heritage up on the Iron Range,” his office said in a statement Friday.
To Democrats here in Washington, that’s exactly the right tone.
“While there has been this tension in some quarters of the DFL, this is a labor district,” said a Democratic strategist who’s worked in the 8th.
A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Nolan endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic presidential primary. He’s enjoying his second stint in Congress after first being elected in the old 6th District in 1975, and is no stranger to the environmentalist movement.
“I was a bit of an outlier way back in the day, when the narrative was, ‘We can’t have all these rules and regulations because we won’t be able to do business,’” Nolan said in an interview last month. He’s always contended that industry can develop the technology to adapt to regulations.
For a long time, that made him the enemy of industry.
“There were years I had to go up there under an assumed name, they were so mad at me,” Nolan said.
“Well now, the narrative has changed. And the new narrative is, ‘We can’t have mining because it may threaten our environment,’” Nolan said. “So now I’m getting beat up by the people who championed me earlier in my career.”
Nolan argued he’s still balancing both interests. But he doesn't think it makes sense to have a moratorium on mining while a broad federal review of the effects of mining is underway, especially because a specific mining proposal from Twin Metals would still have to go through its own review process.
The DFL endorsement
Phifer originally formed an exploratory committee for this race when Nolan was considering running for governor instead of re-election in 2018.
She had just put two new tires on her motorcycle — preparing for her “Around the 8th in 80 Days” listening tour — when the congressman announced he wouldn’t seek the DFL gubernatorial nod.
Phifer decided to go on tour anyway and launched her campaign after hearing from voters upset about politicians interfering in the regulatory process.
“She represents, at best, a very minority view of the party that would not sell in a general election — and she won’t get anywhere near the general election,” the Democratic strategist said, touting DFL activists’ loyalties to Nolan.
But one seasoned political observer in the district didn’t put it past Phifer to block Nolan from receiving the endorsement. “The party has the scales tipped in favor of Nolan,” the observer said. “But with good organization, Phifer could upend Nolan’s efforts to hold on to it.”
Ever since Nolan passed on the gubernatorial bid, he’s been acting like he’s running for re-election. When asked, he’ll simply say, “Those are my intentions.”
Nolan’s never been a strong fundraiser, and he’s open about his disdain for — and avoidance of — call time. He raised just $122,000 during the third quarter of this year. (He bowed out of the gubernatorial race at the beginning of the quarter.) During the same period last cycle, Nolan had raised $260,000.
“Rick’s money is mostly raised for him,” the Democratic strategist said. Nolan’s race attracted more outside spending than any other House contest last cycle, with labor interests and the House Majority PAC coming to his defense. What Nolan lacks in campaign funds, he makes up for with his retail political skills, the Democratic strategist added.
His campaign announced on Monday the hiring of Duluth School Board member Annie Harala to manage his race. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staffer is in the district too.
But after two cycles of the same flawed candidate challenging Nolan, Republicans are excited about a new recruit in the 8th District. Duluth Police lieutenant Peter Stauber, a former professional hockey player with the Detroit Red Wings operation, raised $136,000 in the third quarter.
Republicans have already signaled that Nolan will be a top target again in 2018, and Phifer thinks her national security background could help insulate the DFL nominee from some of the attacks that have been launched against Nolan in the past.
Nolan’s campaign isn’t commenting on Phifer’s candidacy.
Phifer praises most of Nolan’s policy positions, including his professed support for single-payer health insurance, debt-free college tuition and getting money out of politics.
Like Nolan, she promises to abide by the DFL endorsement process.
“For all intents and purposes, we should have a blue wave. But here in the 8th District, our blue wave could be a little bit divided. We need to make sure we are united,” she said.