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By Olivia LaVecchia
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WHEN THE DFL Feminist Caucus endorsed a young male challenger over 12-term incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn, political observers in Minnesota wondered if perhaps the move signaled the beginning of the end for the old-school feminist legislator. Now that the 59-year-old Kahn has the DFL endorsement safely in the bag and looks like a shoo-in for her thirteenth term in the state House, the Caucus finds itself struggling to mend its relationship with a legislator who has been one of the group's most consistent advocates.
"We haven't talked" since the group threw its support to 25-year-old Aric Nissen, Caucus President Judy Schermer says, "but the Caucus still admires Phyllis and what she's done. We would kind of like to--I don't know if kiss and make up is the right expression--but we feel that we have to tell our friends when we feel they're doing something wrong."
That something, Schermer explained, centered primarily on Kahn's hesitation to disavow the Speaker of the House, Rep. Irv Anderson, who Schermer says has been openly hostile to many female legislators and an enemy of the group's agenda.
"We asked this of every candidate," Schermer said. "When we first asked the question of Phyllis, she wouldn't give any kind of commitment to not supporting him." That was enough to tip the balance in favor of Nissen, she continued, adding that the decision was not made lightly.
Other Caucus members, though, articulated different reasons for the decision, indicating that perhaps the healing process will not be an easy one. Kahn, former Caucus President Jackie Stevenson says, has grown complacent over the years in the opinion of some members, taking the support of her traditional constituency for granted.
"I will tell you, one person asked if Phyllis had called and thanked us" for not endorsing her, Stevenson says. "There are some long-time DFL activists who think that Phyllis has gotten lazy. I don't think she's worked this hard in years." Indeed, at a recent fundraiser for Sen. Paul Wellstone that featured U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and drew more than 300 DFLers from around the state, Kahn pressed the flesh with the best of them, talking strategy and making small talk around the room.
For her part, Kahn discounts the importance of the Caucus's endorsement, calling the group "out of touch" and expressing wonderment at the younger members' lack of knowledge, both historical and practical. "It takes a long time to get things done," Kahn says of the legislative process, and many young women "assume as rights things that their mothers and grandmothers could never, ever have. When you listen to them and when you talk to them, they kind of think the battle's all won." Moreover, Kahn continues, at this stage of her political life, she should be able to take the support of the DFL Feminist Caucus for granted. She believes she's earned it: "I can't think of one issue I've differed with them on."
The DFL Feminist Caucus doesn't keep statistics on the demographic profile of its 1,000-plus members, Schermer says, but the group has been making a concerted effort to reach out to young people, many of whom have no sense of Kahn's past accomplishments. Instead, she explains, younger members focus on the here and now, including Kahn's apparent refusal to distance herself from Anderson.
During the endorsement process, Schermer says, "The older members would tell the younger members what Phyllis had done" for the movement in the past, "and they weren't so concerned with what she had done, but where she was today."
No matter how much the Caucus wants to make amends, Kahn says the decision to endorse Nissen may have poisoned the relationship for good.
"They went beyond just not endorsing me," she says, a trace of bitterness in her voice. "It was really just an appalling decision. I have no plans to contact them. I don't need to. It's not important enough to me to do any lobbying on it. I have enough problems dealing with things that are barely rational, let alone things that are totally irrational."
And with Kahn facing Republican Tom Gromacki--a self-described member of the Religious Right who worked for Pat Buchanan's Minnesota campaign--in the notoriously DFL District 59B, Schermer is painfully aware of the accuracy of Kahn's assessment.
"We haven't wanted to push things with her," Schermer says. "Candidates tend to remember things like this. Phyllis is on our good-guy list. We'd like to shake hands and continue working with her."
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