A congressional candidate’s career with ICE comes back to haunt her

Leah Phifer

Leah Phifer

 There are a lot of ways to describe Leah Phifer, but these days, most newspapers describe her as “not your typical congressional candidate.”

Phifer, a Democrat, is campaigning to represent Minnesota’s eighth congressional district, a huge swatch of Iron Range land in the northeast corner of the state. She came into the political scene as an unknown, a millennial FBI worker cum college professor with no political experience who toured the district on her motorcycle in preparation for her campaign. Her challenge against three-time incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan, who later announced his retirement following his current term, has been viewed as a possible rift in the District 8 DFL -- up-and-coming candidates against the old-time Iron Range guard.

But there’s another thing that sets her apart: Before Phifer worked for the FBI, she worked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- better known today as ICE. It's the acronym that often shows up first in news stories with headlines like “Beloved doctor faces deportation” or “The Minnesota Eight don’t want to be deported to a country they’ve never lived in.”

Many might have thought this would have been a strength for her: a nonpolitical background, and in law enforcement, no less. There’s not a lot of love for ICE in the DFL, but Phifer was working for them as an interpreter -- not exactly, as journalist and blogger Aaron Brown puts it, “the tip of the spear” for immigration policy. If anything, he says, what lost her the most points was an op-ed she wrote for MinnPost in 2017, asking Minnesotans who think of ICE officers as “jackbooted thugs, kicking in doors and rounding up families” to think again.

“These bulletproof vest-clad giants are guys like my friend Mike,” she wrote. She asked readers to remember that these were just civil servants doing the best they can.

Her plea fell on the less-than-sympathetic ears of Minnesota liberals, most of whom would much rather see ICE abolished altogether.

In District 8 -- where the biggest debate for the DFL is mining vs. the environment -- that sentiment doesn’t matter as much. The district went Trump’s way by 15 points in the 2016 election anyway. Anyone who has a problem with her time with ICE wasn’t going to vote for her in the first place.

But it does matter to Minnesota as a whole, and Phifer's background has become a sticking point. The Latino DFL Caucus recently released a statement asking constituents to stand against her bid for office. At last weekend's District 8 DFL convention, members of the caucus made a speech protesting her candidacy – a rare case of a candidate getting heckled at their own party’s convention.

“One of the major challenges in her whole campaign has been addressing an issue she didn’t know was an issue,” Brown says.

Caucus leadership say they weren't looking for publicity or anything -- although the speech this weekend definitely got them some.

"Our main goal of the weekend was ultimately to share our values and make our voices heard," caucus co-chair Miguel Morales says. Their position is that it's already a difficult time in this country for the immigrant community, and they need representatives that will defend their right to stay in their homes without fear of being arrested or deported.

She ended up winning on all 10 delegate ballots at the convention, but at 52 percent of the vote, she just didn’t have the 60 percent required to get the endorsement. She and her rival, Nolan-endorsed Joe Radinovich, will both head into the primary. Except Phifer can’t decide whether she still wants to run.

Her candidacy was always reliant on that endorsement, she explained in interviews. District 8 is a vulnerable foothold for the DFL, and the winning candidate would have to be popular enough to take on a growing GOP influence. In the end, she said, she wants to do what’s best for the district.

Phifer couldn’t be reached for an interview.