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Leah Phifer, ex-ICE employee, drops out of congressional race

Leah Phifer's past as an immigrations agent crept back up on her, especially among liberals.

Leah Phifer's past as an immigrations agent crept back up on her, especially among liberals. Youtube

A complicated Minnesota congressional race just got a little less complicated.

Leah Phifer, one of the top candidates in the District 8 DFL, announced yesterday that she was officially withdrawing from the contest.

Phifer began this race as an unexpected and largely unknown candidate challenging three-time DFL incumbent Rick Nolan. A college professor, a millennial who rode her motorcycle across the district to prepare for her campaign, Phifer looked like an answer to the old guard of Iron Range DFL politics in the district.

Then Nolan announced he would retire after his current term, and endorsed Joe Radinovich, a former state legislator who lost a bid for reelection in 2014 after voting in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Radinovich had managed Nolan's campaign in 2016, and Jacob Frey's mayoral campaign the next year.

Phifer’s background is in law enforcement, not politics. She worked for the FBI for several years. She also spent the years before that working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as an interpreter. In 2017, she wrote a MinnPost op-ed in defense of ICE officers, whom she characterized as her former colleagues and friends, just trying to do their best.

“Immigrants undoubtedly make our country better," Phifer wrote, "but so do the individuals enforcing our immigration laws."

Many Minnesota liberals are not here for Phifer's sympathetic portrayals of ICE. The Minnesota DFL Latino Caucus wasn’t, and released an official stance opposing Phifer’s candidacy.

“Too many families have been torn apart at the hands of ICE and endorsing Leah Phifer, a former ICE agent who played a direct role in the deportation and separation of families, goes against the values of our party,” the caucus’ official statement read.

When the District 8 DFL convention rolled around last weekend, members of the caucus openly called out Phifer for her history with ICE.

None of the candidates came away that night with an endorsement, with Phifer and Radinovich ending the contest essentially at a stalemate. Phifer announced that she had some careful considerations to make about whether to run at all. She had made it clear that her candidacy depended on that endorsement, and she wasn’t getting it. 

On Wednesday, she made the call to end her bid for Nolan's seat.

"It's obviously a little sad," she says, but she feels she ran a good race. She does say that the Latino Caucus's statement opposing her candidacy didn't play a role in her ultimate decision. The delegates were split just the way they would have been had Nolan still been running, she says. It's all the old Iron Range divisions still in place, not her work history.

She says she's met with the caucus and been open about her work history throughout the campaign -- specifically that she was a translator and case worker, not an agent. That there was a difference.

She wouldn't rule out running again.

Meanwhile, Miguel Morales, co-chair of the Latino Caucus, says that group is ultimately grateful for Phifer's decision.

“She ran a good campaign,” he says. “We hope to continue to work with the DFL to build a more inclusive party.”

Read Phifer's statement announcing the end of her campaign below:

“Hey everyone – I have some difficult news to share. After assessing resources and potential primary election strategies, I have decided not to move my candidacy forward for this seat. Without party resources behind us, the path to victory grows very narrow, and I cannot ask my family, friends and supporters to continue on for what will surely be a challenging campaign season. It was not an easy decision to make, but I’m incredibly proud of what we built and how we moved the needle forward in the 8th district. We may not have made it all the way, but we forever altered the conversation by bringing new voices to the table.
Looking back over the past 10 months, because of your dedication and resilience, this campaign made incredible strides. You took an unlikely political newcomer and made me into the top delegate-earner in an open endorsement race for Congress. Whoever our next representative is, I hope they follow the path we carved out together. I hope they’re fearless and steadfast. I hope they protect the water, promote the voices of our Native American communities and work to elect more women. I hope they resist the temptation to exploit people’s fears in an attempt to preserve the past, but instead build a coalition of hope that brings us into the future.
It was the greatest honor to be a vehicle for your voices, to be trusted with your hopes and concerns for your families and our district. Thank you for believing in me and fighting for this campaign. I will never stop working to turn the vision of the future we created together into a reality.”