Phyllis Kahn is among the most revered and reviled members of the state Legislature. Since first running for office in 1972, inspired by the feminist movement, she has established a formidable track record on environmental and scientific issues. She is perhaps best known for helping pass the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act in 1975, the first law in the country to restrict smoking in public places.
But Kahn, who is tied with Rep. Lyndon Carlson (DFL) of Crystal at the top of the state House seniority list, has also championed an array of eccentric causes – lowering the voting age to 16, taxing cosmetic surgery, studying the health effects of artificial turf – that have made her a piñata for conservative commentators. Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray has referred to her variously over the years as “daffy,” a “career crackpot” and “scandalously selfish.”
So it’s little surprise that Kahn would face opposition in seeking a 19th legislative term. What no one really expected is that she would stir a fight from within her own party. At the DFL endorsing convention for House district 59B in March, Kahn was unanimously endorsed after failing to draw any opposition.
But that seemingly innocuous event inspired Joel Rainville, who is the marketing coordinator at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, to take on Kahn in a Democratic primary. Rainville says he was put off by Kahn’s brief, perfunctory acceptance speech at the convention. “I just thought, ‘Wow, she’s kind of become disconnected from the constituents and the people that she represents,’” says Rainville, who had long contemplated running for the 59B House seat after Kahn’s retirement. “That was kind of my impetus for running at this point rather than waiting.”
Kahn has generally won re-election in the heavily Democratic district (75 percent voted for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race) without much trouble. In 2006 she took 73 percent of the vote, despite Republican and Independence Party opposition. Two years earlier she easily staved off three opponents, collecting support from 59 percent of voters. In 2002 she ran unopposed after Green Party candidate Jason Samuels (a former intern in her office) was ruled ineligible because he lived two blocks outside the district when he registered for the campaign.
But Rainville should provide more formidable opposition than any of these recent challengers. He comes from a storied Minneapolis political family that includes current City Council president Barb Johnson, former city council president (and Johnson’s mother) Alice Rainville, and former Hennepin County Commissioner John Derus.
These ties play into what’s arguably been the most controversial issue in the district in recent years, the proposed football stadium for DeLaSalle High School on Nicollet Island. Kahn, who lives on the island, has been a lightning rod for criticism owing to her opposition to the project. Members of the Rainville clan, most notably Derus and Michael Rainville — both of whom serve as trustees of the school — have been prominent supporters of the football field. Attempts to thwart the construction project through the courts have been unsuccessful, with the Minnesota Court of Appeals refusing to reinstate a lawsuit last month after it was dismissed at the district court level.
Joel Rainville says he’s not been involved in the stadium controversy, but he does offer criticism of Kahn’s role in the matter. “I do think that perhaps a little too much time of our state representative was spent on trying to find solutions at the state level,” he says. “I would say that perhaps it distracted from the work that could have been done to solve other problems at the state level.”
Kahn says that her involvement in the fracas has been overblown by the media. “Compared to the people who were really working on that, I was a totally minor player,” she says. “I’m not backing away from it, but there’s people who were spending an enormous amount of time on it.”
Rainville argues that Kahn’s involvement in such boutique issues has kept her from focusing sufficient attention on bread-and-butter matters like adequate funding for transportation, infrastructure and education. “What I’ve been hearing is there are a lot of people who think it’s time for a fresh perspective in the House,” he says. “I think perhaps it’s time that the person who represents this district focuses more on what the concerns of the residents of the district are.”
But Kahn points to numerous accomplishment from the last legislative session, including the transportation funding bill, a compensation package for survivors of the 35W bridge collapse and $70 million for the proposed Central Corridor light rail line. Another bill that she championed, which would have allowed the University of Minnesota to use state funds for stem-cell research, was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “We might need a new governor for that one,” she says.
Kahn seems nonplussed by the primary challenge. “Anyone has the right to file and run,” she says, noting that she’s never met Rainville. “I wouldn’t know him if I bumped into him on the street.”