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Rep. Phyllis Kahn Profile

Note: This story was written for the 3121 News Reporting and Writing class for the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It has been read by the class instructor.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn stood next to Rep. Ryan Winkler and spoke into the microphones of local media at the Twin Cities Red Cross Headquarters, where the Interstate-35W bridge disaster survivors gave a testimony before the Minnesota State Government Finance Division Committee.

Kahn has openly expressed her frustration with the slow moving action by the government after the I-35W bridge collapse.

"We spent a lot of time talking with survivors," Kahn said. "All this motion has gone to rebuilding the concrete and steel of the bridge but no one is worrying about the human cost."

Kahn, who holds a doctorate in biophysics, is currently serving as the finance division's Chairwoman in her 18th term as a member of the Minnesota Legislature.

Kahn's interest in politics started in 1970's when she got involved in a women's rights group at the University of Minnesota.

Since then, she has chief authored numerous bills, such as the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act to control smoking in public areas, along with a Genetic Privacy Protection Bill.

She is currently working with Winkler to create a compensation program for victims of disasters, such as the I-35W bridge collapse.

The program is modeled after the victims compensation program in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a slight Brooklyn accent, Kahn keeps her speech and answers short and to the point.

"Litigation is not the best way we can spend anybody's money," Kahn said, to a group of testifiers hoping for a plan that will create a program to decrease their medical debt and for some, restart a life after the loss of family members.

"She saves time and energy," said Brian Shekleton, the committee administrator for the finance division committee.

"She believes in and has tremendous passion for all issues important to her," Rep. John Ward said.

Winkler is known as the author of the I-35W victims’ compensation bill. But Kahn has been working behind the scenes to get the bill passed as quickly as possible.

"I'm very happy to be in the background and support him with what he wants to do," Kahn said. "Just making sure he has the support to do what he needs to do."

The idea for the victims’ compensation bill is not only to assist those who were victims of the I-35W bridge collapse, but also to create funds for emergencies in general.

"She is passionate about those people, but I think she's taking an even broader view of what happens in the future if this sort of thing happens again," Niedernhofer said. "She has been really frustrated with everyone moving slowly. It's like molasses and I know she's upset about that."

When the bridge collapsed, Kahn was in her backyard. When she turned on the television, she was in disbelief.

Although the bridge is in her district, Kahn decided that she was not going to make an appearance at the disaster site.

"I don't know if I'm supposed to be at those events, walking around looking sad, but I'm not going to go there because I'm not going to be polite if I go," Kahn said. "Because here they are all being nice to each other and all I'm going to say is something really nasty to Gov. Pawlenty. They don't need me around."

Kahn is now working to pass the victims compensation bill as quickly as she can with Rep. Winkler.

"You can't really replace people's lives with money," Kahn said. "You can't even help them in the healing process, but the point is that you don't have to make their lives worse by having them worry about things like money."

Kahn has led bills that have been controversial in the past, unlike the victims’ compensation bill.

"Phyllis does a lot of thing that people criticize her for," Niedernhofer said.

"She lives her life the way she wants it and if other people like that, that's fine," Shekleton said. "If they don't like it, she doesn't care, and I think that's how she operates as a legislator."

She has proposed a bill to give legal resident aliens the right to vote in local elections and also to lower the voting age to 12, which later on she increased to 16.

"She speaks her mind and you always know where she stand on issues," Rep. Ward said. "Sometimes, I think she's so busy thinking that she doesn’t hear others."

"She authors the bills that she thinks are important, that she doesn’t think other people won’t do," Shekleton said.

Even though some may view her as abrupt, Kahn has made relationships all across the different political parties.

"I believe she fosters a good working relationship with all legislators," said Ward. "She is honest and trustworthy."

"Phyllis is Phyllis, she's incredible," Shekleton said.

Kahn's good working relationships have led the 70-year-old legislator to organize hockey teams with other government officials during her free times.

"One thing good about being a legislator is that you do get a lot of free time," Kahn said.

With her family living all across the map, Kahn travels frequently. Staff members at her office joke that it's better to call Kahn and tell her that you're traveling than to call in sick.

Kahn plans on running for office again. "I like getting things done," Kahn said. "As long as you can accomplish things, it's satisfying."

Now that the Democrats are back in majority, she would like to leave on a high point when the state elects a Democratic governor.

"You just keep working," Kahn said. "You just keep working on it."