NORTH BRANCH, Minn. — The first new entrant into the midterm election void left by Rep. Rick Nolan’s retirement announcement last week wasn’t among the names people expected.
As other politicos remained mum through Monday, North Branch Mayor Kirsten Hagen Kennedy entered the race on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor side late in the day Sunday, declaring her candidacy with a short news release.
“I knew this would be a heavy-hitter race,” she later said in an interview. “I consider myself the Forrest Gump of this race.”
Hagen Kennedy joins Leah Phifer of Isanti, Republican Pete Stauber of Hermantown and Independence Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman of Duluth as confirmed candidates in the race for the now open seat in the 8th Congressional District.
There figures to be more announcements on the way. Nolan’s rival in each of the past two elections, Republican Stewart Mills, said Friday that he was considering entering the race.
Additionally, a bevy of familiar DFL names circulated their intention to explore making a run at the seat. Among them were Nolan’s Duluth district director Jeff Anderson; former state representative and Nolan campaign manager Joe Radinovich; state Rep. Jason Metsa, Virginia; and state Sen. Tony Lourey, Kerrick.
In reaction to the coming brigade, Phifer, a native of Two Harbors, sent out a news release Monday, calling for candidates to respect the endorsement process. The 8th District party conventions — the DFL’s April 14 at the Holiday Inn in Duluth and GOP’s May 5 at Park Rapids High School — will yield each party’s endorsed candidate. A primary for either party or both, if necessary, will be Aug. 14, and candidates can supersede the endorsement process by requesting a primary. Both Nolan and Phifer had said they would respect the endorsement process.
“Having a strong bench of candidates will certainly leave us in a better position to keep this seat blue in November,” Phifer said in her news release. “However, it makes respecting the DFL endorsement process more important than ever.”
Just two weeks ago, Hagen Kennedy attended President Trump’s State of the Union address as Rick Nolan’s guest.
At the time Nolan said it was important to listen to mayors of small communities, because they understand local, state and federal partnerships as well as anyone. Hagen Kennedy, a second-term mayor, described Nolan as a valuable confidant who would always take her calls to discuss things.
“He was one of the most down-to-earth leaders,” she said, adding that she admired his work ethic and reputation for seeking bipartisan solutions in an increasingly divided American society.
“Everyone is in a bubble and everyone else becomes an other,” she said. “It’s easy to dehumanize.”
She’d originally planned to run for Congress in 2020, she said. But after Nolan shared his pending retirement announcement with her while she was in Washington, D.C., she said a subsequent soul-searching trip to Utah to visit her oldest daughter convinced Hagen Kennedy to make the leap. She has since assembled a “rag-tag” campaign team to get things off the ground.
Hagen Kennedy, 54, is a single mother of five children ranging in age from 15 to 27. She earned her graduate and undergraduate degrees at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she said her time in the master’s degree in Advocacy and Political Leadership program taught her “if you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly bear.”
Hagen Kennedy came away from an earlier meeting with Phifer concerned about what she called Phifer’s “line in the sand about mining” — referring to Phifer’s opposition to precious metals mining and Nolan’s use of federal legislation to supersede state processes. Hagen Kennedy said she favored Nolan’s advocacy for mining while holding companies accountable.
“I’m an environmentalist but also a pragmatist,” Hagen Kennedy said. “People need jobs.”
Hagen Kennedy has spent her time in the North Branch mayor’s office dealing with a budget deficit created by previous administrations and bringing affordable housing projects to North Branch, which she said wrongly considered $200,000 homes as starter homes.
Asked if her small-town governmental experience would be a factor, Hagen Kennedy brushed the notion aside.
“How it goes with women in politics we’re always asking, ‘Is this the right time? What are my chances?’” she said. “Typically men will just put their hat in the ring. For me, the decision came from the type of governing going on. You have to be able to get things done. It just seems like it’s getting harder and harder to get things done. Perhaps it may take not only career politicians to get things done.”