Scientists and politicians don’t always see eye-to-eye, but Minnesota Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a former genetics researcher at the University of Minnesota, has used her unlikely background to her advantage during almost 40 years as a legislator.
As one of the few elected officials in the country with a Ph.D. in biophysics, Kahn said she’s had the opportunity to be included on science panels and committees and to view a variety of topics from a unique, more analytical perspective.
“It’s why I got interested in the technology issues,” said Kahn, who has co-authored numerous successful IT-related bills since she was elected in 1972. She succeeded in passing the state's first computer-crime law in 1989, and more recently helped Minnesota move toward electronic licensing and reforming its accounting system. Her current focus is on consolidating Minnesota’s multiple data centers into one larger center.
“Supplying security for 38 different data centers is just a nightmare,” Kahn said. The challenge is that issues like IT consolidation hold little political appeal, she said. She aims to prove to others how investing in technology can have a major impact on every aspect of government.
“It’s really important for how we are going to conduct government in the future,” she said. “If we want to look at a 24/7 state government, all of that only happens with good information systems.”
Kahn has also been a major supporter of women’s rights issues. In fact, Kahn decided to run for office after she came to the conclusion that she wasn’t being granted the same opportunities as her male colleagues. Since then, Kahn helped create gender equity for sports funding, established a woman’s right to keep her name after marriage and helped pass the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act, the nation's first law to mandate nonsmoking sections in public places. All-in-all, she said, “We’ve done some good stuff.”
Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.