Coleen Rowley: FBI Whistle-Blower & Congressional Candidate

She made headlines after 9/11 by writing a memo that blew the whistle on the FBI. Now Coleen Rowley is running for Congress against an incumbent. Can a mild-mannered Minnesotan learn to play political hardball?

By Beth Hawkins
Photograph: Photo by: iStock
"Coleen was a career FBI agent and subject to the Hatch Act," which forbids federal employees from political action, says Roxanne Mindeman, a friend and lawyer-turned-activist. "The most political thing she’d ever done in her life was to vote."And those votes were mostly Republican. Rowley labels herself conservative, "but according to the dictionary," she says: "cautious, avoiding excess, and preserving of institutions." After 9/11, she flirted with the idea of running as an Independent. But her views continued to evolve, and by the time the Democrats came to court her again for 2006, she was ready.True to HerselfBoth parties were seeking challengers with personal wealth, celebrity, or a story strong enough to capture the public’s imagination. The theory was that Rowley’s whistle-blower status would play well against Kline’s pro-war record and give her a leg up in fundraising. The catch, which she didn’t fully appreciate when she signed on: Party officials expected Rowley herself to do the fund-raising. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threw its weight and money behind candidates in open races or those facing more vulnerable Republicans, in line with its "Red to Blue" strategy.Rowley often found herself sitting at home hour after hour, dialing voters. By late August, she had raised, according to federal filings, $437,455, respectable enough for an "unconventional" Democrat but meager next to Kline’s $1 million-plus fund. Despite donations from individuals such as Franken and Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, she has been largely on her own. The one advantage, she figured, was that at least she could do things her way: no big campaign machine, no fancy doings. "I’m going to ride my bike all over the district and meet people," she told Mindeman. It was clear from the start, her friend adds, that "Coleen was going to be a whole different animal." Still, when Rowley turned away established strategists and refused to make over her style, complaints from party elders bubbled up in the media. Stories said that Rowley wouldn’t pose with her gun; her campaign had "a homemade feel."When she traveled to the Texas encampment of war protester Cindy Sheehan, state leaders were incensed. This past spring, they recruited a popular Minnesota lawmaker to challenge Rowley in preprimary caucuses. Rowley’s district rallied behind her, and the other candidate dropped out.Even as party insiders stewed over Rowley’s focus on the war, she was knocking on doors and listening to voters, sure that public distress over Iraq matched her own passion about it. As the election season progressed, antiwar Democrats elsewhere gained ground. Rowley was thrilled when Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, the former marine and a prominent critic of Iraq policy, agreed to headline a fall fund-raiser for her.Rowley did go further than she’d ever planned in capitalizing on her FBI story: A new campaign logo with her "Agent for Change" slogan is a stylized badge shape. Volunteers at events handing out Rowley brochures dress as secret agents.For better or worse, it’s not ambition, pride, or love of the game that powers this campaign. It’s more about Rowley’s girlhood Man From U.N.C.L.E. dreams, about the dots she thinks she didn’t connect before 9/11 and about her grief over how the government has performed since. "You’re not a whistle-blower once," she says. "Once you wake up to a political epiphany, you can’t move backward." She wants to win that seat. She wants to go to Washington.Is she having any fun? Well, it depends what fun is, Rowley muses. Then, wryly: "I think the funner part would be if I didn’t win" — and, as her campaign manager looks as though he’s about to have a heart attack, she adds, "I don’t even allow myself to think about it. I don’t think past November 7." Clearly, her education as a public citizen has only just begun.Beth Hawkins writes about politics, the criminal justice system, and children’s and women’s issues from her home in Minneapolis.Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2006 as "The Education of a Candidate."

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