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

Agent for ChangeOn a muggy Sunday afternoon this summer, Coleen Rowley’s campaign trail leads her a couple hours north of her Minneapolis home, to Minnesota’s resort district, where a star of the Democratic party firmament has come to help her raise money. It is just one stop in dozens of races around the country that pit big-money politics against grassroots momentum, longtime incumbents against unconventional candidates who are making it up as they go along.The Lodge at Brainerd Lakes doesn’t look too lodgelike; it’s so new that there’s nary a shrub between the entrance and the highway 100 yards away. Perhaps to compensate, the cabin-country decor goes overboard: The stuffed bears in the lobby are the product of actual taxidermy; the snowshoes, creels, and antler fixtures appear to have been professionally distressed.The 70-some working parents and retirees in this room have been lured by the headliner: comedian, talk-show host, and possible future senatorial candidate Al Franken. But everyone in this rural area knows Rowley’s story. She was a career special agent who told the world how her office, just before 9/11, tried to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, who trained at a Twin Cities flight school, and how FBI higher-ups thwarted the effort. The fund-raiser attendees also know that Rowley leaped to celebrity as one of three women whistle-blowers (the others were from Enron and WorldCom) on a cover of Time in 2002.Now Rowley is running for the U.S. House of Representatives as an "agent for change" — especially on civil liberties, privacy, and the war in Iraq — facing the GOP incumbent, John Kline, a hawkish war proponent and staunch Bush supporter. Even as a record number of women run for state and federal offices, Rowley is uniquely positioned as a challenger. A political outsider, she doesn’t yet smack of business as usual. She has serve-your-country credentials and national intelligence experience to appeal to the so-called security moms. She’s animated and warm, if no-frills, with a captivating speak-truth-to-power backstory. "People are hungry for this voice," says Becky Lourey, a longtime Minnesota state senator who ran in the Democratic primary for governor this fall. "You need to connect with voters, and that’s what she’s done: connect, connect, connect — tirelessly." Rowley stands an excellent chance of breaking through the electorate’s apathy, if she can get her message out.Rousing a CrowdRowley, 51, dislikes being cast as a hero. She lives with her husband of 25 years in a Twin Cities suburb with the bucolic name of Apple Valley. She has four children (ages 11 to 24) and one grandkid, and shoulder-length hair flecked with silver. A long-time triathlete, she’s comfortable in her trim, five-foot-five-and-a-half-inch frame. But she’s hardly imposing when she steps to the podium after Franken’s introduction. Speaking in a nasal Midwestern accent, she sprinkles her talk with epithets like "gosh" and expressions such as "just plain wrong." Early on, she told party strategists she’d rather lose the election than have to turn herself into a "prom queen."Still, Rowley’s job today is to rouse her audience and open their wallets. She’s begun to figure out the chicken-and- egg equation of money and popular appeal. A few months back, coming to preach to the near-converted in this small burg far from her district would have made no sense to her. Now she’s calculating differently. If — a colossal if — enough people make the suggested $50 donation today, Rowley can buy TV ads. TV ads would reach disaffected swing voters in her district (the suburbs and farmland south of Minneapolis and Saint Paul) who may not be wild about Rowley but who aren’t crazy about Kline either.And Rowley has begun to project authority. As she talks, audience members start to nod and answer back, like a congregation. "It’s not a lie," Rowley tells them. "The terrorist threat is higher." She begins to slam the Bush administration’s monitoring of Americans’ phone calls and bank transactions. This stepped-up surveillance, she warns, won’t protect anyone. It’s counterproductive.

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