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The Purity of Coleen Rowley

She has limited campaign funding and won't pose for the cover of Time. But Rowley might have what it takes to win a congressional election.

A second slice of peppermint ice cream pie sits softening on one arm of the candidate’s puffy, oversize chair. Coleen Rowley, erstwhile FBI whistleblower, 2002 Time Person of the Year, grandmother, and Iraq war critic, also happens to be a dedicated triathlon competitor and, possibly as a consequence, possessed of the kind of appetite boomers of a certain socioeconomic stature rarely display in public these days. She’ll get to the pie, a maraschino-tint-ed slab encased in a candy crust, but for now she’s too worked up about the economics of being a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota in 2006.

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Rowley, 51, is slender and muscular, animated and direct. She has clear blue eyes, shoulder-length hair, and favors multicolored sweaters, plaid skirts, and cloth hair bands. What she lacks in polish she makes up for in guilelessness. She has rejected suggestions from the political establishment that she snazz herself up or exploit previous fame. In her view, voters in Minnesota’s 2nd District will either elect her to the House for who she is or else she’ll find something different to do.

Seen in a certain light, this position is one of righteous inflexibility, the very trait that made her a whistleblower in the first place: To expose, shortly after 9/11, the FBI’s failure to notice signs of the terrorists’ plot, took a courage bordering on belligerence. In another light, though, her unassuming style reflects precisely the authenticity many voters are starving for.

Rowley is most energized and compelling when she’s talking about national security. Butissues, as she’s come to understand by this point in the electoral calendar, are something a candidate gets to after she’s taken care of first things first, namely money. In 1990, the late senator Paul Wellstone ran a successful low-budget campaign from the same part of Minnesota. But lobbyists, strategists, and other political insiders have griped to newspapers and political journals that Rowley doesn’t have enough money to be taken seriously.

“Right from the start you hear, ‘money, money, money,’” she says. There are just three kinds of viable Democratic candidates, she’s been told: People with a history in politics, which translates into money; “self-funded” candidates willing to spend their own fortunes winning office; and celebrities, who, in addition to money, have bankable name recognition. The few successful challengers for House seats in 2004 all raised seven-figure war chests. In that election, Republican John Kline—the man Rowley now seeks to unseat—spent $1.6 million, besting an opponent who spent $1.2 million. Rowley calculates she’ll need $2 million and an army of volunteers. By year’s end, she had collected $170,000 for her bid to secure the Democrats’ endorsement at a party caucus on May 6; already by the end of September, Kline had raised $464,000.

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