DFLer Dean Phillips, who is challenging Rep. Erik Paulsen, the Republican incumbent in the race for Minnesota’s Third District seat in the U.S. House, has an interesting personal story. As the bio on his campaign website puts it, “My life began differently than many know.”
I had heard the story previously, when Phillips spoke some years ago at a Cardozo Society dinner. The group for Jewish lawyers, judges and law students is run by the local Jewish federations. Phillips’ parents, DeeDee Cohen and Artie Pfefer, met at St. Paul Central High School. They were married in 1967.
Pfefer, who was raised by a single mother, enrolled in Army ROTC, which allowed him to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. He then went to Vietnam as a captain in the U.S. army.
When Dean Phillips was six months old, Pfefer was killed in action. He and his mother moved in with her grandparents, until she married Edward “Eddie” Phillips in 1972.
The Phillips name is well known in the local Jewish community, from the family’s liquor business and significant philanthropy through The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation. The Phillips family also bestowed Dean with a celebrity grandmother: Abigail Van Buren, known to millions of newspaper readers, since 1956, as Dear Abby.
Abby, née Pauline Esther “Popo” Friedman, and her twin sister, Esther Pauline “Eppie” Friedman, aka Ann Landers, were born in Sioux City, Iowa, to Russian Jewish immigrants. Pauline was married to Morton Phillips, and their children were Eddie, who died in 2011, and Jeanne, who took over her mother’s advice column.
This long preamble to an article about a political candidate gets to the heart of Dean Phillips’ campaign.
During a recent interview at Phillips’ campaign headquarters in Excelsior — a house dubbed the “Conversation Cottage” — the candidate said that he was adopted “into this extraordinary family and I recognized my profound good fortune, having lived on both side of advantage. I reflect on it every single day: how fortunate I was to be afforded the opportunity and that’s why I try every day to give back and make a difference…. You asked, the first question was, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and I said, responsibility. I consider my work in the community and my efforts to help people, and now to run for office as a responsibility, an expectation — based on my own personal experience and based on the stories my great-grandparents, on both sides of my family, told me about their extraordinary good fortune to become Americans. And that is why I’m doing this.”
And this election contest is drawing national attention, as well as untethered spending from varied special interests. Phillips, 49, who is trying flip a House seat from red to blue, said that the Third District race could cost $30 million, with two-thirds of the money coming from super PACS.
According to Open Secrets (opensecrets.org), the website of the Center for Responsive Politics, as of the end of June, Erik Paulsen has raised about $3.7 million. Phillips has raised close to $2.3 million going into the Aug. 14 primary election.
Phillips said that his campaign cash has come from 7,500 individual donors. He has contributed $5,400 of his own money to the campaign.
And Phillips pointed to a large poster in his office, which shows his signature on something he calls “The Minnesota Way,” a pledge to get big money out of political campaigns, which includes not accepting donations from “PACs, federal lobbyists and members of Congress,” and not self-financing campaigns.
Phillips said that Paulsen ranks eighth among House members in the amount of special interest money he’s received. He states on his website: “No matter your number one issue, I ask that you make campaign finance reform your number two. The corrupting influence of special interest money in politics, and the time spent in its pursuit, are at the heart of the dysfunction in Washington, DC. Let’s begin to repair our government together.”
And Phillips has some ready quotations about his Republican opponent: “He’s a man who talks like [former Third District GOP congressman] Jim Ramstad and votes like Michele Bachmann. His quotes do not match his votes; and, in my opinion, is very distinctly misrepresenting his district.”
On specific issues, Phillips said Paulsen’s vote for the AHCA bill “that would have repealed and replaced Obamacare deeply troubled me, as millions and millions around this country would have lost their access to health coverage.”
Phillips, who graduated from Brown University and earned a master’s in business administration from the U of M’s Carlson School of Management, ran the family liquor business, Phillips Distilling Company, for a number of years. With two partners, he ran Talenti, making the gelato and sorbetto company into the largest brand of its kind in the U.S.
Coming from this successful business background, Phillips said that he supported a reduction in the corporate tax rate, but said that the Republican tax bill, which Paulsen voted for, gave “a disproportionate amount of the benefits to very wealthy individuals and entities that do not need that help… And as someone who is fiscally responsible, the addition of one and a half trillion dollars or more, according to the CBO, in our national debt is confounding and irresponsible.”
The campaign headquarters in Excelsior was buzzing, with a preponderance of young volunteers getting ready for something. I even ran into my cousin, Adam Friedman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student who is spending his summer working for the Phillips campaign.
“While this journey started out of some fear and anxiety, it has been converted entirely into optimism and hopefulness,” commented Phillips. “The extraordinary energy and engagement of high school and college students… the engagement of women, many of whom are telling me that they had never been engaged in politics at all before… hundreds have activated. So, I’m wonderfully optimistic.”
Phillips, who is making his first run for elective office, said that recent polls have shown him with a three or four percent point lead over Paulsen.
Phillips, who is divorced, has two daughters, Daniela and Pia. In addition to serving as the co-chair of his family foundation, he is on the board of Temple Israel in Minneapolis.
Regarding The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation — the fund’s first major donation was for the creation of Mount Sinai Hospital, which was established in the face of anti-Semitism in Minneapolis — Phillips said, “While we share with countless organizations well beyond the Jewish community, we use our Jewish values to illuminate our philanthropy every single day.”
And getting back to his illustrious grandmother, Phillips said that Pauline Phillips, “Dear Abby,” would regularly send him and his younger brother, Tyler Phillips, who’s now a physician in Los Angeles, batches of letters from kids.
“She would share them with me for perspective,” said Phillips, about the letters that dealt with varied personal problems. “She really did her due diligence. By reading these letters I had a great deal of empathy for so many of my age around the country that didn’t have people to turn to, that didn’t have friends or family that would understand or accept the challenges they faced. In no small part it illuminates part of my drive to help people.”
His grandma’s mission “wasn’t to be a celebrity, her mission was to help people. That’s our family business.”
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