Dean Phillips has a sense for the marketplace. He led Phillips Distilling as it recast itself from a maker of commodity spirits before the artisanal booze craze hit. He co-created Talenti Gelato before there was a gelato outpost in every upscale neighborhood, and his Penny’s Coffee offers a template for third-wave coffee shops as community centers. The adopted son of a legendarily philanthropic Minneapolis family, Phillips, 49—exhausted by the tenor of American politics and the tenure of Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen—decided to challenge Paulsen for his congressional seat, with an inclusive campaign geared to the district’s moderate, pragmatic leanings. We met him during Thanksgiving week at his soon-to-be ex-campaign HQ in a bungalow in downtown Excelsior.
An ugly campaign
Q: Were you surprised to see your corporate ties and board history used against you by Republican interests? It seemed extraordinarily cynical.
A: I thought it was ironic, disappointing, and very much a symptom of this disease [of money in politics]. I’m so grateful to the voters of the district that supported a campaign that took the high road.
Q: It seemed like a voter suppression effort rooted in confusing people.
A: And it works, that’s the sad truth. I was as appalled as anybody. I think Minnesotans had not seen that degree of mean-spiritedness in our elections. I think people’s eyes have been opened. I hope people find it inspirational.
Q: Were any of the criticisms legitimate, forcing you to look back and question your choices?
A: Anybody that says they can’t reflect on their past and discover ways to do it better is lying. But the attacks that were leveled against me were terribly misguided and inappropriate.
Q: Unbridled cynicism is worse than legitimate disagreements. How do you cut through it?
A: You cut through it by building relationships. Nobody can succeed without collaboration. My first task is to build those relationships within the [House] Democratic caucus and on the other side of the aisle. I intend to do this differently. My fiancée, Annalise [Glick], and I are hoping to regularly host gatherings to get people around a table. There is an interest in collaboration in this freshman class.
Q: All elections seem nationalized right now. Were there any local issues that drove your campaign?
A: Indeed, this specific election was very nationalized. I think it’s time we return to local issues. Part of the reason these elections have become nationalized is because the money is nationalized. I want to investigate a campaign finance system that would allow money to be sent only to politicians for whom [the constituent] can vote. When tens of millions of dollars flow into a state like Montana from outside, that’s not what the framers intended. It disenfranchises voters.
Q: Did social media play a decisive role in your campaign? What’s your take on it as a societal force in need of regulation?
A: I reflect on Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock that, 50 years ago, anticipated a lot of these challenges we now face. Humans have the capacity to adapt, but sometimes more slowly than technology leaps. That said, social media is the great equalizer that generations past never could have imagined. But that freedom has created consequences. It’s going to be a challenge perhaps taken up by Congress because there is a need for thoughtful regulation like we have in our analog lives.
Q: What are your concerns?
A: The absence of trust and loss of sense of truth are two huge challenges. We have got to discuss ways to [establish] and disseminate truth. The absence of it makes our path forward awfully difficult. There was a consensus on reality back when we were young.
Q: There do appear to be significant structural hurdles for Democrats, with so much weight in our electoral system given to geography over persons. Do you see your election as indicative of a pathway in that effort?
A: My election may have been a bit of a barometer. We made a concerted effort to go out and campaign in parts of the district that had been avoided by Democratic candidates. Yes, we have a geographic divide in this country, so it’s incumbent on those of us who hope to do better to start reaching out. The thoughtful way forward is to build a bigger tent. Democrats have to pay attention and start listening to voters with different life experiences and think about policies [through] a different lens. We need more people in Washington who believe that a “win” is thoughtful policy that benefits as many people as possible.
Q: How does your refusal to accept outside-interest money inform your approach to governance?
A: Hugely. I was the only candidate in the country who took no PAC money, no special interest money, no lobbyist money, and no money from members of Congress and their committees. I did so to be liberated. I ran to be a voice of independence, and the only way to ensure that is to forego all those dollars. I spent one week in Washington already and was at events where there were stacks of envelopes with checks in them ready to hand out. That is exactly what is wrong with this entire process. I am very intentional in my personal mandate to effect change. It’s a problem that needs to be exposed and addressed.
Q: Your campaign spent about $6 million. Is that approach sustainable without special-interest dollars? Cumulatively that’s $25 million over eight years.
A: As I said throughout the campaign, reducing the barriers for entry is my priority. We will find out if it’s sustainable. I will not take those dollars and will leave it up to voters about supporting that. It certainly makes for a steeper slope.
Q: How do you understand your role, given the Dems control the house but government is still divided in the GOP’s favor?
A: My entire campaign was centered around ethics reform, voter protection, and reforming campaign finance laws. The first bill on which I vote will be that very bill. It is foundational. I recognize my majority makes change difficult. I intend to do my utmost. My hope is to identify ways we can collaborate—on things like mental health, infrastructure.
Q: Do you see the new Congress having much to say on health care?
A: Yes, fixing the ACA is important. Ensuring that Medicare negotiates prescription drug prices is important. The area of health care that needs [effort] is our care delivery model. We spend twice as much per capita and our outcomes are mid-pack. These are not political questions; these are values questions.
Q: Southwest LRT seems to be a consensus issue in the Third. Can you help get those federal dollars released to move it forward?
A: Yes. My predecessor took no position on it. Didn’t advocate on it. I will be a very vocal proponent of Southwest and the Bottineau line, because I believe they are imperative to the future. Down to the simple fact that we send so much more to Washington than we get back. We rank 44th in return on taxes collected among the states. Southwest and Bottineau are two of the only possibilities to see an influx of federal dollars. Those are job-creating dollars. Environmental dollars.
Q: What’s your sense, big picture, of the Trump phenomenon?
A: One of the great epiphanies I had was the number of Trump supporters I met who started out as Bernie Sanders supporters. As I began to listen and understand, I realized there’s a massive appetite for disruption in this country. It was a message from people who have had enough. Many feel disenfranchised, that their vote doesn’t matter, that neither party is listening to them or representing them in Congress and the White House. The takeaway is we have an obligation to listen to those voters. That’s why campaign finance reform is a hallmark of my campaign. And both parties should take heed. The Trump phenomenon is a symptom of that disenfranchisement.
Q: The Trump critique is that the U.S. is being taken advantage of all over the world—on trade, on alliances, on immigration. Is there anything to it?
A : I think in some cases it’s absolutely true. But what I don’t see is a clear strategy. Knee-jerk reactions based on emotion are not in the best interest of this country.
Q: What values from your time in business drove your interest in government?
A: Business can and should be part of the solution to our national challenges. I grew up in businesses that made it a mandate not to make as much money as possible but to take as good of care of its employees as possible and the communities in which it does business. Business, philanthropy, and government are the three legs of our community stool. I see ways to effect some thoughtful change.
Q: You seem to have an intuitive knack for what people want. Do you look back on your business career as having a unique sense for where people are?
A: The hallmark of my professional career has been listening. And in so doing, you find opportunity. Anybody who says they’ve built a business by themselves isn’t being truthful. The same can be said for ideas. I’ve always tried to create a culture where everyone plays a role in innovating. It’s a metaphor for how I intend to serve as a representative.
Q: Government accomplishes so little in this day and age, but when it does, it is often at the behest of business. How do you see business’ role in moving government?
A: We have a system of government that makes change difficult. And it works very well at that, no question. Business can and should play a role in driving the agenda, particularly on an issue like climate change. I want businesses to take the lead on testing ideas that can benefit communities. There’s no question they are laboratories. But we need equal opportunities for citizens to share perspectives, because business is driving the entire agenda.
Q: Wages became an issue in your campaign. What role does the federal government have in setting a minimum wage?
A: I believe the current federal minimum of $7.25 is far too low. I believe in a thoughtful federal government that sets standards, but municipalities and states having authority to do better if they see fit. A $15 wage in the Third District is very different than in rural Kentucky. And we have to be cognizant of that. There is not a one-size-fits-all wage.
Q: Will you have any ongoing involvement with Penny’s?
A: My role at Penny’s is significantly reduced, but I intend to play a modest role. I’ve got great partners. It will become a family affair as well. My focus will be on my service.
Q: You represent a district with a nuanced view of the world. But a lot of the Democratic base views business as a force of exploitation. Is there a conversation between the Democratic party and business that needs to be convened?
A: Absolutely. There’s a caucus called New Dems, who are moderate and have business experience like me. I intend to engage with them. I think it’s an imperative that the Democratic Party have more business voices. I ran on a platform of a voice of change in the Democratic caucus and I intend to fulfill that. One of the ways I can do that is to be that advocate for business and fiscal responsibility, with the growing lack of that in the Republican caucus.
Race and identity
Q: Do you accept the critique popular among progressives that all politics today is about race and identity?
A: Racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism are alive and well in this country. All that said, to portray every Trump supporter as [espousing] one of those three is insulting and not true. It’s time for our country to start affording some respect to one another. So I disagree with that contention. It is an element, but not comprehensive.
Q: As an American Jew, are you surprised by the resurgence of open anti-Semitism?
A: I’m surprised and concerned about it. But it also applies to racism and sexism. We’re in a disruptive era. Anybody who thought we had overcome those challenges has gotten a slap in the face. Congress cannot legislate compassion and decency and respect and acceptance.
Q: Minnesota’s Third and Fifth districts are the only adjacent districts in the country with congressional seats held by a Muslim and a Jew. Can you and Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose positions on Israel have created concern in the Jewish community, initiate a dialogue to help advance understanding?
A: Absolutely. The seeds of that conversation have been planted. The Jewish experience is not dissimilar from the Muslim experience—generationally different, but [the Muslim community faces] some of the same challenges, same barriers, fears, and hurdles that were faced by Jewish immigrants in the 19th century. To the extent that we can reflect on that is a basis for conversation. That is how I conduct myself, and my hope is to inspire others to the same.