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Most politicians try to be everyone’s friend. But Dean Phillips is trying very, very hard.

His opponent, third-district Republican Erik Paulsen, has a reputation for dodging constituents with differing opinions. Phillips seems committed to the opposite approach.

The centerpiece of Dean Phillips’ campaign is cleaning up Washington with a slate of campaign finance and good government reforms.
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach

Dean Phillips swore that he didn’t plant the man wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat in his path at the State Fair last week, as he emerged from an interview at the WCCO booth into the sunlight of the fair’s first morning.

But it was an awfully convenient opportunity for a candidate running on the campaign slogan “everyone’s invited!” and whose first campaign ad suggests there’s nothing wrong with politics that a little “coffee and conversation” can’t fix.

Phillips, who owns Penny’s Coffee in Minneapolis, is usually not without coffee: there was plenty of free cold brew at his pristine booth across from the Kidway on Cooper Street. And Phillips finds it hard to be without conversation, too, and there certainly was plenty of it when he made a beeline for a red cap-wearing Trump supporter who had listened to his interview with WCCO’s John Hines.

The man, who introduced himself as Tony from Rogers, lamented the consequences of being a Trump supporter in this day and age, telling Phillips that after the migrant family separation crisis took hold, a family friend told him it’d be better if he did not come to a party he’d been invited to at his home.

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Phillips, in his fair uniform of a blue polo and blue Nike sneakers, nodded. “I’m sad about that,” he said. As Tony went on to complain that people he doesn’t know call him a racist — “I voted for Amy Klobuchar,” he said — and observed that African-Americans are the group most intolerant of gays and lesbians, Phillips continued to listen.

The Democrat, who is running for the 3rd Congressional District seat, had a pitch in hand to perhaps appeal to this Trump supporter: he touted himself as an independent-minded representative who would work hard, and beyond that, someone who would work to clean up a Washington style of special interest politics that Tony’s preferred candidate calls the Swamp.

Tony listened, and said he’d consider voting for Phillips, even if he might be “full of shit.” Hustling to get some sweet corn after parting ways, Phillips said there was a lot that the man said that he didn’t like. “But I listened, he listened. Here is a guy who is a big Trump supporter who voted for Amy Klobuchar, and is willing to listen and willing to have a conversation.”

This earnest, civic-minded approach defines Phillips’ campaign for Congress in this west metro district, which is among the most affluent and well-educated parts of the country. Like other candidates, Phillips will talk about his ideas about health care, immigration, and gun violence. But the heart of his campaign is less a policy and more of an attitude: appearing positive, inclusive, accessible — inviting everyone and anyone, even Tony from Rogers, to the conversation.

The race in CD3 will be among the most-watched in the country, as Democrats seek to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Phillips’ opponent, incumbent GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, has coasted to easy wins here — even in 2016, as Hillary Clinton carried CD3 by nine points — thanks to a careful reputation as a bipartisan-minded moderate.

But Paulsen has taken criticism for not being accessible to his constituents and, in Democrats’ eyes, his reliance on special interests to bankroll his campaigns. Phillips doesn’t think all of Paulsen’s ideas are bad. But he thinks he hasn’t invited enough people in — and he’s betting that he can beat him by doing better.

Votes vs. quotes

Phillips talks often about being an independent congressman who would be unafraid to buck his party: his stances, like saying the Republican tax cut bill should not be repealed but rather reworked to help the middle class, don’t fit neatly into the rhetoric of most Democratic candidates running this year.

He speaks often of his admiration for Jim Ramstad, the Republican congressman who represented the west metro for two decades, and talks about support he’s earned from Republicans in the year he’s been running for Congress.

But for most of his life, Phillips has been a key national donor for Democrats. A scion of Minnesota’s Phillips distilling dynasty, who went on to become a successful gelato and coffee entrepreneur in his own right, has cut over $300,000 worth of checks to Democratic causes and candidates in the last 15 years.

He has contributed to his would-be colleagues in the Minnesota congressional delegation, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to prior DFL challengers to Paulsen, like Terri Bonoff. He’s given to candidates from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, and was a leading “bundler” for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, generating as much as $500,000 in contributions.

A millionaire member of a wealthy family and a prolific Democratic donor might seem an unusual torch-bearer for a campaign centered on limiting the influence of the wealthy donor class and of moneyed special interests.

But the centerpiece of Phillips’ campaign is cleaning up Washington with a slate of campaign finance and good-government reforms that he is hoping will resonate with CD3’s centrist-minded voters in this election climate, already dominated by record election spending and stories of excesses from the Swamp.

Phillips says it makes perfect sense how his background as a sought-after Democratic money man has informed his views on money and inclusivity in politics. “I saw how this system operates, saw how much time candidates spend with people of means,” Phillips said, clutching an ear of lightly-buttered corn. “I saw how a system was working that is not serving the people it’s supposed to. In no small part, that illuminated why I’m making these proposals now.”

Dean Phillips

MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey
Dean Phillips speaking to passersby at his booth at the 2018 Minnesota State Fair.

Those proposals are compiled into a package that Phillips calls “the Minnesota Way,” which outlines ground rules for how campaigns should limit special interest influence: shunning and returning contributions from PACs, lobbyists, and members of Congress, pledging to match outside interest group spending with charitable donations, and committing to regular public forums.

Phillips has already committed to declining money from PACs, lobbyists, and members of Congress — something that has drawn the attention of national media like the New York Times — and says he’ll refuse to use his own personal fortune to finance his campaign if Paulsen agrees to his “Minnesota Way” pledge.

Of the issues listed as “Dean’s priorities” on his campaign website, campaign finance reform is first, and there he outlines a series of proposed reforms, from clearer disclosure of who funds political campaigns to lowering limits on how much individuals can give to campaigns.

The 49-year old Democrat is holding up his opponent as exhibit A for why these reforms are needed. Paulsen, a former state house GOP leader from Eden Prairie, has served in Congress since 2009 and has remained safe, cultivating an image as a wonky, detail-oriented moderate who is eager to work with anyone.

But Phillips argues that the truth is that Paulsen does not represent this centrist district — rather, he represents the powerful special interests that bankroll his campaigns. “His quotes do not match the votes,” he told MinnPost.

The Republican congressman, who serves on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is known as a prolific fundraiser. According to OpenSecrets, which tracks political fundraising, Paulsen has raised over $2 million from PACs, the sixth-most of any member of the House. (In total, Paulsen has raised $3.8 million as of mid-July, while Phillips has raised $2.5 million.)

“My argument is, and I think most people agree, when any entity or interest affords an individual campaign account hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, there are quid pro quos attached to that,” Phillips says. “It creates access, it buys access, it certainly creates a dynamic or relationship where you have an obligation.”

Phillips brought up the GOP tax bill, passed last year, as an example, connecting $400,000 in donations to Paulsen from the pharmaceutical industry to the congressman’s role in crafting and supporting legislation that included big benefits for the industry.

“You can start drawing dotted lines from the money,” Phillips said, “whether it’s the gun lobby or big pharma or Wall Street, to the votes.”

The rich-guy playbook

Phillips’ upbeat disposition and sleek, sunny campaign — his website features a photo of the grinning candidate pouring coffee in the light of a glowing sunset — radiate earnestness. Phillips, typically dressed in suburban-dad chic with his longish hair tucked behind his ears, is a studied listener who remarks often that his campaign’s tagline of “everyone’s invited!” is more than a slogan.

Making campaign finance and clean politics a centerpiece of his campaign, Phillips would have voters believe, is not born out of good politics — though the issue certainly polls well — but his conviction that it’s simply the right thing to do. (When asked what has surprised him most about his year on the campaign trail, Phillips spoke about the “remarkable community” that exists in CD3.)

If Phillips comes off a bit like the pure-hearted do-gooder Leslie Knope, the main character on the popular sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” the Democrat’s foes would like CD3 voters to think of him more like the craven and superficial Bobby Newport, Knope’s rival in fictional Pawnee, Indiana, who ran for office multiple times thanks to the fortune of his family’s villainous candy empire. (Paulsen’s campaign manager made the comparison himself on Twitter.)

So far, Paulsen and his GOP allies are working to define Phillips, a first-time candidate, as an out-of-touch rich guy. At an August 21 debate at the Twin West Chamber of Commerce, an influential business organization in corporate-heavy CD3, Paulsen defended the tax cut bill as necessary to ward off a recession, and said “people like Dean Phillips and those who are well off will do fine under those circumstances.”

They have also argued that Phillips is a hypocrite on the issue most important to his bid: campaign finance. Beyond dismissing his “Minnesota Way” as a gimmick, Paulsen and his supporters, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC that has had a field office in CD3 for months, have put a spotlight on the millions of dollars in outside Democratic spending that are expected to deluge the district on Phillips’ behalf.

“Dean Phillips is a massive hypocrite on his number one issue,” said John-Paul Yates, Paulsen’s campaign manager. “While he claims not to accept PAC and super PAC money, he’s silent as they spend money on his behalf and he invites them to campaign with him.”

Republicans have also homed in Phillips’ relatively modest campaign self-funding — about $30,000 — drawing a line from that to the candidate’s personal investments in energy and pipeline projects, outlined in his financial disclosure report. (Phillips says he won’t contribute a dime to his campaign if Paulsen signs the “Minnesota Way” pledge.)

In Paulsen, Phillips is taking on an able opponent who has weathered good and bad election cycle for Republicans without much fanfare. In 2016, as Hillary Clinton carried CD3 by nine points, Paulsen dispatched Terri Bonoff by double digits.

“I know it’s a tough ask,” Phillips says of his race. “As someone who hasn’t done this before, I don’t have a benchmark.”

Paulsen or Trump on the ballot?

But in an election cycle widely interpreted as a referendum on President Trump’s first two years, and one in which Democrats are favored to capture the House of Representatives, Paulsen is facing what is likely his toughest challenge yet in Phillips.

Political prognosticators like the Cook Political Report rank the CD3 race as one of two dozen true toss-up contests, and a prediction model built by the data website FiveThirtyEight rates Paulsen as the underdog.

Given the anti-Trump national mood and the leanings of CD3, Paulsen has been circumspect in handling the president, who he says he did not vote for after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tapes in October 2016. He has criticized Trump, though infrequently, on broadly unpopular moves like separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

For his part, Phillips would rather the election be a referendum on Paulsen, not the president, who he says Paulsen has failed to check as a member of the GOP majority in Congress.

“I’m running against Erik Paulsen and I’m running against a man who, in my estimation, has failed to represent the principles and values of a district that is begging for it. It is a district in which the overwhelming majority of voters are appalled by the behavior of this president, and his lack of character.”

He said that Paulsen has lost his way after spending nearly a decade in Washington. “I do think people change over time, and I think he’s a perfect example of someone who has,” he said of his opponent. “I think in his heart he does want the best for the country. I think the money that’s used to support that campaign and the responsibilities to the money have superseded those principles.”

This focus on cleaning up politics has benefited Democrats before, says Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy for Common Cause, a democracy reform group. In 2006, in the wake of the scandal surrounding power-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Democrats ran on anti-corruption platforms to huge wins in that year’s midterms.

Spaulding says he’s noticed an uptick in candidates like Phillips who are leaning on this message, which he says is increasingly popular among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. “There’s a skepticism about a lot of policy priorities and whether they’ll pass if you don’t start with fundamental repairs,” he said.

Showing up on election day

Indeed, Phillips’ goal is nothing short of repairing government: he tools around the district in a converted, 1960s-era milk truck he calls the “Government Repair Truck;” he’s also ferried a “Government Repair Pontoon” around the Lake Minnetonka enclave of Deephaven he calls home.

He has his eye toward healing politics, too: Though this district is not home to many Trump supporters, Phillips seems like he’s spent time thinking about how to reach them. At the state fair, he did give Trump-supporting Tony from Rogers his personal email and said he wanted to hear from him. (“We have a lot of work to do together,” the candidate said.)

“My epiphany is there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us,” Phillips says. “It sounds cliche, but I’ve come to discover that’s what Trump supporters, Republicans, libertarians, and independents and Democrats, if we focus on outcomes, most of us agree.”

Jim Aune, a 45-year veteran of the Phillips distilling company, watched Phillips cut his teeth learning every aspect of the business when he returned back to Minnesota from Brown University in the early 1990s. Phillips talks about working his way up the ranks of the liquor company before launching the Talenti Gelato brand, now stocked in grocery store freezers around the country.

Aune, who calls himself a conservative, jokes that he’s the chairman of the Ham Lake Republicans for Phillips. And he’s not surprised that the ambitious young man who learned the names of everyone on the bottling line is now running for office. “He’s very sincere in what he’s doing,” he says. “I have no qualms in backing him. He’s a guy who’ll walk his talk.”

Heading back to his booth for a morning of fair retail politics, Phillips recalled Trump’s lone visit to Minnesota, in which he packed a hangar at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport a few days before the election. It seemed different than Clinton’s campaign, to him. “I think we have a responsibility, candidates and elected officials, to show up and invite people,” he said.

“The only people that bother me the most are the people who choose not to participate,” he said. “That’s why our slogan is, ‘everyone’s invited.’ A lot of the hard work the campaign is doing is extending invites to people who haven’t been participants before, because they haven’t been invited!”

Phillips is betting that if everyone shows up, it’ll mean a win for him on election day. “I get this sense this country got a very unanticipated wakeup call in 2016,” he said. “While it’s very disruptive, very disenfranchising to some, anxiety-provoking for many, I think it’s going to be a blessing.”