He’s campaigned in a fish house on frozen Lake Minnetonka and a revamped 1960s milk truck and now Dean Phillips is taking his message to voters aboard a pontoon boat.
Wrapped in blue campaign signs, American flags and July 4th decorations, the boat the DFL contender for Congress dubbed the “Government Repair Pontoon” circled Excelsior Bay last week as Phillips waved to boaters.
“This is the first campaign pontoon,” said the 49-year-old businessman and first-time political candidate.
With four months to go before the election, Phillips is trying to sell himself to Third Congressional District voters who have been electing Republicans to Congress since 1961.
The contest between Phillips and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen is shaping up to be one of the nation’s most competitive races this year, and among the most expensive in the state. As he mounts his challenge, Phillips is tapping his background in marketing to drum up energy, name recognition and, he hopes, votes. For Phillips, the pontoon, the fish shack (which has become a mobile office in the summer) and the truck aren’t just gimmicks, but are meant to show he’s listening as he crosses the west metro.
“This is doing it very differently,” Phillips said of his campaign.
History is not on Phillips’ side. Paulsen has held the Third District, comprised mostly of Hennepin County suburbs, even as voters there increasingly split the ticket. It went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and President Donald Trump lost the Third by more than 9 percentage points in 2016 — one of 23 congressional districts held by Republicans that he lost.
First elected in 2008, Paulsen has won re-election four times by wide margins.
“I’ve done very well by focusing on things I’ve gotten done,” Paulsen said earlier this month, adding that his campaign is engaging more young voters; he said he also expects to be vastly outspent this campaign like other years. “But we’re working hard.”
Asked about Phillips’ attempts to market himself in fresh ways, Paulsen’s campaign manager John-Paul Yates highlighted instances where Phillips, while he ran his family’s distillery, marketed liquor to certain demographics; he cited a 2006 Houston Chronicle article where Phillips mentions “prodding” women to drink and buy whiskey, in the context of a broader piece about distillers and vintners increasing their marketing outreach to women.
Phillips’ campaign responded in a statement, saying that Phillips is proud of his family’s company, the marketing campaign and products his businesses have made in Minnesota.
“It’s disappointing that Erik Paulsen is stooping to such sad and desperate lows to hold onto his grip of power in Washington,” spokesman Richard Carlbom said, noting that the company produced an award-winning “Enjoy in Moderation” campaign.
On Phillips’ campaign, staffers talk about having “activations” in every city — a marketing buzz word used a lot during Minnesota’s Super Bowl by companies promoting a brand and engaging customers.
His campaign has an “activations coordinator.” And his Excelsior campaign office is in a classic 1910s house he calls his “conversation cottage.”
“Welcome to the new world of politics,” said Bruce I. Newman, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and author of a book on political marketing. “Branding is now becoming … the focus of politics in every campaign at every level. Absolutely it works; we have a president in office who’s a branding genius.”
In another marketing maneuver of sorts, Phillips went to a Deephaven house last week to meet a group of 75 people, mostly Republicans, some of whom have never voted for a Democrat.
“They don’t happen in campaigns,” Phillips said of events that engage voters who politically disagree. “That’s what makes this so unique. I want to represent everybody.”
Don Kuster, 54, of Deephaven is one of Phillips’ 1,000 campaign volunteers, a retired trader who voted for Paulsen all five times. “I just always checked off the Republican ticket and moved on,” he said.
When Paulsen didn’t pressure President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, Kuster said he became frustrated, and after the Parkland school shooting, the father of three didn’t like that Paulsen received NRA money.
When he heard that campaign finance reform is Phillips’ No. 1 priority, he was sold.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there like me,” said Kuster, who invited Republicans to his house to meet Phillips.
Phillips said he’s used to going up against bigger players and leveraging marketing like debuting a new brand, UV Vodka, to revitalize his family’s business. He then took over as chief marketing officer at Talenti Gelato, before starting his current business, Penny’s Coffee.
‘The underdog brand’
Now Phillips is trying to sell his brand of politics. “We’ve always been the underdog brand,” he said.
That’s where the pontoon comes in. Phillips bought the 28-foot boat for $6,100 with his own money, which he uses to putter around the bay by popular lake restaurants, participate in Wayzata’s July 4th boat parade and host supporters.
Last week, as the boat bounced in the waves, Phillips sat in a red, white and blue lawn chair and talked to five teens from his “Dean’s List” — a group of 100 students involved in the campaign.
They told him about student suicides, the need for mental health counselors and safety concerns after Parkland. After a half hour, they disembarked. But Phillips wasn’t done.
“Welcome to the Government Repair Pontoon,” he called to a couple on the dock before Kuster drove the pontoon across the lake to Phillips’ Deephaven lake home.
Phillips frequently talks about his promise not to accept money from PACs or special interest groups, announcing this month that his campaign had raised $2.2 million from about 8,000 individuals — more than any previous Democratic candidate at this point in the race. (Paulsen has raised $3.7 million over the past 18 months.) Phillips’ top donors are Heartland Realty Investors, which gave him $24,300; the investment bank Houlihan Lokey, $22,350; the law firm Robins Kaplan, $18,825; and UnitedHealth Group, which gave $15,860.
Taking his pitch to voters
On a recent July night, Phillips parked his Tesla next to the retro truck that’s plastered with his name and tagline (“Government Repair Truck”) and greeted residents walking to the Music in Plymouth community event. He posed for photos and dished out chocolate chip cookies melting in the 90-degree heat.
A woman paused with her daughter to ask why he’s running.
“I have daughters myself,” Phillips said, recalling seeing his two daughters, now 20 and 18, react in fear to Trump’s election.
One undecided voter had never heard of Phillips. Others knew his prominent family lineage; he ran into a woman who knew his father, then a man who knew his grandfather.
And then he ran into David Goldstein, 75, of Plymouth who knew Eddie Phillips, who raised Dean after his father, Artie Pfefer, died in Vietnam. (Eddie’s mother was Pauline Phillips, better known as “Dear Abby.”) Goldstein also knew the candidate’s great-grandfather Jay, who built a liquor distribution giant and started a family foundation. Goldstein said he sees the same trustworthiness and philanthropy in the youngest Phillips.
“If he’ll be anything like his great-grandfather, he’ll be the best person to run in the state of Minnesota,” Goldstein said. “He can do it.”