Dean Phillips, an heir to a Minnesota liquor fortune who later helped launch a successful gelato brand, said Monday he’s preparing to run for Congress as a DFLer next year against U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.
Phillips of Deephaven said he’d officially launch a campaign in the coming days. “I’m concerned about the direction in which our country is headed,” he said in an interview.
Paulsen is a fifth-term Republican from Eden Prairie and a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He declined through a spokesman to comment on Phillips’ candidacy.
Phillips, 48, said he started to think about a political career after the last election. In December, he finalized the sale of Talenti, a gelato beloved by connoisseurs and notable for its glamour pricing, to Unilever. His family for decades built Phillips Distilling Co., founded in 1912 by his great-great-grandfather, into a major spirits company.
“I think that experience building businesses and taking care of employees and enriching communities where we do business are principles the district and the country can put to use,” he said.
His timeline for running accelerated, Phillips said, after Paulsen voted with the GOP majority last week to approve a major health care overhaul. Republicans including Paulsen called it a necessary first step to repealing provisions ofthe Affordable Care Act, but critics called it a tax cut for the wealthy financed by slashing health care for the poor.
“I would not argue that existing law doesn’t require modification. But the bill just passed by the House is woefully misguided and not the answer to the challenge,” Phillips said.
The Third Congressional District is largely made up of western Hennepin County suburbs. Paulsen has comfortably won re-election in recent years, most recently over former state Sen. Terri Bonoff. But national Democrats see him as vulnerable — his district voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and last year Donald Trump lost there to Hillary Clinton by more than 35,000 votes.
Luke Hellier is a Lakeville City Council member who formerly worked as Paulsen’s district outreach coordinator. He questioned whether Phillips, with his business background, would appeal to DFL activists newly energized by President Trump. Another name in the DFL mix in the third is Andy Slavitt, a top aide to Obama who lives in Edina and in recent weeks has been relentlessly, publicly critical of Republicans over health care.
Hellier said the 2016 election showed Paulsen’s ability to connect with the district. Brooklyn Park lies in the northern part of the district, which stretches west to Maple Plain and south to Bloomington. Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and parts of Edina are also in the district.
Paulsen has staked out a relatively moderate political profile for the changing suburban district: He refused to endorse Trump, and said he wrote in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the general election. But his voting record is conservative. He made repealing the medical device tax a signature issue; nearly 30,000 Minnesotans work in the industry, which has fought hard for repeal since passage of the ACA in 2010.
The medical device repeal was included in the health care bill House Republicans passed last week.
Phillips is the grandson of Pauline Friedman Phillips, who for decades was known to millions of newspaper readers as the advice columnist “Dear Abby.” The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation is a major philanthropic force in Minnesota. Phillips continues to own Penny’s Coffee in downtown Minneapolis, with plans to open a second and possibly a third location.
The company has voluntarily adopted a $15 minimum wage.
“Business is a means to an end — a chance to reward those who make it possible, including the communities in which we do business,” he said.
Phillips said he felt fated to public service. Born on the day Richard Nixon was inaugurated, Phillips was adopted by his family after his father died in combat in Vietnam.