Dean Phillips was only halfway through the farmers market in Brooklyn Park and he’d already bought what looked like one of those strange cooking challenges on the television show “Chopped.” Bitter melon. Green pumpkins. Hot Asian peppers. Pretzels, dark honey and jam.
He had asked a vendor, Phen Hli, how to cook the bitter melon, which led to a discussion about local politics.
“I’m a Democrat, and I’m running for U.S. Congress,” Phillips said. “If you want to get some friends together, I’ll come over and talk to you.”
“I’ve heard about you,” said Hli. “I’ll definitely call.”
Phillips, who is running in the Third District against Republican incumbent Erik Paulsen, was making a point. While Paulsen has dodged personal interaction in favor of safe venues and phone-in town halls, Phillips has been taking his underdog campaign to the people. He turned heads at the farmers market by arriving in a 1960 International Harvester milk truck, emblazoned with his name and the tag line: “Government Repair Truck.”
The date is significant: 1960 is the last time a Democrat represented the Third Congressional District. It’s also a nod to Phillips’ marketing background. The former CEO of Phillips Distributing, he’s successfully launched and sold several other brands. The milk truck, he said, “hearkens back to a time that people see as more collegial, friendly, collaborative — a lot of the principles I hope to bring to the discourse.”
Phillips knows it’s an uphill battle, but he’s been there before. He successfully brought the upscale Belvedere Vodka brand from Poland to compete against Stolichnaya, and he introduced Talenti Gelato to compete against giants Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs. His recent business, a gleaming downtown Minneapolis coffee shop, Penny’s Coffee, is a direct challenge to Starbucks and Caribou Coffee.
“I don’t undertake anything that doesn’t resonate with possibility,” Phillips said.
Phillips has an intriguing background. His father, Artie Pfefer, died in combat in Vietnam when Phillips was 6 months old, the beginning of what could have been a tragic life. Phillips’ mother kept audiotapes of her husband sent from abroad, and Phillips has them stored on his phone so he can still listen to his dad’s voice.
His mother later married into the Phillips family, which owned Phillips Distilling Co., and he went from being a poor kid living with his mom and great-grandparents to moving in with Eddie Phillips, who adopted Dean into a life of privilege, wealth and philanthropy.
“It was the greatest stroke of good luck a kid could imagine,” Phillips said. “As I consider why I am doing this, I am recognizing a debt of gratitude for that, and to acknowledge there is a very, very thin line between advantage and disadvantage.”
Phillips said the family became Democrats in the 1930s, when Minneapolis was extremely anti-Semitic. Hubert Humphrey made his platform about civil rights and he “elevated both the African-American and Jewish communities,” winning over Phillips’ great-grandfather. Advice columnist Dear Abby (Pauline Phillips, aka Abigail Van Buren) was Phillips’ grandmother. She and her sister, Ann Landers, vocally fought against Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Phillips sees a lot of similarities between the 1950s and today, and he’s now fighting against the policies and tone of the Trump administration.
Phillips said John Anderson, who ran for president as an Independent in 1980, was the first politician who inspired him. When he told that to his grandmother, she firmly told him which party he was to favor. “So Dear Abby anointed me a Democrat when I was 11,” Phillips said.
The family instilled in Phillips a deep sense of duty to community, and he volunteered as a kid, but they were also dedicated business owners with an eye on the bottom line. Phillips got his MBA at the University of Minnesota and eventually became the CEO of his family’s company.
“We see business as a means to an end, with the end being sharing our success with our employees and community,” he said. “Philanthropy is probably our true family business now.”
It was Phillips’ great-grandfather Jay who told him, “Money is like manure; if you stack it up, it stinks. Spread it around and it fertilizes.”
Phillips pays his workers at Penny’s $15 an hour, but does not provide health care because it would cause him to lose money. He doesn’t favor the city’s mandatory $15 wage either, because it’s a nuanced issue.
“It’s in the best interests of this country to elevate the most disenfranchised among us,” Phillips said. “When a municipality looks to legislate a minimum wage that high on an island, my fear as a business owner is that it will lead to inefficiencies that will cause shorter hours, fewer workers or migration away to a few blocks away in Golden Valley. I’m trying to be a voice of reason, and that means there is a lot of ‘Yes, but …’ ”
While the Third District has been dominated by Republican representatives, it went for Barack Obama twice and chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Phillips sees an opening, particularly after Paulsen voted for a House health care bill that would have negatively affected the district.
Phillips, who once served on Allina Health’s board, believes in viable private health insurance options but also thinks patients should be allowed to choose a public option to ensure care.
“I believe health care is a right,” he said.
Unlike a lot of candidates, Phillips doesn’t say he’s going to Washington to run government like a business. He will bring business instincts and fiscal responsibility, but he said CEOs who try to order edicts from above soon learn “that we have a democratic system that is specifically designed to prevent that.”
At the market, two women chatted with Phillips about their fears involving the current administration and thanked him for being visible. Phillips asked vendors about their businesses and complimented them on their marketing skills. He noted that the owner of the honey he bought had put his first name and telephone number on the jar.
“This is great, just great,” Phillips said with admiration. “You know I’m going to call the guy. You know I will.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin