Tell me whether you met a congressional candidate from your district at his or her own booth at the State Fair. If you say you did, I’ll tell you in which district you live.
This trick requires no clairvoyance. The only fairgoers who could say yes live in the Third District, because the only congressional candidate who sprang for a booth of his own at this year’s fair was DFLer Dean Phillips.
That’s a small way — albeit a telling one — in which Phillips is standing apart from the congressional challengers’ pack as he seeks to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.
What’s telling about a booth at the fair? It was Phillips’ way of practicing the difference he preaches. He says members of Congress ought to spend more time meeting, talking with and listening to their constituents, and less time raising money from special interests.
The same message propels his campaign’s signature “government repair” truck, pontoon boat and ice house, he says. They are the tools and emblems of a candidate who says he’s running against not only a five-term incumbent, but also a voracious political-industrial complex that has wedged itself between elected officials and the people they represent.
Phillips, 49, is either naive or brave enough — or both — to make the revival of grass-roots politics a prominent campaign theme.
Some would add “rich enough” to that last sentence. It’s easy to ask other politicians to stop dialing for dollars, they’d say, if you’re a candidate who can write your own campaign a fat check.
Phillips can. He hails from the Phillips Distilling family and fortune, though he’s the son of a soldier who died in Vietnam. His widowed mother married Eddie Phillips when the candidate was a small child. Dean Phillips held leadership posts in the family’s liquor and gelato businesses before founding Penny’s coffee shops two years ago.
But Phillips says he has given his campaign just $5,400 plus the use of his office, pontoon boat and 1960s-vintage milk truck. The rest of the $3 million he says he has raised has come from 59,000 donors, “at an average of $28 and change per investment,” he said. He refuses to accept donations from special-interest political action committees, business or labor. What’s more, he said, his campaign would return the money he put into the effort if Paulsen would similarly agree to reject special-interest money.
Paulsen has declined to do so. The incumbent, who was a 14-year state legislator before running for Congress in 2008, raised $3.7 million over the past 18 months, with hefty sums coming from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
When I lured Phillips to a quiet sideyard picnic table at the fair Monday, he confessed what I suspected: The Democratic Party’s congressional campaign brain trusters have resisted his decision to pound hard on the campaign finance issue.
(Operatives in both parties have told me for years that voters don’t care about money in politics. That’s funny, I’d generally reply. Minnesotans have told me for years that they hate the hold that big spenders have on what is supposed to be their government.)
The national pols didn’t deter him, Phillips said. The 2016 election left him convinced that the way Americans practice and pay for politics should change.
“We have a system that promotes the spending of time with people and organizations of great means, at the expense of everyday people,” he said. What’s more, “we’ve transferred power to people who have a singular interest, who have no interest in building coalitions or broad appeal. That’s led to the destruction of conversation,” which he considers an essential fuel for democracy.
President Donald Trump’s ascendancy is the result, Phillips contends. Trump won in part because “he was campaigning for people. Hillary Clinton was campaigning for money.” Seeing that in 2016 “was really an epiphany for me,” Phillips said. “I promised myself, we’re going to do this differently.”
Terri Bonoff, the Third District’s DFL candidate in 2016 and a 10-year state senator, spent considerable money and effort attempting to link Paulsen to Trump. She lost by 14 percentage points, even as Clinton carried CD3 by nearly 10 points.
Phillips isn’t following Bonoff’s playbook. Oh, he’s happy to fault Paulsen for voting Trump’s way on health care and taxes. But the challenger lights up when he talks about campaign reform. He’d like to sponsor a constitutional amendment to end the flow of corporate money into campaigns and allow for a cap on campaign spending. He wants to make Election Day a national holiday and move it to a weekend, to boost participation. He favors making it easier for voters to see who’s paying for politics and easier for candidates of modest means to run. He’s a fan of ranked-choice voting.
He’s testing whether ideas like those can drive votes his way in November. As recently as a few weeks ago, he said, he felt like “a lonely advocate.” Then on the same memorable Aug. 21, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted of tax and bank fraud, Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance and other violations, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., was charged with misuse of campaign funds — and “interest skyrocketed,” Phillips reported.
He wasn’t alone in seeing the change. The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll conducted Aug. 23-28 found that “corruption in Washington” had surged to the No. 1 spot on the list of American voters’ concerns.
If those numbers persist — and Trump seems to be doing all he can to make it so — Democratic congressional campaign operatives might change their tune about the first-time candidate in Minnesota’s Third District and his preferred campaign theme.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.