55 Things You Need to Know About Dean Phillips
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Phillips, 54, is expected to pitch himself to voters as a sprier alternative to the 80-year-old Biden, whom he has otherwise praised as “a president of great competence and success.” But given Biden’s advanced age, Phillips has argued, Democratic voters deserve “not a coronation, but … a competition.”
With Biden still the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, Phillips’ chances of winning that competition are notably slim — but not zero. According to recent polling, nearly 70 percent of Democratic voters believe Biden is too old to effectively serve another term, and 67 percent say they’d prefer a different candidate as the party’s nominee. But is a gelato-tycoon-turned-back-bench-congressman an attractive alternative?
Here, culled from (rare) media coverage and (spare) public remarks, is a definitive primer on Dean Phillips.
As a hockey fan growing up in Edina, Minn., Phillips remembers watching the U.S. Olympic Hockey team defeat the USSR in the “Miracle on Ice” game at the 1980 Olympics: “It’s a memory that will be forever seared into my mind as the moment I learned that anything was possible, no matter how challenging the circumstances or how remote the odds,” he has written.
He describes himself as a “eternal optimist.”
His net worth is approximately $124 million, making him one of the wealthiest members of the House of Representatives.
“I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world,” Phillips has said.
He was born Dean Benson Pfefer on January 20, 1969, in St. Paul, Minn.
His biological father, Arthur (Artie) Pfefer, was a captain in the U.S. Army at the time of Dean’s birth. Artie was killed in a helicopter crash in the Pleiku province in Vietnam on July 25, 1969 — before he had ever met his son.
In March 2023, Phillips visited the site of his father’s death with a U.S. delegation that included actor Woody Harrelson. “It was frightening and exciting, and something I probably could have done much sooner,” Phillips said in an interview about the trip. “Maybe I didn’t have the courage at the time.”
Family members say that Dean is the spitting image of his father.
In 1972, his mother, DeeDee, married Edward Phillips, the chairman and CEO of Phillips Distilling Company, the Minnesota-based liquor behemoth that’s credited with producing the first American-made brand of schnapps. Edward — known by his family as Eddie — was the third member of the Phillips family to run the company, which was founded by his grandfather, Jay Phillips, in 1912.
After the wedding, Eddie adopted Dean, who took his adoptive father’s last name. The adoption “brought me into a family of great achievement and high expectations,” Phillips later wrote.
Phillips’ adoptive grandmother, Pauline Phillips, was the author of the famous “Dear Abby” advice column, which she wrote under the pseudonym “Abigail Van Buren” between 1956 and 2002.
In 2022, Phillips told a reporter that Pauline was responsible for his eventual party affiliation: “When I was in the sixth grade, John Anderson, the former Republican congressman from Illinois who was running for president, came to my school and spoke. And that night, we were having a family dinner, and my grandma asked about my day and said, ‘Before you continue, are you a Democrat or Republican?’ I didn’t know. And she said, ‘You’re a Democrat.’ So she anointed me a Democrat when I was 11 years old.”
He attended the Blake School in Minneapolis, a private preparatory day school whose alumni include former U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Mark Dayton, former North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and CNN reporter Poppy Harlow.
In 1991, he earned a bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Brown University, where he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and a newscaster for the campus radio station.
He interned for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) during the summer of 1989. He later described it as “the greatest summer of my life” and credits the experience with inspiring him to run for Congress.
After college, he worked for a bicycle equipment and apparel company before joining Phillips Distilling in 1993.
While on a business trip to Poland with his father in 1993, he helped acquire the rights to two Polish vodkas, which Phillips Beverage Company began importing to the U.S. in 1996 as Belvedere and Chopin. The move is credited with introducing ‘super premium’ vodka to the American spirits market.
In 2000, after earning an MBA from the University of Minnesota, he was named the new CEO of Phillips Distilling Company.
By 2012, the company was reportedly worth over $175 million.
Phillips stepped down as CEO of Phillips Distilling in 2012 to manage a small, Texas-based gelato company called Talenti that his father had previously invested in. Talenti quickly became one of the best-selling ice cream brands in the country and was sold to the multinational packaged goods brand Unilever in 2014 for an undisclosed sum.
He has two college-age daughters — Pia and Daniella — with his ex-wife, Karin Einisman. In 2019, he married Annalise Glick, musician-turned-art-gallery-proprietor.
“Some people like Warhols,” he has said. “I like whiskey bottles.”
He and his wife have a Norwich Terrier named Henry.
He founded Penny’s Coffee, a high-end coffee and crepe shop with two locations in the Twin Cities area, in 2015. Phillips said of the business, “I’d like to position it more as an escape, and it just happens to serve coffee and crepes. And I’d like to think at some point in time, Penny’s will become a national if not perhaps international player in the coffee and mini-vacation business.”
The two shops, which boasted a $15 minimum wage for all employees, closed in 2022.
In February 2023, a former manager at Penny’s sued Phillips and his business partner for wage theft. The suit was later voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff.
Phillip’s political career began in 2018 when he challenged fourth-term incumbent Republican Erik Paulsen in Minnesota’s 3rd congressional district. The district, which includes the Western suburbs of Minneapolis, had not been represented by a Democrat since 1961.
In his first campaign, he presented himself as a “fiscally responsible, socially inclusive” moderate focused on bipartisanship and pragmatic governance. “I don’t aspire to be a politician,” he said at the time. “I aspire to be a representative.”
He also pitched his business acumen as a major selling point for voters: “I’d like to bring some of the business principles, the fiscal responsibility that I appreciate in the Republican Party, to Democrats,” he said.
“Change starts with coffee and conversation,” he said in his first TV spot, which was set at Penny’s Coffee. It also introduced his campaign slogan: “Everyone’s invited.”
He defeated Paulsen in the general election with 55.6 percent of the vote.
The first caucus he joined upon taking office was the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of business-friendly centrists that isn’t actually known for solving problems. He now serves as the caucus’ vice-chair.
His district is home to the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the Western hemisphere.
He is one of 22 Jewish Democrats currently serving in the House.
In 2019, he was criticized by other Jewish members of Congress for his delayed response to a tweet by Rep. Ilhan Omar that was widely condemned as antisemitic. Phillips later said that he wanted to speak to his fellow Minnesotan before issuing a statement: “You know, a little more talking, a little less tweeting. It’s the tweeting that gets us into trouble,” he said after speaking to Omar.
During his first term, he led two bipartisan trips to the Southern border. “What I saw was almost indescribable,” he said, following his second visit in July 2019. “I couldn’t believe that, in my own country, that people were being kept in the ways that I saw.”
In June 2019, he voted in favor of a $4.6 billion emergency aid package to address the crisis at the Southern border. Ninety-five Democrats voted against the bill, claiming it failed to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis and risked re-enforcing the Trump administration’s punitive border policies.
Phillips has said that lowering health care costs is one of his top legislative priorities, and in 2020, he co-sponsored a bill to allow residents to buy into their state Medicaid plans. The bill never advanced out of committee.
Georgetown University’s Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy ranked him the 13th most bipartisan member of the House during the 117th Congress. The ranking measures how often a member of Congress introduces bills that attract co-sponsors from the other party and how often that member co-sponsors a bill introduced from across the aisle.
He voted twice to impeach President Donald Trump. “I’m not a fan of Donald Trump’s character and principles and values,” he has said.
He has won re-election to Congress twice: In 2020, with 55.6 percent of the vote, and in 2022, with 60 percent of the vote.
He holds seats on the House Committee on Small Business, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the House Committee on Ethics, and the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
He is a fixture of the Democrats’ congressional softball team, though he admits to being “a below average baseball player and an average softball player.”
He identifies as pro-choice, though he hasn’t always been clear about his stance on abortion rights. In 2017, he reportedly told a group of voters, “I’m pro-life. And I’m also pro-choice. And I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think it’s really important to be both. And I celebrate both.”
He has voted with Biden’s stated policy positions 100 percent of the time.
“He’s a president of great competence and success, I admire the heck out of President Biden,” Phillips said in February. “And if he were 15-20 years younger it would be a no-brainer to nominate him, but considering his age it’s absurd we’re not promoting competition but trying to extinguish it.”
Phillips began agitating for a Democratic challenger to Biden in early 2023. “Nobody wants to be the one to do something that would undermine the chances of a Democratic victory in 2024,” he told POLITICO’s Jonathan Martin in February. “Yet in quiet rooms the conversation is just the opposite — we could be at a higher risk if this path is cleared.”
In May, he denounced the possibility of a third-party challenge to Biden by a candidate on the ‘No Labels’ ticket as “a historic disaster” for Democrats.
He has also criticized other third-party candidates like Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who are both running as independents. “Those people are absolutely helping Trump,” he has said.
“I think I’m well positioned to be president [of] the United States … I do not believe I’m well positioned to run for it right now,” Phillips told POLITICO in August.
In early October, he stepped down from his leadership position as the co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, citing conflicts over a potential 2024 presidential run. “My convictions relative to the 2024 presidential race are incongruent with the majority of my caucus, and I felt it appropriate to step aside from elected leadership to avoid unnecessary distractions during a critical time for our country,” he said in a statement.
After Hamas attacked Israel in early October, he said: “We need a two-state solution. We need peace and prosperity and opportunity for both Palestinians and Israelis living side by side. But right now, it is black and white. We need the United States to continue to support Israel. We need to eradicate Hamas. And we need to encourage Palestinians to elevate a leadership that can sit at the table with principle with good character, and with the intention for peace.”
During the fight over the House speakership, Phillips offered a rare olive branch to Republicans, publicly offering to “sit out” a vote if Republicans nominated fellow Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer and Emmer agreed to Democratic terms. Emmer’s bid flamed out quickly.
A campaign bus with “Dean Phillips for President” was spotted driving around Ohio on Oct. 24 — several days before Phillips officially announced his campaign.
The bus’ bumper teased Phillips’ new campaign slogan: “Make America Affordable Again.”
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