Dean Phillips is well known as a philanthropist and businessman, but like many others, it took Election Day 2016 to ignite a new endeavor: Political hopeful.
Phillips, the former chairman of Phillips Distilling, former owner of Talenti Gelato, and current CEO of Penny’s Coffee, announced his candidacy for Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional district earlier this month. He will be competing for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement for the 2018 election, where he is hoping to unseat Republican Erik Paulsen — who has not announced if he is running for a sixth term. Phillips sat down for a wide-ranging discussion on philanthropy, family, and Jewish values, as he embarks on a “conversation tour” across the district, starting May 30 at Southdale Library in Edina.
When people hear your profile – affluent, West Metro, businessman, entrepreneur – do they think you’re a Republican?
Many do. As you may have noticed, I’m intentionally presenting myself without a label, because labels trouble me by definition. That’s one reason I’m doing this. We allow labels to define who we are. I like the fact that some are wondering what I am, which says I’m independent-minded. But I’m a passionate Democrat.
How do you think your business background translates to a political future?
I think it’s fair to say that just because one has had success in business does not make one effective in Washington, D.C. That said, I don’t have the hubris to believe that just because I’ve been successful in my business pursuits I’d, therefore, be successful in politics. But, there are some elements that are important. First and foremost, I’ve been subjected to the very policies that are being debated in Washington. Personally, our family, and most importantly, our employees. That illuminates my perspective. Also in business, no matter what your resources are, they are limited and have to be allocated. [You have to make] those decisions about where to invest capital that make a business successful, so some of those lessons can be applied. Most of all, you have to identify opportunity and build coalitions and inspire and listen. In my experience, the best ideas come from throwing all perspectives on the table and hashing it out. I think understanding how policy affects people and how to inspire and engage will be most helpful.
How long had you considered running before now?
When I was 11 – 1980 – I was in middle school and John Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois was running as an Independent and he came to my middle school and spoke. I didn’t know a thing about politics, but I remember his words: The need for independence in government and the risk of money in politics. I went to dinner that night with my grandparents and great-grandparents, and my grandmother – Dear Abby – asked how my day was and I told her this guy came to speak to us and he’s running for president. She said ‘Before you continue, are you a Democrat or Republican?’ I said I don’t know what those are. And she said ‘You’re a Democrat.’ So I was anointed a Democrat by my Grandma Abby in 1980. That night I grabbed the family’s World Book Encyclopedia to learn what a Democrat and Republican was. When I was in college, I interned in Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) office, and to this day, he is an extraordinary senator and mensch. He shared with us the inner workings of our system and that inspired me. I thought given the right circumstances, opportunity, and need, if those intersected, I would step up. And after November, I thought for the first time seriously that this might be the time to do so.
How do you win a seat of someone who’s never really been challenged?
Not easily. The last time a Democrat won this seat was 1958. This is one of the last, true swing districts in the country. It votes for members of both parties and recognizes the need for checks and balances. It’s a very well-educated district and a moderate district. Heretofore, I don’t believe a Democrat that represents my principles and values has put his or her name in the ring. I’m fiscally-responsible, I’m socially-inclusive, and I’m independent-minded. I think that’s what voters in this district want. And what they had in Jim Ramstad. I think he represented many of the values that I bring to the table. In just a matter of months, it’s a very different world than it was last November. And it’s going to be a much different world [in November 2018]. And this district is paying attention to Erik Paulsen’s voting record. He’s positioned himself as a moderate and I believe he’s misrepresenting himself, misrepresenting the district, and his recent votes are evidence of that.
Penny’s Coffee is your latest venture; What is it about the food and beverage business that keeps drawing you in?
No matter how good or bad times are, people have to eat and drink. That’s one reason. Also, when you think about this corporate community, we’re a food market. And those are the businesses I was brought up in. We look at categories and look at where there’s an opportunity to reinvent or redesign or re-inspire. And Penny’s is another example of looking at that opportunity and if the market is zigging, we want to zag. It’s an example of not just a business endeavor: it’s a bit of a social experiment. We’re paying a livable wage. Trying to treat our people as best we can. And I wanted to learn about what it took to open and operate a small business in the urban context in Minneapolis. It’s hard. I wanted to understand that before even contemplating [running for office], which is what people face when they open their small business.
I know you didn’t just want to put your name on it or money into it; you wanted to get your hands dirty and get into it.
The only thing I’m qualified to do there is clean plates. I spent the first eight hours of the first day there doing nothing but that, and that was by design. That’s where you have to start.
I saw your daughter is going to be interning there this summer.
Daniella will be interning to learn that business. It’s a wonderful way to expose her to the enterprise.
Philanthropy goes back to your great-grandparents, and a lot in the way of medical philanthropy; why that area?
My great-grandfather Jay Phillips was a newspaper boy in Manitowoc, Wisconsin back in the early 1900s. He would tell us he’d earn a dollar or two, and take some pennies to the local baker at the end of every day and leave it so they could have some bread for the homeless people in Manitowoc. Whenever he would give us a gift, it was the expectation that we would share it with something important to us. In the 1940s, Minneapolis was one of the most anti-Semitic cities in the United States and Jewish physicians and physicians of color weren’t afforded privileges at the hospitals. Jay, along with members of the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, pooled their resources and opened Mount Sinai Hospital as a way to create the social change that was necessary. Hubert Humphrey was integral to that as well. Jay’s first significant contribution right after he started the Jay and Rose Phillips Foundation of Minnesota, was for Mount Sinai. And it was the foundation for his philanthropy. His daughter was diagnosed with polio when she was a young woman, so he recognized the need to support those with disabilities, and he was a pioneer at Courage Center. The family always tries to help those who are disadvantaged, whether it’s because of religion, race, or abilities. Medical research has always been near and dear to our families’ hearts because in the absence of government support, someone has to fill that gap and that’s how we’ve always looked at philanthropy.
Your daughter, Pia, is a Hodgkin’s survivor. How has what she went through informed your views on health care policy?
As Pia recognized during her time at Children’s was the same recognition I had, which is gratitude. How lucky we are to have the coverage. Not just the insurance coverage, but she started Pab’s Packs because she saw how few children in her hall had visitors during the day. Parents have to work and can’t do both. That absolutely has illuminated the recognition that your economic resources and successes shouldn’t dictate your health outcomes. That’s what I believe. I believe health care is a moral right, the same way we provide public education to every child in this country despite disparities, which I believe need to be rectified. Why we don’t look at health care the same is strange to me. For a country that dedicates 18% of its GDP to health care, we have the resources to do it; we just choose not to. Pia is but one source of inspiration to me in that effort.
Did you talk to your daughters about running and what this meant? What was their reaction?
They’re teenagers and it wasn’t so long ago that teens didn’t know much about world events and politics and what it means. The level of engagement now is rather extraordinary. They’re concerned about what it means. As young women, they recognize what’s at stake. There are those who think they aren’t entitled to make their own health care decisions, and those who think they aren’t entitled to the same pay for the same work as men. They see why I’m doing this, and recognize that it’s a responsibility to participate if you have that inclination and the ability to affect change. They’re supportive of this endeavor for those reasons.
This is your first time running for office but you’ve been on a synagogue board. I have to imagine that had to be an introduction to politics.
I was invited to join the board of Temple Israel and it was my first foray into governance. I had a first-hand view of what works and what doesn’t work, and most importantly how to thoughtfully assess possibilities and reform and restructure. It was enlightening because when people with great passion and different perspectives are all looking to the same end and see the means differently, that is analogous to Congress, and it requires patience and listening and conversation and the willingness to participate.
How do you find your Jewish upbringing influence your world view?
Twofold: There’s the philosophical element and the experiential element. Starting with the experiential, as a Jew in this country and being part of a family that found it important to share our story of how we got here. That goes back to Jay Phillips, who left Minsk, Belorussia, at the turn of the last century. He was so grateful to become an American and be afforded that refuge to escape the pogroms, that he, in his entire lifetime, never left the country because he was fearful of not being able to return. His love for this place was profound, and that was something he instilled in all of us. Our true family business is the foundation, and philanthropy is the thread that is woven through the generations. My Jewishness begins with that, and the philanthropy begins with our Jewish heritage and Jay’s story of sharing the pennies. It was in that environment in which I was raised. This notion of gratitude both for being here, and [Jay] would say there’s a fine line between those who succeed and those who don’t, and it’s incumbent on those who do to help others. That I very much consider being a Jewish ideal and responsibility.
Philosophically, repairing the world is incumbent on those who have the ability to speak for those whose voices are quiet, and to lead in the absence of principled leadership, and to explore and educate oneself and embody these principles we’ve practiced for millennia. That’s part of my DNA. I’ve told many that when I started studying Torah with JB Borenstein a few years ago, that I found it remarkable that despite not really previously studying it like I did with him over the course of a year, how much of it was already downloaded into me. Recognizing that takes intention over generations to do. That’s my worldview: Gratitude and intention and I intend to perpetuate that.
As you do these meetings, what are you hearing from the people in the district that are important to them?
What is most often brought up first is the direction of the country, and this is amongst Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. People are concerned about the principles of our president and the direction in which he is leading us. I believe it’s an apolitical issue; it’s an issue of principle and values. That’s the issue that’s first and foremost on people’s minds. Health care, because of the recent vote – in my estimation a really abhorrent vote – is on people’s minds. I’m hearing from some who will be affected personally by changes to the ACA, but I’m hearing more from people who will not be affected, who have the means to provide for themselves, who are afraid of what that means for those who cannot take care of themselves. Those are the two issues that are pervasive right now. I intend to do a lot more listening and soon will be articulating policies that are thoughtfully solution-driven.
What’s the biggest challenge in this venture?
The personal undertaking is monumental. No matter how much one is prepared for it, or believes he or she knows what’s ahead, rest assured there’s no way one can be totally prepared for this. But I’ve never felt so driven by an important mission in my entire life. When you have conviction you can make a difference and what you’re doing is for the right reasons and you can be a source of solutions and bridge-building, it’s extraordinary how that path becomes paved in ways that it might otherwise not have. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable for my friends and my family, and certainly for me. It requires a lot of fortitude. It’s been a wonderful personal test that I know is only a few weeks old. There’s a lot of tough days ahead. This is the most American thing you can do in times like these, which is to participate. I feel like it’s a responsibility and I’m eager for the test.
Jay would’ve been proud of that statement.
When I was 6 months old, my birth-father Artie Pfefer was killed in Vietnam. His dad was a salesman for Temple Wine and died when Artie was 10-years-old. He was raised by his mother, Ruth, who worked at a department store to make ends meet. He went to college on a ROTC scholarship at the University of Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota law school Magna Cum Laude, and he served only because of duty to country. Part of this is to serve them: Jay, my dad Artie, my dad Eddie, and most importantly those I didn’t know, who sacrificed more than I could imagine to put us in the position to succeed and prosper. They would never have imagined for it to be possible that one of their offspring, generations down the road, would be running for this seat.
Editor’s note: While TC Jewfolk will not be endorsing candidates in this or any race, we will profile Jewish candidates to introduce them to the community. If you’re a Jewish candidate for statewide office and would like to be profiled, let us know! Also, in the interest of full disclosure, the Jay and Rose Phillips Foundation of Minnesota has donated to Jewfolk Media, Inc., the parent organization of TC Jewfolk.