On Friday, when Dean Phillips signed his name on the bottom of his declaration for candidacy to run in the New Hampshire Democratic primary for president of the United States, the 54-year-old Minnesota native became the first member of Congress to challenge an incumbent president in a party primary since 1980.
Then Phillips, who as an heir to his adopted father’s nationally-known vodka company is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, stepped into his red, white and blue “Dean Phillips for President” bus and sat down for a live interview with journalist Maritsa Georgiou, also a Minnesota native, and a political correspondent for Scripps News.
The nine-minute conversational-style interview with Georgiou at a table inside Phillips’ tour bus came about 30 minutes before he delivered a more sanitized stump speech in front of media and supporters to kick off his presidential campaign. Scripps News, which isn’t available on cable or satellite TV, but is offered for free on television apps like PlutoTV or Roku, had the newly minted primary challenger to Joe Biden all to themselves.
The first question Georgiou (who graduated from St. Louis Park High School in 2003, and is the granddaughter of former KARE 11 weatherman Barry ZeVan) asked Phillips was something more than a softball, but less than a strikeout pitch.
“Since the modern primary election began in 1972, an incumbent president has never been successfully defeated by a challenger in the primary. What makes you think you can make history here?” Georgiou asked.
“First of all, there’s a first time for everything,” said Phillips, who represents Minnesota’s (west metro Twin Cities) Third District in Congress. He went on to describe the presidential nominating process as a “culture of coronation.”
“The major parties anoint people regularly, that’s the truth in the Democratic Party; I think it happens regularly. Never have we been punished by having options, by having the freedom to make a choice. I think it’s time for a new concept, a new way of doing things.”
Phillips then mentioned the mass shooting earlier in the week in neighboring Maine as a societal problem he believes he can help Congress solve as president, criticizing “Democrats fighting Republicans constantly.”
Phillips then hit on the talking points he plans to make the major themes of his campaign to unseat Biden.
“Look at the challenges we face, look at affordability, look at health care, look at our southern border, look at gun violence,” Phillips told Georgiou. “Look at all the challenges we face in this country. They are solvable, this is America, we are the greatest country in the world, but we need a new culture in Washington.”
Georgiou then shifted the conversation to the saga within Republican leadership in the House over the last month in naming a speaker.
“I don’t have to tell you what happened in the House (of Representatives) this week. How are you going to fix that when they can’t even fix that themselves?” Georgiou asked.
“I am the most bipartisan member of the entire U.S. Congress,” said Phillips, who is in the middle of his third term in the House, and his first year in the minority (after Republicans won back the majority in 2022).
“My frustration serving in Congress is that leadership has made that very difficult. Instead of pushing us together and encouraging a culture of cooperation, we literally segregate each other. That is the failure in our country right now; if we don’t change that, every one of us, then we are in trouble. But it’s not too late.”
‘The numbers are clear’: Phillips believes Biden would lose to Trump
Georgiou asked Phillips if he believes his candidacy may be harming Biden’s ability to beat Republican Donald Trump in the presidential election, should Trump win the primary.
“The numbers are very clear,” Phillips said, summarizing his takeaway from a recent ABC News poll showing Trump leading Biden, head-to-head.
“The president is likely to lose this election without any competition. That’s why I think it is so important to be an alternative.”
“I’ve spent the better part of a year encouraging others to do so. I made phone calls to others, who are better known, who have national networks already in place; they weren’t ready to do so; they weren’t ready to meet the moment right now. They are all waiting for 2028. This is when America needs you.”
“If not now, when? If not me, who?”
Felt called to elected office at the breakfast table on Nov. 9, 2016
Phillips, who often reminds people he is a Gold Star son whose father was killed in action while serving in Vietnam when he was just an infant, mentioned his family during the interview. He also discussed his subsequent good fortune after his widowed mother married Phillips Vodka owner Eddie Phillips when he was still a young child. Phillips adopted Dean as his son, and they held a close relationship, even after Dean’s mother and Eddie Phillips divorced.
He tied his presidential campaign quest to honor his father and daughters.
He said if Americans are not ready for his message, “I will have done my best, I will have fulfilled my duty and I will have honored my father, who gave his life to this country doing the exact same thing — defending freedom.” He was clear about the harm to America he said he believes another presidential term for Trump would pose.
“I woke up the morning after the 2016 election — Donald Trump had won. I was shocked. My youngest daughter was crying in her bedroom; my oldest in college was crying in her dorm. I sat at the breakfast table; I promised them I would do something.
“I raised them to be participants, not observers. I am going to do whatever I can to prevent another tragedy and most importantly to leave the past behind; the time is now.”
Minnesota DFLers react
While Phillips has intimated that he will still pursue another term in Congress if his presidential bid fails early enough, he has received his fair share of critics, both nationally and from among Minnesota’s DFL political hierarchy.
He already has a declared primary challenger in political activist and DNC national committeeman Ron Harris. And one DFL legislator this week called for Phillips to resign from his seat in Congress. Democratic St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter endorsed Harris on the same day Phillips announced his campaign. Gov. Tim Walz also threw his support behind Biden in a fundraising email Friday in which he implicitly called Phillips’ campaign “crazy” and a “political side show.”
Other well-known DFL elected office holders have expressed support for Phillips, even as they pledge their support to President Biden.
“I’m a very good friend of Dean Phillips, as well as his wife, Annalise, and at the same time I am a big supporter of the president, Joe Biden,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey in an interview on WCCO Radio, shortly after Phillips launched his presidential campaign. “This is a person who has probably done more in just a couple years of service as president, certainly, than any other president in my lifetime.”
“Sure he falls over his words, and maybe he doesn’t give the best speech all the time, but clearly (Biden) is surrounding himself with people that can help give him recommendations so that we arrive at the right decisions to move our country in the right direction.”
“I think we can feel that way and simultaneously have a whole lot of love for Dean.”
Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.