Politics

Vodka and Gelato Tycoon Challenging Minnesota’s Erik Paulsen

Did Democrats just recruit their own Stewart Mills?

Congressional candidate Dean Phillips says Democratic efforts to tie the incumbent to President Donald Trump didn't work last cycle. (Courtesy Dean Phillips for Congress)

long-haired, wealthy businessman whose last name evokes one of Minnesota’s largest family fortunes announced a run for Congress on Tuesday.

No, this isn’t the return of Stewart Mills — yet. (There’s talk the two-time Republican candidate would run again in the 8th District if Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Rick Nolan does not seek re-election.)

“I think my hair is much better than his,” Dean Phillips joked the night before announcing his candidacy. 

Phillips, a Democrat, is running for the more affluent and suburban 3rd District, currently represented by five-term GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen. He says he won’t accept political action committee money or self-fund his campaign. 

“As a father, a sixth-generation Minnesotan, and business owner, I’m concerned about the direction in which our country is headed and the people to whom we’ve entrusted leadership,” Phillips said in a statement announcing his campaign.

But he’s planning to challenge Paulsen differently than Democrats did last cycle, when they tried to tie the incumbent to the top of the GOP ticket — and failed badly. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales currently rates the race Likely Republican

Phillips was the fifth member of his family to lead Phillips Distillery Co., which his great-great-grandfather founded in 1912. Until recently, he co-owned the gelato company Talenti. He traces his political awakening back to 1980 when Illinois GOP Rep. John Anderson, an independent candidate for president that year, came to his middle school.

When Phillips told his grandmother, who just happened to be the newspaper advice columnist “Dear Abby,” about the school assembly over dinner that night, she asked her grandson whether he was a Democrat or a Republican.

“I don’t know, Grandma,” he recalled telling her.

“You’re a Democrat,” she told him.

That was advice.

Phillips went home that evening and looked up both parties in the encyclopedia. Speaking like a candidate trying to carve out a moderate profile, Phillips joked that he still doesn’t always understand the differences between the two. 

During college, Phillips interned in Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s office. Andy Slavitt, the former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama, who had also been mentioned as a possible candidate for this seat, is advising Phillips. Phillips still has to go through a district convention to secure the DFL endorsement, but candidates don’t have to abide by that endorsement.

Learning from 2016

Democrats tried to make the 3rd District competitive last cycle by using Trump. But Phillips is adamant that in order to win, he needs to run against Paulsen, not the president. 

Last cycle, Trump’s candidacy helped the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee land a recruit they’d been after for six years. Terri Bonoff, a pro-business state senator, entered the race in March 2016. Her ads said Paulsen supported Trump. 

But the comparisons to the top of the GOP ticket didn’t stick. Paulsen won re-election by 14 points even while Clinton was carrying his district by 9 points. 

Paulsen is a clean-cut, mild-mannered, former math major. He didn’t vote for Trump, saying that he instead wrote in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the general election. 

“There’s plenty about Erik Paulsen to point out that’s not fitting this district, but to argue he’s Donald Trump’s friend or henchman or a proxy is something that sensible people see through,” Phillips said.   

Phillips rattled off votes that he said have put Paulsen to the right of his district — supporting the GOP health care plan and rolling back internet privacy and some environmental regulations. “This is the district that Jim Ramstad so beautifully represented,” Phillips said, alluding to the GOP congressman whom Paulsen succeeded and whose orange and black campaign colors Paulsen has adopted.

An out-of-touch candidate?

With his shoulder-length hair and family fortune, Phillips resembles Mills, whom Democrats spent millions of dollars attacking over the course of his two runs against Nolan in the 8th District.

Mills’ fortune came from Mills Fleet Farm, a retail chain. Their merchandise is a little different from the Belvedere vodka and Talenti gelato that’s the source of Phillips’ wealth. (Phillips sold Talenti to Unilever in December.)

But in 2014, the DCCC went after Mills as a trust-fund party boy who’d never worked a day in his life. Ads repeatedly referred to him as “Stewart Mills III,” with one portraying him boarding a yacht in boat shoes, where the Mills impersonator proceeds to grill lobster tails and ice a bottle of champagne.

In the comparisons between Mills and Phillips may lie a preview of the GOP attack on Phillips, who anticipates being attacked as a “wealthy, out-of-touch man,” he said. (So far, he’s making an effort to keep in-touch; shortly before announcing his campaign, he left a comment on a Star Tribune story about him, promising to personally respond to anyone who reached out.)

By the time he ran again in 2016, Mills had lost the long locks and his family had sold off the retail chain. Democrats still accused him of inheriting his wealth and being out of touch, especially on trade and taxes, but focused less on Mills Fleet Farm given that the family business was a local success story whose philanthropic efforts were respected in the community. One DFL activist suggested that previous attacks implicating the family business may have backfired.

“The Republicans have to be really careful going down this road with Phillips for similar reasons,” the source said.

“I participated in the creation of my own wealth,” Phillips said. (He made clear that he thinks Mills contributed to his own family’s success, too). Phillips chairs his family’s two philanthropic foundations. And he co-owns an expanding coffee chain in the Twin Cities that, his campaign touts, pays a “livable wage.”

It’s worth underscoring that Minnesota’s 8th District, home to the Iron Range, is different from the Minneapolis suburbs in the 3rd District. The median household income in the 3rd District is $82,000. In the 8th District, it’s $30,000 less. In other words, Phillips’ “lumber jack chic” could fit the 3rd District better than Mill's gelled hair and Carhartt jacket fit the 8th District.

Mills also loaned more than $2 million of his own money to his 2016 campaign. Phillips doesn’t think self-funding is democratic. And he uses his pledge not to accept PAC money, of any sort, to draw a contrast between him and Paulsen. 

But self-funding is a relative term. “I will make up the difference — if I need to — from the amount I would have raised from special interests and lobbyists,” Phillips said when asked how much of his own money he was prepared to spend on the race.

That, of course, could theoretically be millions. 

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