What you need to know about Dean Phillips, the Jewish congressman running for president
PoliticsLong-shot bid for Democratic nomination

What you need to know about Dean Phillips, the Jewish congressman running for president

He has staked his campaign on Biden’s unpopularity.

U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat, attends a news conference on Iran negotiations on Capitol Hill, April 06, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat, attends a news conference on Iran negotiations on Capitol Hill, April 06, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

(JTA) — Dean Phillips is running for president. And he wants to talk.

Talking runs in the Jewish Minnesota congressman’s family — his grandmother is Dear Abby. And he’s friends with Ilhan Omar, despite their polar opposite views on a range of issues, including Israel, because they like to talk things through.

Now, Phillips, 54, is hoping that penchant for dialogue will fuel his latest endeavor — a long-shot bid to defeat Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential primary.

“The greatest challenge we face right now isn’t ideology, isn’t issue based, it’s conversation, the lack of conversation,” the Minnesota Democrat said in ads for his first congressional campaign for the House in 2018, which he reupped for his presidential campaign. “And the great intention of my campaign in my personal mandate is to get people to talk.”

Phillips doesn’t differ much from Biden on policy, and hasn’t garnered any meaningful support from other elected officials or in the polls. But so far, as primary season approaches, he’s refused to back down.

Here are six things to know about Phillips as he vies against odds to be the first Jewish U.S. president.

He has staked his campaign on Biden’s unpopularity. 

Phillips’ challenge boils down to one thing: Biden’s unpopularity. He says he likes the president and appreciates his performance, but that polls show Democrats need a different nominee next year.

Biden’s approval rating is 37% and has been lower than 50% for two years, according to Gallup. Election polls show him neck-and-neck with former President Donald Trump — with some showing Trump leading in several swing states.

“The numbers are horrifying,” Phillips told CBS in an October interview. “I love Joe Biden, I want to make that clear — a remarkable man. I think he saved our country. … But that’s not what the numbers are saying now. There is an exhausted majority in America that wants neither of these candidates.”

Phillips’ platform more or less mirrors Biden’s: spurring small business growth, favoring police reforms while praising those in uniform who do their jobs well, promoting gun control and action to combat climate change.

He did depart from Biden in December on healthcare, endorsing Medicare for All, a policy championed in recent years by Sen. Bernie Sanders which would provide government-run healthcare to all Americans. Biden has campaigned in the past on expanding healthcare coverage but has not endorsed Medicare for All.

The problem Phillips faces is that hardly anyone wants to listen to him. 

When pollsters pay attention to Phillips, he garners less than 5% against Biden and even trails Marianne Williamson, the Jewish self-help author. The president leads the polls by more than 60 points.

Polls aren’t Phillips’ only problem: His campaign has raised less than $1 million. The Democratic Party is canceling primaries in key states, including North Carolina and Florida. And colleagues who enjoyed his company are now shunning him, Axios reported this week.

Phillips, who was elected to an influential leadership position in his party just a year ago, is persona non grata among some House Democrats, a few of whom were willing to diss him on the record.

“Dean Phillips is not going to win any primary,” said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the former majority leader. “I think he’s not helpful to the country.”

But Phillips is not ending his run, telling Axios that his party should have “a democracy of competition and not coronation.”

He was one of the first Jewish members of Congress to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

On Nov. 17, Phillips posted a statement that at first appeared to echo the Biden administration’s policy on Israel. It called Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel “despicable,” mourned “the resulting human tragedy in Gaza” and said “Israel has every right and expectation to target Hamas terrorists and dismantle their capability of destroying the state of Israel.”

But the statement added, “That response has taken an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians.” And it called for an “immediate and mutual ceasefire of large-scale military operations and indiscriminate terror” to be upheld by both sides.

The statement — which had several other provisions, including calling for a release of hostages, new Israeli elections and a multinational force to be stationed in Gaza — made Phillips one of the first Jewish members of Congress to call for a ceasefire.

On Dec. 11, he called for both Hamas and Netanyahu to lose power — and implicitly tied that call to his own presidential bid.

“Hamas is a clear & present danger to Israel, Palestinians, & peace, & must be destroyed,” he wrote. “Netanyahu is a clear & present danger to Israel, Palestinians, & peace, & must be democratically replaced. Earth needs a new generation of leaders to save itself.”

He has also echoed feelings of isolation felt by many Jews amid reports of rising antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas war.

“Being a Jewish member of Congress in the Democratic caucus is very difficult right now, you can imagine,” he told Bill Maher in November. “And there’s a seemingly a lack of progressive love when it comes to our doorstep. And it’s problematic.”

His grandmother was famous — and declared that he would be a Democrat.

When Phillips was born in 1969 his father, Artie Pfefer, was deployed to Vietnam and was killed six months later, never having met his son. When Phillips was an adult, he learned that his parents kept in touch through audiotapes. In one, Pfefer said, “I really love you so much and little baby Dean. I’m just getting a feeling for you and those pictures and, you know, his voice and everything. I’d really like to give him a big, big fat kiss.”

When he was 3, his mother DeeDee remarried, and Eddie Phillips, who also was Jewish, adopted Dean. Eddie’s mom was Pauline Phillips, better known as the advice columnist Dear Abby.

Phillips likes to recount that when he was 10 or so and tracking the 1980 presidential race, independent candidate John Anderson visited his school.

“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 told Roll Call last year.

“Nine years later, I was having dinner with her again, and she asked what I was going to do that summer as a junior in college,” he said. “She knew [Democratic Vermont Sen.] Patrick Leahy a bit and said I should apply for an internship on Capitol Hill. So I did, and that became the greatest summer of my life until joining Congress myself in 2019.”

His Jewish identity revolves around philanthropy, and his business career centers on gelato and coffee.

Phillips likes to cite his Minsk-born great-grandfather, Jay Phillips, as a model: He suffered antisemitism and poverty as a child in Minnesota, but would set aside pennies he earned as a newspaper delivery boy to pay for bread for the homeless.

Jay Phillips founded a distillery empire (launching, among other things, the first American-made schnapps) and helped establish Mt. Sinai hospital in Minneapolis, among other philanthropic endeavors.

Dean Phillips for a time ran the distillery, but he said his great-grandfather’s charitable work was his real calling. He has served as co-chairman of the Phillips Family Foundation.

“Our true family business is the foundation, and philanthropy is the thread that is woven through the generations,” he told TC Jewfolk, a local Jewish outlet. “My Jewishness begins with that, and the philanthropy begins with our Jewish heritage and Jay’s story of sharing the pennies.”

He quit the distillery in 2012 to run Talenti Gelato, selling it in 2014 to Unilever. He then opened two coffee shops in the Minneapolis area named Penny’s.

“We thought combining crepes with coffee was similar to gelato, which was this elevation of a product that people enjoy when they traveled to Europe and had a fondness for, but wasn’t really available widely in the U.S..” he told Forbes. “So it’s not the café; I’d like to position it more as an escape, and it just happens to serve coffee and crepes.”

That venture was not so successful: The coffee shops shuttered in 2022.

His first taste of politics was in a synagogue.

Phillips was on the board of Temple Israel, the oldest synagogue in Minneapolis, which, he told TC Jewfolk, was his “first foray into governance.” He made it sound daunting, but also portrayed it as a useful learning experience.

“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,” he said.

He believes in talking before condemning.

Phillips’s neighboring district is represented by Ilhan Omar, the firebrand Somali-American Muslim congresswoman who has drawn criticism for rhetoric some Jewish critics call antisemitic.

They occupy opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum: he has been a leading member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which brings Republicans and Democrats together to seek bipartisan compromise. She is a member of the far-left “Squad”. He is unapologetically pro-Israel; she is a fierce critic of Israel. He is all about spurring business-friendly legislation; she is allied with the Democratic Socialists of America.

Phillips has not held back when he thinks Omar deserves criticism: He was one of four Jewish Democrats who in 2021 accused her and other Squad members of echoing antisemitism for using words like “apartheid” and “terrorist” to describe Israel’s government.

But he also considers Omar a friend, according to a lengthy 2019 profile of their unlikely relationship in Politico Magazine. Just after Omar made perhaps her most notorious statement, saying support for Israel in Congress was “all about the Benjamins,” he sought her out for a face-to-face chat before issuing his own statement, despite the talk causing a delay that he said irked fellow Jewish Democrats.

“That’s how I wish more people would conduct themselves — let’s share it face to face,” Phillips told Politico. “You know, a little more talking, a little less tweeting. It’s the tweeting that gets us into trouble.”

In a fiery floor speech in February, he defended his friend when Republicans ousted her from the Foreign Affairs Committee, saying they “share a belief in debate, deliberation and reconciliation.” Then, to whoops and cheers from members of the Squad, who sat behind him as he delivered his speech, he laid into far-right Republicans for members of their conference who “encouraged an insurrection.”

The same day, Omar joined Phillips in cosponsoring a pro-Israel resolution “recognizing Israel as America’s legitimate and democratic ally.”

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