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Dean Phillips takes his campaign on the road — and lakes — hoping to unseat Rep. Erik Paulsen

July 25, 2018

Hes campaigned in a fish house on frozen Lake Minnetonka, a revamped 1960s milk truck and now, Dean Phillips is taking his message to voters aboard a pontoon boat.

Wrapped in blue campaign signs, American flags and July 4th decorations, the boat the DFL contender for Congress dubbed the Government Repair Pontoon circled Excelsior Bay last week as Phillips waved to boaters.

This is the first campaign pontoon, said the 49-year-old businessman and first-time political candidate.

The race in Minnesotas Third Congressional District is shaping up to be one of the nations most competitive races and most expensive in the state this year. As Phillips mounts his challenge to Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, hes tapping his background in marketing to drum up energy, name recognition and, he hopes, votes. For Phillips, the pontoon, the fish shack (which has become a mobile office in the summer) and the truck arent just gimmicks, but are meant to show hes listening as he crosses the west metro.

This is doing it very differently, Phillips said of his campaign.

The former CEO of his familys Phillips distillery is also trying to strike a contrast to Paulsen, a five-term Republican whos been criticized for not being accessible enough to constituents, especially at town halls. Phillips hopes his tactics will be the winning strategy that five DFL challengers before him failed to do: beat Paulsen on this suburban turf.

On Phillips campaign, staffers talk about having activations in every city a marketing buzz word used a lot during Minnesotas Super Bowl by companies promoting a brand and engaging customers. His campaign has an activations coordinator. And his Excelsior campaign office is in a classic 1910s house he calls his conversation cottage.

Welcome to the new world of politics, said Bruce I. Newman, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and author of a book on political marketing. Branding is now becoming ... the focus of politics in every campaign at every level. Absolutely it works; we have a president in office whos a branding genius.

In another marketing maneuver of sorts, Phillips went to a Deephaven house last week to meet a group of 75 people, mostly Republicans, some of whom have never voted for a Democrat before.

They dont happen in campaigns, Phillips said of events that engage voters who politically disagree. Thats what makes this so unique. I want to represent everybody.

Phillips doesnt have history on his side. Republicans have held the Third District, comprised largely of Hennepin County suburbs, since 1961. Voters often split the ticket, voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Trump lost the Third by more than 9 percentage points in 2016 one of 23 congressional districts held by Republicans that he lost.

First elected in 2008, Paulsen has won re-election four times by wide margins.

Ive done very well by focusing on things Ive gotten done, Paulsen said earlier this month, adding that his campaign is engaging more young voters; he said he also expects to be vastly outspent this campaign like other years. But were working hard.

In response to critics saying Phillips tactics are just engaging like-minded voters, Phillips pointed to his campaigns 1,000 volunteers. One is Don Kuster, 54, of Deephaven, a retired trader who voted for Paulsen all five times. I just always checked off the Republican ticket and moved on, he said.

When Paulsen didnt pressure President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, Kuster said he became frustrated, and after the Parkland school shooting, the father of three didnt like that Paulsen received NRA money. When he heard that campaign finance reform is Phillips No. 1 priority, he was sold.

I think theres a lot of people out there like me, said Kuster, who invited Republicans to his house to meet Phillips. Im a real big believer hes got a story to tell to people who are moderate Republicans.

The underdog brand

Phillips said hes used to going up against bigger players and leveraging marketing like debuting a new brand, UV Vodka, to revitalize his familys business. He then took over as chief marketing officer at Talenti Gelato, before starting his current business, Pennys Coffee, which competes with chains like Caribou Coffee.

Now he has to sell his brand of politics.

Weve always been the underdog brand, he said.

Phillips frequently talks about his promise not to accept money from PACs or special interest groups, announcing this month that his campaign had raised $2.2 million from about 8,000 individuals more than any previous Democratic candidate at this point in the race. (Paulsen has raised $3.7 million over the past 18 months.)

And then theres the pontoon. Phillips bought the 28-foot boat for $6,100 with his own money, which he uses to putter around the bay by popular lake restaurants, participate in Wayzatas July 4th boat parade and host supporters.

Its this notion of making this fun and making sure people want to participate, Phillips said of his campaign.

Last week, as the boat bounced in the waves, Phillips sat in a red, white and blue lawn chair and talked to the five teens from his Deans List a group of 100 students involved in the campaign. They told him about student suicides, the need for mental health counselors and safety concerns after Parkland. After a half-hour, they disembarked. But Phillips wasnt done.

Welcome to the Government Repair Pontoon, he called to a couple on the dock before Kuster drove the pontoon across the lake to Phillips Deephaven mansion.

Taking his pitch to voters

On a recent July night, Phillips parked his Tesla next to the retro truck thats plastered with his name and tagline Government Repair Truck and greeted residents walking to the Music in Plymouth community event. He posed for photos and dished out chocolate chip cookies melting in the 90-degree heat.

Hi, Im Dean Phillips, Im running for Congress, said Phillips, clad in a blue dress shirt and pants.

A woman paused with her daughter to ask why hes running.

I have daughters myself, Phillips said, recalling seeing his two daughters, now 20 and 18, react in fear to Trumps election. And I just had to run.

One undecided voter had never heard of Phillips. Others knew his prominent family lineage; he ran into a woman who knew his father, then a man who knew his grandfather. And then he ran into David Goldstein, 75, of Plymouth who knew Eddie Phillips, who raised Dean after his father, Artie Pfefer, died in Vietnam (Eddies mother was Pauline Phillips, better known as Dear Abby). Goldstein also knew the candidates great-grandfather Jay, who built the liquor distribution giant and started a family foundation. Goldstein said he sees the same trustworthiness and philanthropy in the youngest Phillips.

If hell be anything like his great-grandfather, hell be the best person to run in the state of Minnesota, Goldstein said. He can do it.

Kelly Smith 612-673-4141