Minnesota entrepreneur Dean Phillips. (Photo via Phillips for Congress)

Minnesota entrepreneur Dean Phillips. (Photo via Phillips for Congress)

Democrats in Minnesota have recruited a candidate for Congress who at first blush doesn't sound like a typical Midwestern Democrat — he's an heir to a family business and an entrepreneur. Dean Phillips, whose adopted great-great-grandfather founded an enduring Twin Cities establishment, Phillips Distilling Company, last week announced that in 2018 he would take on Erik Paulsen, a five-term incumbent, to represent Minneapolis's western suburbs.

In many ways, Phillips fits the profile of a family scion: his resume includes 19 years as president and CEO of the distillery, and a considerable amount of philanthropic and volunteer work on the side (including, briefly, as a tutor). But in 2012 he stepped down from running the family business to go to work building another brand that his father helped finance: Talenti, the now-ubiquitous — and delicious! — gelato, found in supermarket freezers from coast to coast. The global food conglomerate Unilever bought Talenti in 2014, when it expected sales of $120 million.

Since January, he has served as "co-founder and chairman" of Penny's Coffee, a very big title for a very small business — it's a café with a lunch menu in downtown Minneapolis. On his campaign website, Phillips calls it "a small business that we hope to grow into a larger one by putting employees first and making livable wages a founding principle." According to the MinnPost, Penny's pays its employees $15 an hour.

Phillips has not outlined an extensive policy prescription. He has vowed to hold Donald Trump "accountable" for "potentially egregious abuse of power" and strongly opposes the Affordable Care Act repeal bill that narrowly passed the House with Rep. Paulsen's help — he called Rep. Paulsen's vote "reprehensible" and "abhorrent." "I believe that bill will do the exact opposite of what they claim it will," Phillips posted on Facebook. "There’s an age tax. I think it will make health care more expensive and available to fewer people." Indeed, Phillips told the MinnPost that it was Paulsen's vote on the American Health Care Act that finally "ended my time on the bench and on the sidelines, and I decided I needed to stand up and participate."

The MinnPost called Phillips a "pro-business centrist," although since Phillips declined to share many specifics it's hard to know how it came to that conclusion. Phillips told the site he supports reforming the Affordable Care Act, but didn't say how. (He called health care a "moral right," if not a constitutional one.) He told MinnPost that "everyone pays plenty in taxes," but that doesn't necessarily mean he supports a lower corporate tax rate, because he also maintained that "jobs are created when demand increases …. Jobs are not created when taxes are reduced."

A pro-business centrist may be the only kind of Democrat who can win Minnesota's Third District, and even then it may be a tough nut for Phillips to crack. Though Democratic presidential candidates have carried the district since 2008 — Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by nine points — the GOP has kept the House seat safely in its hands for nearly 60 years. In 2016, even as Trump lost the district, Paulsen beat back his Democratic challenger by 14 points.