Dean Phillips, the Minnesota congressman challenging President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, wants Black Americans to give his campaign for the White House a chance.
“I’m not just an average white businessman who thinks he somehow knows more than somebody else,” Phillips told theGrio during a recent interview. “I hope people will have a chance to meet me before they demean me.”
The 54-year-old millionaire, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2019, has been met with recoil from his party — including strategists and Black Democratic leaders — after announcing his run for president on Oct. 27.
Despite Phillips’ argument that recent polls show President Biden is in danger of losing to Donald Trump in a hypothetical matchup in the 2024 presidential election, Democratic party leaders and elected officials remain united behind Biden.
Rep. James Clyburn, the influential House Democratic assistant leader from South Carolina, went as far as accusing Phillips of “disrespecting” Black voters in his challenge to Biden. Congressman Phillips said he was “disappointed” by Clyburn’s remarks.
“Mr. Clyburn is a man whom I respect, a man with whom I sat at the Democratic caucus leadership table,” he said, “a man with whom I have worked diligently and relentlessly to be a more fair country to invest in the very communities that are deserving of it.”
Clyburn, the 83-year-old Democratic stalwart, and others expressed outrage that Phillips launched his campaign in New Hampshire, a state long considered the first state primary in Democratic politics until President Biden and the Democratic National Committee moved to make South Carolina the first primary of the election cycle.
The decision was intended to diversify the party’s nomination process by centering Black voters, particularly those in South Carolina who saved Biden’s then-vulnerable presidential campaign by helping him win the state’s delegates in the 2020 primary.
Phillips’ attention to New Hampshire, which bucked national party leadership and intends to hold its primary contest before the Feb. 3 primary in South Carolina, was interpreted as “divisive.” Biden will not be on the ballot in New Hampshire over the primary dispute, causing Biden surrogates to push a ballot write-in campaign.
Phillips, who on Wednesday filed to be on South Carolina’s primary ballot, said, “I don’t think it’s correct to say that by meeting with voters in New Hampshire, that that’s offensive to Black voters in South Carolina, any more than when I meet with Black voters in South Carolina, that that’s offensive to Muslim voters in Michigan.”
The Biden challenger said he wants a fair shot at making his pitch to Black voters, from whom he said he wants to “listen and learn.”
Phillips, who is Jewish, said his connection to the Black community dates back generations in Minneapolis, where some Jewish residents stood in solidarity with Black residents during the city’s race riots in the 1960s.
He said his family’s foundation, the Phillips Family Foundation, is intentionally headquartered in North Minneapolis, which he described as the “traditional home of the Black community” in the Twin Cities area.
“Our family foundation is deeply focused on work to invest in, provide opportunity and equity for our Black community in the Twin Cities,” said Phillips.
On the national level, the White House hopeful told theGrio that he is “deeply concerned” about racial and other types of divisions in America.
“My ethos, my mission, my humanity begs for reconciliation, repair, breaking bread together,” said Phillips, “and recognizing our common cause…and our common purpose as human beings.”
When asked about his plan to address Black Americans’ top domestic concern, the economy, Phillips said his presidential platform includes things President Biden has called for or has taken some action on, like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, creating better access to affordable child care and providing more capital and mentorship for Black entrepreneurs.
Phillips also said he supports a national health insurance program to address rising medical debt and wants to make education and homeownership more accessible and affordable.
“The wealth gap in America is embarrassing. It’s dangerous,” he said. “It’s true that every community in this country has suffered because of ineffective governance, in my estimation, of Democratic and Republican administrations for far too long,” Phillips continued. “And it’s time we fix that.”
He said his presidential campaign is an “invitation” to Black Americans to join him in “sharing your ideas, sharing your challenges, sharing your dreams, and help me to change a system that has been so rigged against so many people.”
Phillips has been criticized for not having any fundamental difference in policy from President Biden, including from Collective PAC national political and organizing director Kevin Olasanoye, who told theGrio, “I don’t know how he would distinguish himself from a president from that perspective if you agree with the president on 100% of the issues [or] 95% of the issues.”
But there was at least one policy issue Phillips raised that is in stark contrast to President Biden’s position, which is to legalize cannabis. Existing federal prohibition has disproportionately criminalized Black communities, specifically Black men. By contrast, President Biden instead supports decriminalization of cannabis but not legalization for recreational use.
Olasanoye, who acknowledged Phillips currently represents a “fair amount of people of color” in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, said the congressman “must carry” that constituency and win over other Black voters “beyond the surface level” to be successful in any presidential contest.
The former national Senate campaign director expressed doubts about Phillips’ chances to win over Black constituencies in Georgia and South Carolina and said he sees his campaign as more of a “vanity project” as a result of him no longer wanting to serve in Congress.
Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright advises national campaigns and doesn’t see a scenario where Black voters “take a Dean Phillips candidacy seriously.”
After Tuesday’s off-year election wins for Democrats, Seawright said, “Joe Biden continues to demonstrate his ability to take a licking and keep on ticking,” adding, “Every time people have counted him out, he’s always come around and taught them that they do not know how to count.”
Phillips stressed that despite the naysayers, he believes he can bring a “new style of leadership” to the country. But more importantly, he says America’s democracy and the world faces an “existential threat” if Trump were to be reelected.
“I would ask that people…give me a chance to introduce myself,” he said. “I promise you, you will see a president like none other in recent history who cares about people and actually gets something done for them because it’s long overdue.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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