Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips is home from Washington, D.C. for the August recess and he’s busy learning about his his district in the western suburbs. His day starts in Eden Prairie at Flying Cloud Airport, which sees 250 take-offs a day, making it the third busiest in the state. Then it’s on to the nearby campus of Hennepin Technical College, where 99 percent of students get jobs after their hands-on training. “I’m learning something every day. Anybody who thinks they know it all, doesn’t. We have a steep learning curve, and this is what it’s about,” says Phillips.
This might seem like a welcome break from the discord in Washington, but the freshman lawmaker says Congress isn’t as bad as some characterizations might have you think. “My biggest epiphany is how collegial members of Congress are with one another. You’d think it’s an utter disaster. [While] there’s some of that, relationships are real, and you have to be intentional. Congress is not designed for that; it’s designed to segregate and divide,” he says.
The Democrat is deeply concerned about division in the nation. He puts some of the blame on President Donald Trump, who, in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, said that his rhetoric brings people together. “He’s doing the opposite of what we need. Whether a Democrat or Republican president, we need someone who can bring the country together, and what he’s doing is dividing communities of color from Caucasian communities, dividing rural from suburban and urban. It’s intentional and it’s downright dangerous.” Phillips adds, “This rhetoric from the White House is creating dangerous situations for people from Congress and lots of people in our communities. It in no small way inspires violence, unless we stand up.”
Phillips, who is Jewish, has had a complicated relationship with fellow Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose tweets were seen as anti-Semitic and continue to trigger backlash, including a recent protest at the Minnesota State Capitol. “I made it very clear privately and publicly [that] some of the comments have been equally divisive and disappointing and, quite frankly, hurtful,” Phillips says of Omar. When asked to describe his relationship with the high-profile freshman, he says, “It’s thoughtful. I make it my intention to be kind and thoughtful to everybody, regardless of what I think about their politics.”
Phillips flipped the suburban Republican 3rd congressional district to Democratic hands in 2018, vowing to bring joy to politics and to create conversation with people who hold a variety of viewpoints. From his perspective, voters in his district are primarily concerned with issues that revolve around health care, gun violence and climate change. “What everybody wants from Washington is bipartisan collaboration, which is my foremost priority. And we have to remove money from politics.”
During the August recess, Almanac’s political reporter Mary Lahammer plans to catch up with just about every first-term MN congressperson as they swing through the state. Last week, she shared a story about Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who represents Minnesota’s 1st congressional district. Find out what issues he’s most focused on in what was a competitive swing district.
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