President Joe Biden’s new challenger for the 2024 primary, Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips, says that he doesn’t recall the circumstances of a maximum contribution check his 2020 congressional campaign cashed from right-wing billionaire Harlan Crow—but Phillips allows that it’s possible he solicited it personally.
“I do not remember ever making a call to Mr. Crow,” Phillips said on Friday, in reference to the $2,800 donation Crow made in June 2019, though he acknowledged putting in a great deal of fundraising “call time” in his first campaign. “If I did, by the way, and there’s evidence of it, I will be the first to acknowledge it.” (Federal campaign finance records show the existence of the donation.)
In response to The Daily Beast’s questions at a press availability ahead of his presidential campaign kickoff in Concord, New Hampshire, Phillips also said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever met Harlan Crow.” The wealthy Texan is widely known now for his close relationship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which included an array of unreported gifts and perks paid by Crow.
While he said he genuinely did not know how the donation came about, Phillips promised, “I will be honest.”
“Sometimes, I get it wrong, and when I do, it’s the job of an American president and a member of Congress to say you got it wrong, not to hide it, not to ignore it,” Phillips said. “I don’t know the answer to the question, and when I don’t know the answer, I’ll let you know.”
While filing his paperwork in New Hampshire to challenge President Biden for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) is asked about the report that GOP megadonor Harlan Crow gave the maximum contribution to his congressional campaign in 2019. pic.twitter.com/728pkNkNQ1
— The Recount (@therecount) October 27, 2023
Phillips' decision to challenge Biden is rooted in his stated concern that the 80-year old incumbent cannot defeat Donald Trump. But the effort is making him public enemy number one among a large swath of institutional Democrats who have characterized the effort as a misguided vanity project that would do little more than damage Biden and throw the election to Trump.
But Phillips has dismissed those concerns, taking a “steel sharpens steel” view of his primary challenge—despite historical evidence indicating such challenges rarely play out that way.
A wealthy Midwesterner whose fortune springs from his family’s liquor distilling business and his own Talenti gelato brand, Phillips has made campaign finance and ethics reform a cornerstone of his three terms in office.
“I’m the only member of Congress—the only one—who takes no PAC money, no lobbyist money, no money from my fellow members of Congress, any money, and who has no leadership PAC who’s sitting at this table right now,” he said. “The only one.”
While that may be true, Phillips’ independent wealth meant that he also didn’t need to court those kinds of backers. His first campaign for Congress, in 2018, raised $6.3 million, beefed up with $1.3 million in personal loans.
But Phillips hasn’t loaned his operation a dollar since then, and forgave all but $250,000 of that amount in the weeks after winning his first election. (At the time, candidates could only repay themselves $250,000 in money raised after an election, an option Phillips seems to be preserving but has not exercised—his congressional campaign still carries that debt.)
Phillips noted that he’s “been on the other side” of the ledger as a donor. But he called the campaign finance system “appalling” and “corrupt,” and said that it was “destroying the country.” (Phillips has contributed roughly $510,000 lifetime at the federal level, and Minnesota state filings show another $12,000 since 2010.)
Phillips campaign adviser Steve Schmidt told The Daily Beast after the press conference that Crow’s $2,800 contribution “does not incriminate Dean Phillips in any way shape or form.”
“It does incriminate the news organization that’s trying to scandalize the donation because of the connection that person has in corrupt acts with Clarence Thomas,” Schmidt claimed. (The Daily Mail was the first to report Crow’s donation.)
It’s unclear publicly what, if any, personal or professional ties link Phillips and Crow. But they do have political ties.
A conservative financier whose off-the-books back-scratching largesse to Thomas has yielded a drumroll of scandalous headlines, Crow has also supported a number of centrist rabble-rousers. Chief among them is the group No Labels, which is working to field a centrist 2024 third-party presidential candidate.
In Congress, Phillips has been a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which is allied with No Labels. Other Democratic members in the Problem Solvers Caucus have also benefited from Crow’s cash. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), the group’s co-chair, as well as Reps. Jared Golden (D-ME), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), and former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), have each received at least $12,000 from Crow.
In addition to Phillips and those members, Crow has given thousands of dollars to Biden-antagonizing Senators Krysten Sinema of Arizona—who received $10,800—and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who, like Phillips, received $2,800. Those gifts made headlines. (Crow also maxed out to third-party presidential spoiler Cornel West, who defended the donation.)
Another connection: when Phillips left the family’s liquor business in 2012 to manage Talenti—at the time a tiny company he’d invested in with his stepfather—he was stepping into Crow’s backyard in Dallas, Texas.
Phillips has not been supportive of the No Labels effort, fueled by Crow, to field a third-party candidate.
Earlier this year, Phillips told The New York Times that “it will be a historic disaster” if No Labels ran a third-party Democrat against Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2024.
“And I speak for just about every moderate Democrat and frankly most of my moderate Republican friends,” Phillips said.