Congressman-elect Dean Phillips didn’t wait long to keep his promise. He held a town hall a little more than a month after being elected, something his Republican opponent rarely did. A capacity crowd packed the Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, MN, on December 17, 2018.
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) was strongly criticized for not holding town halls open to the general public, the last being seven years ago. DFL candidate Dean Phillips opened his campaign in 2017 promising frequent town halls, one every three months. He repeated the promise at his victory party saying, “You’re all invited.”
Even though he has not yet been sworn in as member of the Congress, Phillips held his first town hall. It was an animated crowd, mostly voicing strong support.
He opened his appearance with, “It’s only been six weeks, but I miss you all!” The first question, about the national debt, was from a man who admitted to not voting for him. Phillips shared his concern about the debt, soon to exceed $21 trillion. Phillips went on to field questions about health care, gun violence, veterans’ issues, education, how Congress works and money in government. An obvious omission in the 90-minute discussion was any mention of President Trump’s signature issue, immigration.
Among the sometimes rambling answers to questions was an education about how Congress works, especially for freshman members. The new Congress will have over 100 newcomers. The New York Times reports 66 new Democrat members. When Phillips began his campaign he promised to accept no PAC money and accept no money from other members of Congress. He stands by this position. He described his first breakfast in Washington where, “eight to ten lobbyists circled the room with white envelopes of checks passing them out to all the new members of Congress.” He said, “Nothing made more joyful than to tell them to keep it!!” According to his local office, there are now six “no PAC” pledge members in Congress, but so far Phillips is the only member of Congress declining money from PAC, federal lobbyists and from other members of Congress.
Phillips’ three predecessors in this seat — Bill Frenzel, Jim Ramstad and Paulsen — were all members of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Phillips has seriously lobbied for this committee, but he acknowledged it is unlikely he will get it. Membership in Ways and Means and the other major committees yield more PAC and lobbyist money and thus are highly prized. He spent a lot of time tracing the flow of money. Major committee members get more. Members pass money around to lobby for support for their legislation or committee appointment. Referring to the flow of money, he said, “This is not a partisan issue, this is a United States government issue… and it’s got to be rectified.” Further, “It’s hard to follow the money if we don’t have laws that require the math to begin with.”
Phillips’ closing plea to his followers, “It starts with nights like this. You ask how you can all play a role in moving this ball forward and perhaps changing this entire country, start inviting people who disagree with you to have conversations.”