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Dean Phillips Keeps Offending His Black Colleagues. And Not Just By Challenging Biden.

As Phillips hopes to win over Democratic voters in New Hampshire’s primary next week, he’s struggling to find allies in the House.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn
Dean Phillips speaks at a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H. Charles Krupa/AP

Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove knew she needed to say something.

The September closed-door meeting with House Democrats was about staying united and on message. But Kamlager-Dove, a first-term member from California, pointedly stood up to remark that someone in leadership maybe wasn’t the best messenger.

“I asked about being able to trust messaging coming from someone who may be involved in other potentially conflicting activities, like running for president,” Kamlager-Dove told NOTUS.

She didn’t use his name, as Politico reported shortly after the meeting. Still, everyone knew she meant three-term Rep. Dean Phillips from Minnesota, the now former co-chair of messaging for House Democrats, who had recently launched a primary bid against President Joe Biden. It’s normal for Democrats to disagree with each other in these kinds of meetings, and some of her colleagues nodded in agreement and sent her approving texts. Plus, Kamlager-Dove said, she wasn’t trying to pick a fight with Phillips, she simply wanted to make a point. But what happened next surprised her.

Phillips cornered her on the House floor to tell her that wasn’t how things were done.

“I can’t remember the exact words but it was like, ‘This isn’t the culture. You’re not following the culture,’” Kamlager-Dove recalled in an interview with NOTUS. “My interpretation of that was, ‘Speak when spoken to. Find me privately if you have a question but don’t speak up. Don’t use your voice.’”

The interaction left her disturbed. It occurred in full view of several other House colleagues, including senior lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus, who later checked in with their fellow CBC member to make sure she was OK.

“He decided to approach me individually on the floor and ask that I move in the corner and answer these questions and answer him. As a Black woman, I was offended by that,” Kamlager-Dove said of Phillips.

The run-in between Phillips and Kamlager-Dove is emblematic of something larger: Several prominent Black Democrats — and Democrats more broadly — are frustrated by Phillips’ long-shot run against Biden. On the campaign trail, Phillips has faced backlash, including accusations that in New Hampshire, at his first town hall, he “gaslit” the only Black woman in attendance. As Phillips gears up for New Hampshire’s primary next week — a primary not sanctioned by the DNC — that frustration is boiling over into the halls of Congress. In interviews with NOTUS, members of the CBC and Democratic leadership describe their relationship with Phillips as lukewarm at best and icy at worst.

Phillips’ early missteps with Black Democrats came when he focused his campaign on New Hampshire, which is 90% white, rather than South Carolina which is nearly 30% Black. Democrats moved South Carolina’s primary up to be the first official contest so a more diverse group of voters has an earlier say in the presidential nominating process. New Hampshire will hold its primary ahead of South Carolina’s, but Biden’s name won’t appear on the ballot.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, the venerated South Carolina Democrat and a senior CBC member, posted on X that Phillips was “not respecting the wishes of the titular head of our Party and the loyalties of some of our Party’s most reliable constituents.”

Weeks later, Phillips appeared at the Blue Jamboree in South Carolina where Clyburn, a staunch Biden ally, was also in attendance and the two hugged, according to a photo Phillips posted on X. They didn’t discuss Phillips’ campaign, however, Clyburn said. NOTUS asked Clyburn how he thought Phillips had treated Black voters in the state. His response: “Not at all. Not that I know of.”

While campaigning, Phillips has hammered Biden in ways that have left other House Democrats scratching their heads, especially considering that only last year they’d elected Phillips to a leadership position in the Democratic Caucus. He answered affirmatively when a reporter asked if he viewed Biden as a threat to democracy — later walking that back to tell NBC News that he thought the actual threat was Biden’s “delusion that he can win.” Phillips has said that excluding his name from state ballots would disenfranchise “a disproportionate number of Black voters.”

T-shirts for the presidential campaign of Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn.
T-shirts for Phillips’ campaign line a table in Charleston, S.C. Meg Kinnard /AP

This week, Politico reported that Phillips changed the title of a section of his website from “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” to “Equality & Restorative Justice,” after one of his top donors, the polarizing hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, said Phillips was “misinformed” about DEI. Phillips’ campaign told Politico the language of the actual policy remained unchanged and Ackman said he didn’t push Phillips to change the language on the site.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, a senior CBC member who has served in the House for over 30 years, was blunt in his assessment of Phillips.

“I’ve never known Dean Phillips to say or do anything for Black folk as a member of Congress,” the Mississippi Democrat said, noting they have never spoken. But he added, “It’s a free country. Anyone can run for president, even Brother Phillips.”

Asked about complaints from members of the CBC, Phillips’ campaign said the lawmaker “has long-standing relationships with many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and has worked to advocate for them and support them as friends and leaders.”

“[He was] a very strong supporter of the Biden administration up until he started running for president,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the former House Majority Leader. “He’s a friend and I do not understand what he’s saying.”

Hoyer said he hadn’t heard from Phillips at that point in almost two months, and not since he announced his presidential bid. (His office declined to comment when asked if they’d had any interaction more recently). Current Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who is also a CBC member, told NOTUS that he too hadn’t spoken to Phillips recently, in large part because Phillips’ attendance in the House has been sparse. His office likewise declined to comment on if there have been further conversations between Jeffries and Phillips.

But in mid-December, Phillips did show up for a few key votes and it seemed at least a few of his colleagues were happy to engage with him. NOTUS saw Phillips chatting on the floor with CBC members like Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, his colleague in the Minnesota delagation, and Illinois Rep. Jonathan Jackson, one of his closer friends in the Democratic caucus.

“Phillips is a Democrat. He has a difference of opinion. He has demonstrated that he’s testing it out. I encourage that sort of debate,” Jackson told NOTUS. “And so for that, I wish him well, congratulate him. I don’t look at that as a division.”

Jackson, who also repeated Phillips’ early talking point that his presidential run would strengthen Biden, lauded Phillips as a “doer,” pointing to his fast rise to leadership. He added that Philips’ campaign would showcase the diversity of opinions in the party.

“I don’t like limiting the debate … I think that makes the party anemic,” he said.

Rep. Al Green of Texas, another CBC member, also sympathizes with Phillips’ cause, although he thinks that Phillips should’ve given Biden more consideration before launching a primary challenge.

“I wouldn’t want to see him denied access to the ballot because of who he is,” he told NOTUS.

Jeffries said Phillips’ future relationship with House Democrats “remains to be seen … but as long as he’s here he’ll continue to be part of the House Democratic Caucus.”


Phillips stepped down from Democratic leadership shortly after his altercation with Kamlager-Dove, then announced in November he wouldn’t run for reelection to his House seat. In a statement, his campaign spokesperson said Phillips had “no intention of disrespecting or offending” Kamlager-Dove when the two spoke in September. “Rep. Phillips has nothing but respect for her and all of his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus.”

NOTUS verified Kamlager-Dove’s version of events with several members who witnessed the incident, including Democratic Rep. Troy Carter of Louisiana, who called the CBC a “family.”

“We have each other’s backs, always, and I was concerned that my friend was upset … I won’t sit back as a witness to intimidation or disrespect, by anyone,” Carter said.

Democratic Rep. Jennifer McClellan, the first Black woman from Virginia to serve in Congress, also witnessed Phillips confront Kamlager-Dove, described him as “a little sensitive to criticism” and told NOTUS she didn’t think he’d respond the same way were he not “a rich white man.”

To Kamlager-Dove, Phillips’ choice to “clapback on African American members” left her with questions.

“I don’t know why he’s on this journey. I don’t know if he knows why he’s on this journey,” she said.

And then there’s California Rep. Maxine Waters, a past chair of the CBC and one of the House’s longest-serving members. What does she think of Dean Phillips? “I don’t know who he is,” she said with a wink and slight laugh.

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.