SIOUX CITY -- Dean Phillips, grandson of Sioux City native Abigail Van Buren, aka "Dear Abby," won an election on Tuesday and heads to Washington, D.C., to represent Minnesota's 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
His grandmother rarely strays far from his thoughts. She helped shape his political beliefs.
"John Anderson ran as an independent for President in 1980 and he spoke at my school one day," said Phillips, age 11 at the time. "I sat next to my grandma (Abby) at dinner that night and I told her he had spoken at our school."
Abby, who was raised in Sioux City as Pauline Esther "Popo" Friedman, asked her grandson, "Are you a Democrat or a Republican?"
Phillips told his grandma he didn't know. He laughed while remembering the exchange. "She said to me, 'You're a Democrat.' She anointed me in 1980."
Dean Phillips, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, was raised in the Twin Cities. After graduating from the Ivy League's Brown University, he returned home and worked for a start-up company that focused on biking apparel and equipment. In time, he moved on to Phillips Distilling Company, the family's five-generation firm built on spirits like schnapps. After selling the business, Phillips helped build Talenti Gelato, one of the country's top ice cream sellers. He then opened Penny's coffee, which now boasts three shops.
"My most recent entrepreneurial venture was my most joyful yet, a campaign for Congress," said Phillips, who on Tuesday became the first Democrat his west-metro suburban district sends to the U.S. House in 60 years. The 49-year-old defeated five-term Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen by earning 202,402 votes to the incumbent's 160,838, a victory of 56 to 44 percent.
"My grandmother was an inspiration in a lot of ways," said Phillips, who disclosed how Abigail Van Buren and her twin sister, Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer, were living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1950 as the national profile of then Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican, began its ascent.
Lederer, who would later be known as Ann Landers, became involved in Democratic politics around Eau Claire as a response to McCarthy's rise. Her work would lead her to Chicago, where she joined the Chicago Sun-Times in 1952 and became an advice columnist in 1955.
Abby, who was married to businessman Morton Phillips, moved with her husband and their two small children to San Francisco in 1955. She followed her sister's career path and began writing an advice column for the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-1950s, answering thousands of letters per year from readers across all walks of life.
The twins' civic interest in the midst of McCarthyism is analogous to Phillips' foray into politics on the heels of President Donald Trump's election two years ago.
"My daughters, Daniela and Pia, watched the 2016 election with me and I saw their anxiety and fears and it very much affected me," Phillips said. "So, the next morning, I promised I'd do something about it and it turned into this successful run at Congress. Promise made, promise kept."
As he sat down on Thursday to continue writing thank you notes to supporters, campaign workers and volunteers, Phillips couldn't help but talk about his grandmother, who died five years ago. She would have turned 100 last summer, on July 4.
"My brother Tyler and me would get letters from our grandmother years ago, letters written by teenagers, as she wanted to see how we'd react," he said. "She read every letter and always sought out the best opinions from a diverse group of people and professionals. She taught decency, respect and standing on the side of justice even when it might make you uncomfortable."
His grandmother, he added, was ahead of her time as a social and civil rights activist.
Phillips, who has never visited Sioux City, said he wishes to make a stop at some point, to trace the steps this city's famed twins traipsed at Morningside College as they co-wrote their column, "The Campus Rat," for the Collegian Reporter. Until then, he's got some organizing to do, what with another job change in the offing, one that sees his office address change to the nation's capital.
"First and foremost, I'm so humbled by this opportunity," he said. "My priority is to affect campaign finance reform. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd reduce the influence of money in politics."
Phillips contended he was the only candidate for Congress who took no federal lobbyist money, no PAC contributions and zero dollars from any other member of Congress.
"It made for a very unusual and principled campaign," he said. "My vote will be on principle, not party."