Dean Phillips: Our Golfer in the 118th Congress
The U.S. representative fights for his constituents, but he also fights three-putting just like us
By Laz Versalles
As I watched Kevin McCarthy’s name being entered into nomination for the 15th round of voting for the House speakership on Friday evening, I marveled at the absurdity of it all. The archaic process, the self-servedness, the junior-high-level drama. It was all too surreal. Then one man, the honorable representative from Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, Dean Phillips, summed it all up with one word: “Wow.”
Wow, indeed. Toggling between the two poles of political analysis in America, CNN and Fox, I noted that Jake Tapper and Bret Baier both seemed equally…bewildered? To make matters more confusing, just as it appeared the House would vote to adjourn for the weekend, the 15th (!) round of voting for the speakership commenced.
The ceremony and the language around these events is quite something.
“For what purpose does the gentleman from Minnesota rise?” asked the House clerk, the honorable Cheryl Johnson of Louisiana.
“Madame Clerk, I rise to say, wow.” Phillips opened. Anyone watching had to have chuckled. I know I did. I felt a great sense of pride for Phillips. As it turns out, we have a little history.
In another life I worked as a club professional at Oak Ridge Country Club outside Minneapolis. That meant a lot of early mornings and sometimes late nights. My favorite time of day was late afternoon when I would sneak out and play in the long summer shadows.
The summers of 2004 and 2005 were the best, especially on Sunday afternoons. I knew I could count on Phillips, who at the time was in the private sector, and his close high school friend Hal Lieberman to saunter into the golf shop around 2 or 3 o’clock before their round. “Want to play?” Dean asked me one Sunday afternoon. I did want to play, and I played on that Sunday afternoon, and the next, and a few dozen Sundays after that with Hal and Dean. We were Sunday golf buddies.
Hal and Dean are both above-average-to-good players. They could both break 40 on the demanding front-nine par-35 layout at Oak Ridge if they got hot, although they seldom did. But it was less about the golf and more about the walk. We were all roughly the same age. The conversation came easily and the time went by fast. We talked about music, food, sports—whatever came to mind.
Every now and then, golf pointers were needed. Hal fought a sweeping fade that could sometimes turn into a snappy hook; the dreaded two-way miss. Dean was streaky. He could reel off a few great holes and when the outer-body experience ended, he’d wonder why he couldn’t “just play like that all the time.” I seldom had answers for either of them.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take some time to honor Dean’s late stepfather, Eddie. He led a life almost too great to be real. He was an amazing philanthropist and businessman and a gifted storyteller. He served not only several charities and on boards in Minneapolis, but also nationally, including with the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and an endless source of advice and inspiration. I loved Eddie.
Dean’s birth father, Artie Pfefer, was a hero. He died in the Vietnam War in July 1969 when Dean was 6 months old. Recently, Dean heard a recording of his father calling home from Vietnam. It’s incredibly moving.
Now back to Friday. As I watched the voting unfold again and again, I kept an eye on the representatives as they worked the room. Dean has been in the job since 2018. Whenever I saw him, he was nodding, maintaining eye contact and engaging deeply with whomever he was talking to. That’s Dean. He’s curious and cares deeply about people and what matters to them. (Eddie was like that too.)
One of my favorite Dean Phillips moments came as we were walking down the first fairway one afternoon: “Laz, have you ever noticed all the shorts in the golf shop have pleats? It’s 2004! What’s going on here?” Dean was a sharp dresser by golf standards. Nuggets like this made my Sunday games with Hal and Dean so memorable.
Shortly after his “wow” moment, Rep. Phillips said this of the honorable Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader from New York: “(Jeffries is) a man who listens better than anyone I have ever known in my life.” Quite a statement coming from the son of Eddie Phillips.
As much as I enjoyed the words of Rep. Phillips, it was Jeffries who stole the show. His historic speech owned the alphabet from A to Z, and I was ready to run through a wall for the man. Granted, not everyone loved it, but such is life on Capitol Hill.
Finally, after 15 rounds of voting, Rep. Kevin McCarthy the majority leader for (most of) the Republican Party became the speaker of the House. I admired his resilience. At the same time, I wondered, as did many of the pundits on Fox and CNN, how he would manage his agenda and the actions of some on his side of the aisle.
Speculation is easy, but what mattered that night was that McCarthy had made it. He had endured to unite enough members of his party to win him the speakership. I was happy and felt relieved for him. What a fighter.
America got a front-row seat to see how the sausage was made on Friday night. I could not take my eyes off the action. What became apparent was that, as it has been for as long as civilizations have had governments, there are those who are there to serve, and others who are there to serve themselves. Another truth that became apparent was that you could come from anywhere and make it in America. Whether you are Kevin McCarthy, son of a Bakersfield, Calif., firefighter, or Hakeem Jeffries, a survivor of the streets of Crown Heights in New York, you can make it in this country.
For now we still have a government that is ostensibly By the People and For the People. It was only two years ago to the day that people were climbing walls at the Capitol to try and take that away from us.
I turned off the television on Friday night, hopeful that leaders as empathetic as Phillips, as inspiring as Jeffries, and as resilient as McCarthy can find common ground as they shape what our laws, policy and country will look like for the next few years.
As Americans we cannot quit on our dream, as Jeffries reminded us. The harvest is coming. And if I’m lucky, maybe even more golf with Dean and Hal.