MANCHESTER, N.H. — Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) says he will host 119 town halls in his long-shot primary challenge against President Biden. If the reception at his first is any indication of the next potential 118, the nascent campaign faces an even steeper uphill battle for the nomination than expected as a little-known congressman challenging an incumbent president.
Speaking in a theater here less than a week after announcing his campaign, Phillips faced screaming and profanity from voters disappointed in his response to a question on a cease-fire in the Middle East. He was accused of gaslighting the lone Black woman in attendance, who was escorted out of the event — but not before a handful of other attendees walked out of the room.
The tense moment reflects the impassioned debate and nuanced positions within the Democratic Party over the Israel-Gaza war and underscored the question of whom exactly Phillips hopes to appeal to with his campaign. Though many Democrats express a desire for an alternative to Biden, it is unclear if Phillips is the candidate they are looking for. The Minnesota congressman confronted the tough realities of being a late and little-known entrant to the presidential race while seeking to find a rhythm on the trail at the town hall, which like his campaign launch was unusual.
At the Rex Theatre, Phillips’s crowd was small and appeared to be largely made up of staff members, family and friends. The atmospherics were atypical — a loud live musical performance featuring his singing wife kicked off the event, followed by three separate introductory videos — one of which included bizarre commentary on his old haircut — and a visibly prominent security presence.
Around an hour into the meandering town hall here Wednesday, 23-year-old Democrat Atong Chan rose to ask Phillips to support a cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza war.
Phillips blinked rapidly as Chan asked her question, and then began his response by turning around the question to ask her about how she feels about the Israelis killed by Hamas in the conflict.
“I’m going to answer each of your questions, but I have to tell you, I took note that you didn’t mention — how do you feel about the Israeli babies? And moms and dads and grandmas and hostages in Gaza who were brutally murdered? I just want to hear, before I answer your question, if that empathy is across humanity or only for Palestinians right now?” Phillips responded to Chan, a Manchester resident.
He interrupted before she replied, “I am completely empathetic to them.”
Phillips repeatedly invoked his multiple visits to Israel in the past year and his role as the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs subcommittee focused on the Middle East, and told Chan, “You and I are the same.” Though he said he was “horrified and disgusted when I see Palestinians slaughtered,” and denounced Hamas as an enemy of both Israel and Palestinians, he did not answer her follow-up questions about why he is not calling for a cease-fire.
At one point, he pointed in defense to his friendship with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American member of the House and one of several House Democrats calling for a cease-fire: “I care deeply about Palestinian lives. Rashida Tlaib, my Palestinian sister, is my friend. I’m her Jewish brother.”
Phillips and Chan then debated whether she was being antagonistic, and when she said she hoped he would change his position on the cease-fire, the event devolved into a shouting match.
“They’re U.S. bombs; that’s the f—ing problem,” chimed in a man from across the room. A person seated in the same row as Chan shouted out that Phillips had not answered her question, and said, “You just gaslit her instead,” before getting up and walking out of the event.
“I gaslit?” Phillips asked, as more voices chimed in, “You did,” before Chan was escorted out of the town hall by three staffers. She accused Phillips of not caring about Gazan children, and he again turned around the issue to focus on Israelis.
But the question of a cease-fire continued to haunt Phillips after Chan’s exit. A Black man — one of only a few at the event — asked if white-supremacist and hate groups should be categorized as terrorists, to which Phillips responded they were. The man then asked if that means bombs should be dropped on states such as Alabama to eradicate said groups, to which Phillips responded that Ku Klux Klan is different from Hamas and again challenged attendees, saying they had not asked about the welfare of Israelis.
Another woman sounded as if she might cry when she asked how killing Palestinians is making what happened to Israelis better and if there were no other solutions to the conflict. Phillips again responded with a query, asking the two questioners for their ideas on how to fix the situation. He again returned to the idea that Israeli babies are also important — a stance none of the questioners disputed.
After the event, the campaign initially tried to prevent reporters from speaking to the candidate, until Phillips agreed to take some questions — though he then criticized the media for only focusing on the exchange with Chan. Asked to clarify his stance on a cease-fire, he said, “Of course I support a cease-fire when Hamas is no longer in a position to murder Israelis.”
Biden on Wednesday was likewise asked by a protester to call for a cease-fire, and in response called for a “pause” to “give time to get the prisoners out.” Phillips, who has a long history of supporting Biden, in response said he supports whoever is the president at a time of war.
The town hall was unconventional from the beginning. Unlike most candidate events, during which attendees can enter freely, members of the press and attendees entered through a metal detector and had their bags checked before entry — a level of security typically only employed by Biden and former president Donald Trump, who both have Secret Service protection. A deep security staff was noticeable around the room during the town hall, as were a large number of campaign photographers and videographers and advance staff members. In one corner, there was even a camera jib — a crane device often used to film over the heads of huge crowds — that appeared about 12 feet long and swung over the attendees to film the event. Most candidates currently running for president employ a single digital or communications staffer to capture content at their events for promotional materials.
After an unknown voice over the venue speakers announced the beginning of the event, three videos played in succession showed Phillips’s pathway to launching his campaign and the official kickoff in New Hampshire last week: a clip of an interview on “Meet the Press,” an old video from his initial run for Congress, and then a hype tape showing portions of his campaign launch set to cinematic music. Following the video debuts, former New Hampshire state House speaker Steve Shurtleff spoke and teed up another video, this time featuring the voice of Phillips’s deceased father singing. Only after that tape focused on Phillips’s childhood then did the event begin.
For some Democrats, who are dissatisfied with their current options and optimistically came to hear out Phillips, the exchange regarding a cease-fire deterred their support.
Ted Bosen, a retired attorney from Berlin, N.H., followed Chan out of the event and embraced her, thanking her and saying he drove three hours to ask the same question about a cease-fire.
Bosen, who said he was a lifelong Democrat, said: “I think there needs to be a contest. I’m glad he’s doing what he’s doing, I’m disappointed in that response.” He said that he would urge Phillips to change his position and that he would not support him if he doesn’t change it.
Speaking to reporters outside the event, Chan said that she supported Biden in the 2020 primary and general election but doesn’t think she can support him again and that she is not considering supporting Phillips.
Earlier in the event, Chan could be heard saying, “Is it?” in response to Phillips saying that Rep. James E. Clyburn’s assertion that he is disrespecting Black voters by focusing on New Hampshire is sad and wrong. Democrats changed their presidential nominating calendar to have South Carolina lead the nominating contest in 2024, instead of Iowa and New Hampshire, as part of a push for more diversity.
Chan said Phillips’s response on a cease-fire felt smug, arrogant and flippant. As she decried Democrats not doing enough, in her view, to prevent more Palestinian deaths, a staffer for Phillips opened the door of his red, white and blue campaign bus and walked directly behind her — not heeding the visibly upset Chan — to let Phillips’s dog, Henry, relieve himself nearby.
“I’m a Black person; sitting out would be one of the hardest things for me to ever do. There are people who died for my right to vote,” Chan said through tears minutes later. “I feel like I’m being put in a very precarious situation because I never want to disrespect my ancestors. … I’m gonna have to vote for somebody, and it’s going to be hard, because everyone who is running right now, they’re all not people I would ever want to vote for.”
As Henry ran through a crowd of reporters who surrounded Phillips as he left the event, the congressman said that he intended to be “radically hospitable” to press and that he would return to New Hampshire next week.