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Dean Phillips Drops DEI From Campaign Website After Bill Ackman Donation

U.S.Dean Phillips Drops DEI From Campaign Website After Bill Ackman Donation

The campaign website for Representative Dean Phillips, the Minnesota Democrat mounting a long-shot primary challenge to President Biden, has a policy platform that signals liberal bona fides tempered by a Midwestern businessman’s practicality. It includes headers like “Climate Action,” “Women’s Health and Economic Security” and “Immigration Reform.”

Sometime on Tuesday, one header was changed. Gone was “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” In its place: “Equity and Restorative Justice.”

The text beneath the header — including acknowledgments of racial disparities and vague promises to ensure equal opportunity — was untouched. But the tweak was nonetheless significant. Even more so was its timing: On Saturday, Mr. Phillips had received the endorsement of William A. Ackman, the billionaire investor who in recent months has become an outspoken critic of so-called D.E.I. programs in higher education.

Mr. Ackman did not merely endorse Mr. Phillips; in a lengthy post on X on Saturday, where Mr. Ackman has a considerable following, he said that he had already given the maximum $3,300 donation allowed to Mr. Phillips’s campaign, and he announced that on Tuesday, after the federal holiday for Martin Luther King’s Birthday, he planned to wire $1 million to We Deserve Better, a super PAC formed late last year that is supporting Mr. Phillips’s candidacy.

Mr. Ackman’s online endorsement drew responses from a number of X users who noted the D.E.I. language on Mr. Phillips’s campaign platform. In a response to one post Tuesday morning, Mr. Ackman addressed them, saying that Mr. Phillips “didn’t understand DEI until recently.”

He added: “I expect that statement will be revised promptly.” By Tuesday night, it had been.

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Ackman provided some additional back story. He said that over the weekend, he had sent Mr. Phillips a handful of articles, including a column in The New York Times, that sought to distinguish what Mr. Ackman called the “D.E.I. movement” from the principles of diversity and inclusion that Mr. Ackman said he believes in, and which the congressman has also supported.

For Mr. Ackman, and for many Republicans and segments of the moderate left, diversity, equity and inclusion or D.E.I. programs have become a bugaboo, shorthand for liberal hypocrisy in academia and wrongheaded business practices.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that D.E.I. doesn’t mean what it says,” Mr. Ackman said in the interview. He said he had been hoping that Mr. Phillips would come around to his way of thinking.

But Mr. Ackman rejected any suggestion that his hefty financial contribution had played any role in the tweak of Mr. Phillips’s campaign platform, which Politico reported on Tuesday.

“I am not paying him money to change his website,” Mr. Ackman said, in response to a question about the timing of the wording change. He noted that the major contribution had been to a super PAC, which is legally separate from the campaign. “I am backing the guy because I think he could be a great president.”

Mr. Ackman said he spoke with Mr. Phillips about the website change, but only on Wednesday afternoon, he said — after the fact. “He said he changed it because, while these are things he believes in, he did not think of it as a movement,” Mr. Ackman said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Phillips’s campaign, Katie Dolan, confirmed that a call took place on Wednesday but said the campaign did not have details on what they discussed. “Representative Phillips is one of the only members of Congress who has never accepted PAC money or lobbyist money or had a leadership PAC,” Ms. Dolan said. “Representative Phillips is unbought.”

She also provided a statement from Mr. Phillips, saying: “I support diversity. Period. I support equity. Period. I support inclusion. Period. It is incredible how the media gets all interested in litigating slogans, but has no interest in proposals to solve the problems.”

Mr. Phillips, 54, who has poured at least $5 million of his own money into his campaign, Ms. Dolan said, is a multimillionaire in his own right, having helped to run his family’s liquor distilling empire and later to build the Talenti gelato behemoth. He entered the race for the Democratic nomination in October, and has staked his bid on an urgent appeal to the Biden-skeptical middle. He is running as a centrist but with flashes of support for left- and right-wing positions. In December, he embraced “Medicare for all,” a favorite of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.

In another sign of his courtship of the contrarian center, on Thursday Mr. Phillips will take part in two campaign events in New Hampshire with Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential and New York mayoral candidate who is the co-founder of the Forward Party.

Mr. Phillips is focusing on New Hampshire, whose Jan. 23 primary Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party have bypassed in favor of South Carolina’s next month. Mr. Phillips is on the ballot in New Hampshire, while Mr. Biden’s supporters will have to write in his name.

On Monday, his campaign released its latest television ad, narrated by, who else, Bigfoot. “I am something of an expert on elusive creatures,” Bigfoot says. “So I challenged myself to find President Biden in New Hampshire, during this primary season.”

“I looked for him everywhere,” Bigfoot says. “No Joe. But I did keep seeing this guy, this guy Dean Phillips was everywhere.” The ad was placed in the New Hampshire broadcast market with a buy of more than $200,000, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.

Mr. Ackman has been waging a public war against institutions that he believes have kowtowed to the far left, stifling free speech and allowing double standards in the name of diversity. He led an online campaign against Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, who resigned amid accusations of plagiarizing other scholars and of not taking a strong enough stand against antisemitism on campus.

Mr. Ackman, 57, has a history of supporting Democrats. This cycle, however, his contributions have ranged further afield: He has maxed out personal contributions to the campaigns of Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Chris Christie, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, Representative Ro Khanna of California, and Vivek Ramaswamy.

Mr. Phillips is his biggest investment yet. The super PAC he contributed to has run ads exhorting Democrats and independents to “wake up” to the possibility that former President Donald J. Trump could beat Mr. Biden in a matchup “nobody wants.”

The identities of the super PAC’s other donors won’t be available until federal filings are due at the end of the month. Records show that We Deserve Better has already spent $1.4 million to support Mr. Phillips in New Hampshire.


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