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Phillips battles DEI controversy at the worst possible time

The donor, billionaire investor Bill Ackman, had called Phillips’ language about DEI a “mistake” and said the candidate was “getting educated” on the issue, writing on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, several times that he expected Phillips would revise his campaign website’s reference to DEI.

The uproar threatens to detract from Phillips’ message and further weaken his campaign ahead of the vote in New Hampshire, where Phillips has focused his challenge to President Joe Biden.

He sought to dismiss the DEI issue in a national television appearance, arguing that the revised language was more reflective of his views and accused the media of “lying” about the story.

“I believe in diversity, I believe in equity, I believe in inclusion. But what has inclusion done for the Black community in this country? What have both parties done to close the racial wealth gap? I want to take it a step further,” Phillips said Wednesday
during an interview on CNN.

“Nobody buys me. If a donor came to me and told me to do something, I would tell the donor to go pound sand,” he continued.

Later, Phillips echoed that defense in a post on X: “I cannot be bought.”

Ackman said in a post Wednesday night that
he didn’t suggest the change
and Phillips “did that on his own initiative and without any push from me.” He also said he had sent articles about DEI to Phillips, who “still has much to learn about the problems with the DEI ideology.”

Many Democrats have been critical of Phillips’ decision to challenge Biden, attacking it as a reckless bid to undermine the president. The DEI controversy drew a new round of sharp criticism from fellow Democrats.

“I think that speaks volumes as to what his values are,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, a prominent progressive running for Senate in California.

“I’m disappointed,” said Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, adding that Democrats should not allow themselves to be pressured by the right into “abandoning things we believe in.”

In a note of caution, Beyer added of Phillips: “He may have had a good reason.”

Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was less restrained. He posted on X two images side by side: One showing a headline about Ackman’s decision to contribute $1 million to supporting Phillips; the other showing the POLITICO story about the change in Phillips’ website.

Phillips has grounded his campaign in New Hampshire, where Biden is not on the ballot after he chose to skip the state for holding its primary in violation of DNC rules governing the election calendar. That raised fears among Biden’s allies that the state may provide an opening for an embarrassing symbolic loss.

The president’s supporters are mounting a write-in campaign for him to avoid such an outcome.

Phillips has presented himself to voters as a next-generation pragmatist who would mount a more vigorous general-election campaign against Donald Trump than Biden would. He has attracted interest from some prominent people dissatisfied with both Biden and Trump, including Ackman and Elon Musk.

But
polls show support for Phillips hovering in the single digits and teens among likely primary voters in New Hampshire, the fourth-whitest state in the country. There’s little time left for Phillips to connect with those voters before Tuesday’s primary — and the DEI debate may prove a costly distraction.

Biden’s backers certainly hope that’s the case.

Kathy Sullivan, a longtime Democratic New Hampshire leader who has helped spearhead the write-in effort for Biden in the state, called Phillips’ website change “grotesque.”

But she said it was likely too late for the issue to fuel paid advertising against the Minnesota lawmaker.

“From our social media perspective, talking to friends and neighbors, it’s something I hope gets out there in a widespread manner,” Sullivan said of the DEI story.

Nicholas Wu, Daniella Diaz and Elena Schneider contributed to this report.

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