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Unstoppable Amy

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is arguably one of the most powerful women in the Senate. How does she keep it real?

Senator Amy Klobuchar

With her reelection in November almost certain,
Senator Amy Klobuchar is poised to become
one of the most powerful women in the Senate.
And she makes a mean hot dish.


Amy Klobuchar works a Main Street café a lot harder than anyone else in Minnesota politics thinks is necessary. In Bemidji, at the center table in Raphael’s Bakery—home of “gr8buns”—Klobuchar has stopped by, for the second time this freakishly warm January morning, to chat with a handful of good-natured Rotarians and log an interview with longtime Bemidji Pioneer politics editor and columnist Brad Swenson.

The highly dysfunctional U.S. Congress, with approval ratings cratering into the single digits, is a couple of weeks from returning to what it still shamelessly calls “the people’s business.” Klobuchar, 52, buoyed by a popularity most politicians would sell their mothers to enjoy, is on a multi-day tour across the Iron Range. “We call it the ‘Made in Minnesota’ tour,” she says, before stopping at tables and booths to introduce herself, compliment parents on their adorable children, and crack a joke, which she does with the ease of a small-town mayor. Her “Made in Minnesota” shtick is a reference to later stops at companies in Grand Rapids and Duluth that are not only manufacturing stuff but also hiring people to do the work.

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As she completes her first six-year term in the Senate, Klobuchar is arguably the most popular politician in the state and, judging by the near complete lack of buzz from her Republican competition, an almost dead-certain lock for reelection in November.Three weeks after her Iron Range tour, a national poll declared her “the sixth most popular senator in the country.” A week later, campaign finance reports had her with $4.6 million in the bank, as opposed to $34,000 for the most well-heeled of three GOP candidates. Her previous informal campaign adviser, Jeff Blodgett, best known for running the late Paul Wellstone’s campaigns, predictably warns about overconfidence. He has an example to back it up: Democrat Russ Feingold was considered bulletproof in Wisconsin two years ago until wealthy businessman Ron Johnson stepped in and rode Tea Party fervor to a jolting victory.

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But Minnesota isn’t Wisconsin. This isn’t 2010. And Klobuchar isn’t as polarizing a figure as Feingold was. In fact, she has a personal, personable style reminiscent of Wellstone, and in her first term she managed to avoid any embarrassing missteps—a set of political assets extremely rare in the viciously divisive “gotcha” game that is 21st-century public service.


THE HUMAN TOUCH


Klobuchar started that January day in Bemidji with a dawn meet-up at Raphael’s. Then she hustled around the corner to City Hall for a Red Cross awards ceremony honoring a young student nurse whose quick thinking had saved her father-in-law’s life. Bemidji politicos traded jokes with Klobuchar, posed for photos, and expressed unanimous admiration for her “retail” political skill, that mostly innate, hard-to-teach ability to interact like a recognizable human being with “average citizens.”

Klobuchar thanks “everyone here in Bemidji for the warmth and cooperation I’m feeling, just like Washington.” The line gets a hearty laugh. “She’s not at all pretentious,” remarks Mayor Dave Larson. “People like that. She’s very down to earth.”

Klobuchar, who built her career mainly as Hennepin County attorney, is the epitome of the whip-smart, ambitious big-city kid with a golden educational pedigree (valedictorian at Wayzata High School, magna cum laude in political science at Yale, law degree from University of Chicago). But her father’s Slovenian Iron Range roots (Klobuchar’s grandfather was a miner) count for a lot Up North. At every stop, someone mentions her “Ranger” cred, meaning . . . well, the ability to gulp down a fresh, still-warm donut at Raphael’s and chat about whatever the locals have on their minds.

“[Klobuchar has] the best human touch of any of them I’ve met.”

—Brad Swenson, Bemidji Pioneer Politics EDITOR

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“She came around here campaigning for local candidates before she ran for Senate,” remembers Swenson, the Pioneer’s politics editor. “I liked her because she enjoyed talking issues, which, as a columnist, I do too. But she had no problem with whatever else someone wanted to ask her about.” Just about every state politician has stopped in Bemidji to schmooze Swenson. He says Klobuchar has “the best human touch of any of them I’ve met, with the exception of Wellstone. That guy was amazing. But she is right up there.”

IRON RANGE CRED


Politics is the ultimate salesmanship game—it’s all about building relationships to close a deal. But unlike those who sell cars or pharmaceuticals, politicians inhabit a bubble that requires constant vigilance over everything they and their staff say and do. It is a trade not generally recommended to those who require large amounts of private contemplative time or slump at the thought of another Main Street café populated with indifferent and badly informed citizens full of impertinent opinions and from-another-planet notions.

Yet the simple ability to “talk with ordinary people” is a skill many politicians never master. Without mentioning names, there are many prominent political leaders in Minnesota who are so hopelessly inept at yukking it up with Rotarians, schmoozing newspaper columnists, and bouncing babies for posterity that you feel embarrassed for them. How can politicians succeed at their hyper-public, 24/7 jobs if they don’t get an energy buzz from routine human interaction?

During a tour of the Terex manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids, Klobuchar gamely hops in and pilots one of the company’s skid steer construction vehicles around the parking lot (the ability to operate construction equipment carries serious “Ranger” cred). Afterward she pauses for a hurried 30-minute lunch at Dottie’s Hometown Café, greets a table of 20 people celebrating a 50-ish woman’s anniversary of sobriety, and cheerfully agrees to bounce someone’s infant granddaughter on her lap for a photo.

All politicians say they “love getting out there with the fine people of my state,” Klobuchar notes. “I really do, because you learn so much and get so much better at your job. People can call your office and e-mail any time they want. That’s important. But a lot of times, unless you get out there and talk with them where they’re comfortable, you don’t know what they’re thinking.”

Klobuchar smiles at the thought of picking up the social touch from her dad, legendary Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar, whom she calls a “world-class schmoozer.” Being Jim Klobuchar’s daughter carries a lot of weight with Rangers of a certain era. His umbilical connection to memories of the Vikings when they were regularly good certainly doesn’t hurt. “For me, to do a job, I think it’s impossible to fake your way through it,” Sen. Klobuchar says. “Both my mom and dad loved their jobs. My mom taught second grade until she was 70 years old, and my dad loved what he did, too. He always said he got about 90 percent of his ideas for his columns from just talking with ordinary people.

“It’s like Bill Clinton,” she says. “You could tell he liked being with people.”

MAKING FRIENDS


Still, living in the “gotcha” bubble takes getting used to. The inevitable personal nastiness of campaigning first hit home for Klobuchar when her then-12-year-old daughter, Abigail, worried that some of the “mean TV ads” would be aimed at her, and what would her friends think?

“I don’t have time to make new friends,” she says, with only a touch of ruefulness. Her old friends—school pals in Minnesota—remain her buddies, and she says there’s never a question of having to instruct them about what to say, or not say, to strangers angling for gossip. “They just know,” she says.

Klobuchar says her life in Washington, D.C., is about as normal as it can be. Her husband, John Bessler, practices law and teaches at the University of Baltimore. Their daughter, now a teenager, attends a school in nearby Arlington, Virginia. Klobuchar goes about her business, serving her constituents while creating relatively little legislative drama, which is not at all the same thing as getting nothing done.

Despite the incessant rancor in Washington, Klobuchar paints a sunny picture of collegiality on Capitol Hill, at least among the Senate’s 17 women. “They had to stop calling us The Sweet Sixteen after Kelly Ayotte [a New Hampshire Republican] was elected,” she cracks.

Seventeen is as large as the Senate “female caucus” has ever been. Klobuchar talks with satisfaction about the Senate women gathering privately to coordinate legislation and trade stories. “We do dinner every other month, and what is said in that room stays in that room. Of course, we never talk about the male senators,” she says, laughing. But their collective power is no joke.

If you’re one of The One Hundred—the 100 powerful individuls who make up the U.S. Senate—one thing that’s tough to fake is the sense that you understand the everyday slog of middle-class lives. The Senate attracts more than its share of silver-haired stentorian characters who can glad-hand—in a practiced, self-effacing, even ingratiating way—their way through many situations. But their game gets shakier when they are drawn into discussing, say, the challenges of raising a family, the need for breast cancer research, or how the military handles sexual violence—issues in which Klobuchar has taken a keen interest. Klobuchar concedes that the U.S. Senate isn’t an ideal place for creating new BFFs.

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“To do a job, I think it’s impossible to fake your way through it.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar

COLLECTIVE POWER


Relative to other senators, Klobuchar doesn’t get much criticism. But the theme to the criticism she does receive (other than that she’s a godless tax-and-spend liberal who supported the government’s socialist takeover of health care and wants to turn the United States into Europe) is that she is guilty of playing “small ball.” This means devoting herself to largely non-controversial legislation that doesn’t make headlines.

The “small ball” complaint comes up so routinely among the political chattering class that it feels like another artifact from the echo chamber, something people pass along at cocktail parties to sound more informed than they really are. But Klobuchar, who professes to “enjoy” the legislative work of researching and assembling bills and orchestrating co-sponsorships with other senators, happily and proudly rattles off examples of her recent work. Like the bill, with Republican Susan Collins of Maine, requiring the Pentagon to keep all evidence related to sexual assaults in the military on file for 50 years, instead of the one year that had been the norm.

“I got all 17 of the women to support that bill,” says Klobuchar. “The male senators, John McCain and others, came on later. But the point is, no man had ever taken this on. It’s important because sexual violence in the military is increasing, and if you deal with this issue, more women will join the military.”

Another accomplishment she’s proud of is securing additional money for breast cancer research, specifically an amendment she sponsored covering younger women. “The women [senators] do things together all the time,” she says, “because we get along better than any other cross-party group.” In the Senate, there’s a word for the ability to coordinate bipartisan cooperation, and that word is power.

The bar for “cross-party” cooperation in Washington is appallingly low these days. But Klobuchar’s point is that while the headlines are full of noxious partisanship, “down lower, away from the big fights, there’s still a lot getting done.” Call it “small ball” if you will, but it’s still fundamental legislative work, she argues, work that has bona fide value to people in the middle class. And while she’s reluctant to overemphasize it, many of the below-the-radar issues she’s taken on have specific value to women, who are still a long way from proportionate representation in The World’s Most Exclusive Club.

THE LONG GAME


Few, if any, politicos think Klobuchar will have much trouble vanquishing whatever opposition stands in her way come November. Her general popularity, Iron Range cred, ease with the hoi polloi, record on women’s issues, and ability to talk intelligently (and often humorously) into a microphone are qualities that make her as invincible as any incumbent could hope to be.

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“Amy would have to screw up royally to lose this [election], and I don’t see that happening.”

—Arne Carlson, former Republican Governor

Former state legislator Dan Severson—he of the $34,000 campaign war chest—is one of a handful of Republicans with their hands up to oppose Klobuchar this November, and even he concedes her popularity. “She’s a very non-offensive person,” is how he puts it. “But she’s on the wrong side of every issue, and she’s never called on it because the mainstream news media is protecting her. A lot of people I talk to say she’s a do-nothing senator.” Severson rolls Klobuchar into his explanation for so much gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. “She’s been an impediment and an obstacle to changing that.” He pauses and adds, “I believe she’s feeling comfortable right now, and that’s fine. But we believe voters will respond to our case.”

Severson’s view contrasts, just a bit, with that of former Republican governor Arne Carlson, who says bluntly, “Amy would have to screw up royally to lose this one, and I don’t see that happening.”

Klobuchar intends to win and to go on winning for a long time. “It takes, on average, 15 years to achieve chairmanship of a major Senate committee,” she points out when asked about Paul Wellstone’s memorable promise not to run for a third term, something he was doing when he died in 2002. “A lot of influence comes with seniority, so I’m not saying what Paul said.”

In recent years, Minnesota has seen a number of woeful-to-disastrous one-and-out Senate terms by the likes of Rod Grams, Mark Dayton, and Norm Coleman. Consequently, Minnesota is a long way down the influence ladder in Washington, a ladder that can translate to tangible value to the state, as well as to the politician pushing legislation through the Senate’s Byzantine rules and horse-trading among its various competing committees.

How far Klobuchar’s political skills might take her can’t be predicted, of course. But pundit flattery, such as the 2008 New York Times story mentioning her among 21 women who might have presidential qualities, or the 2010 rumor circulating through the media that included her with eventual nominee Elena Kagan for the U.S. Supreme Court, never hurts. And, as if more proof were needed that she’s just one of the common folk, in January she won a bipartisan hot dish cook-off between Minnesota legislators with her recipe for “Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish” (taconite being the well-guarded secret ingredient in Iron Range cuisine).

MADE IN MINNESOTA


By the time Klobuchar’s “Made in Minnesota” tour wraps for the day in the Duluth Pack manufacturing store, a rickety old building on the city’s blue-collar west side, she’s shaken a couple hundred hands, had several dozen pictures taken, and been given a hands-on lesson in how to hammer brass rivets into the leather handles of super-sturdy backpacks.

On her way out the door she tells Tom Sega, Duluth Pack’s president, that she has a connection to an ABC News producer who might get his products on the network’s occasional “Made in America” segment, and she promises to put them in touch—a promise she keeps.

“She called back and invited me out to D.C. for a roundtable with 15 other Senators and 20 to 30 other businesspeople from all over the country,” Sega says a month later. “And when that was done, we went to the press room and did interviews with the media back here.”

Despite Duluth Pack’s iconic made-in-Minnesota image, Klobuchar is the only politician outside Duluth who has ever stopped in to see Sega’s operation. “She was pretty funny at the forum, too,” Sega recalled. “She held up my briefcase and told everyone we had a ‘show and tell.’ The guy building shipping containers couldn’t beat that.”

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“You have to stay connected to things outside of Washington.”

—Senator Amy Klobuchar

You have to consider the source when getting an opinion on Klobuchar from campaign adviser Blodgett, who acts as a kind of grand vizier to Minnesota’s liberal politicians. But a primary part of his job is assessing and grooming talent.

“It’s pretty rare when you find a person who fits the state so well. She’s an incredibly hard worker, she lives a modest life, and she’s downright funny,” he says. “What I’ve seen in this first term is that she’s become much more comfortable in the legislative environment. That wasn’t her strength [as Hennepin County attorney], where she was in an executive job. But she’s gotten very good at the give-and-take in Washington, D.C., a particularly funny place for women, especially in the Senate, but I expect that with reelection she’ll become even more comfortable. As I saw with [Wellstone], that first reelection is a huge confidence builder. Paul learned, as Amy is learning, that it takes over a decade to be effective on the really big issues.”

Simply surviving the conflicts and ego atmospherics of the U.S. Senate is a significant accomplishment, but Klobuchar insists that there’s no magic in what she’s doing other than working hard, being herself, and staying true to the values and people that are important to her.

“You have to keep yourself grounded,” she says. “You have to stay connected to things outside of Washington. For me, it’s my family. The other night, after a particularly long day, when we were up at the Capitol until 7 o’clock because one senator was holding up a bill, my husband and daughter and I went out to eat at a mall in Virginia. I was going on and on about how tough a day it was, but all my daughter cared about was how late Yogen Früz was going to be open. Moments like that help.”

ACCOMPLISHED AMY: 1995-2011


1995: Booted out of the hospital 24 hours after her daughter was born, Klobuchar decides to advocate for a law guaranteeing new moms and their babies a 48-hour hospital stay. This experience inspires her to enter public service.

1999-2006: As Hennepin County attorney, she helps pass Minnesota’s first felony DWI law, sponsors safe-schools initiative, and advocates for prosecuting violent and career criminals more severely.

2006: Becomes the first woman elected to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.

2007-2008: Takes the lead in Senate ethics reform to limit travel junkets and increase public exposure of lobbying activities. After the I-35W bridge collapse, she secures $250 million of disaster aid in 24 hours.

2007-2008: After a child’s death, she pens the Consumer Product Safety Commission Reform Act, banning the use of lead in toys.

2009: Introduces the Cell Phone Early Termination Fee, Transparency, and Fairness Act, limiting contract cancellation fees.

2010: Passes the International Adoption Simplification Act, allowing U.S. parents to adopt children who are siblings, even if one of those children is between the ages of 16 and 18.

2010: Passes the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, establishing national health standards for formaldehyde in composite wood products.

2011-2012: Helps Pass patent reform legislation to spur innovation, as well as the Export Promotion Act. She is currently involved in legislation to ban synthetic designer street drugs, ensure supplies of prescription and chemo drugs, and secure full benefits for Minnesota soldiers serving in Kuwait.

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