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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

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


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