Amy Klobuchar: the senator from Minnesota

Elected to a third term in a landslide, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and husband John Bessler wave to the election night crowd in Minneapolis on Nov. 7, 2018. (PHOTO: Lorie Schaull, Flickr CC)

I first met Amy Klobuchar in a back alley in International Falls, Minnesota, not far from a paper plant along the Canadian border.

It was late summer on the cusp of autumn. I was managing the 2006 State House campaign of my friend Tom Anzelc. A 60-year-old ex-teacher and labor official, Tom found himself in a tough primary against another grizzled local political veteran. We knew Tom had to keep it close up along the border, his opponent’s base.

The district, known for electing conservative Democrats, had changed after the last redistricting. Half of it now included the western Mesabi Iron Range, including Tom’s hometown and our political base. “A real Democrat” (our thrilling 2006 tagline) had a chance. The key was to maximize Tom’s standing as a labor stalwart with the Steelworkers who staffed the paper plant. If we could close the gap in Koochiching County we’d win.

So there were were, shifting on our feet in that alley, waiting to meet a short, bespectacled Twin Cities prosecutor running for the U.S. Senate. She had called to say she could help.

I had my doubts.

Soon Klobuchar appeared from around a street corner. My view of her was framed by a Dumpster and a stack of wood pallets. She carried nothing. Donning short sleeves, she was dressed for glad-handing. The first time I met her was the last time I’d see Amy Klobuchar without staff.

A warm smile quickly melted into business as we conferred in the alley.

“He’s over there,” said Tom. “Our opponent.”

“I saw him,” said Amy.

Our opponent, Bob Anderson, happened to be one of the managers at the paper plant. Apparently aware of our plans, he had posted himself 15 feet from the entrance door, ready to shake the same hands we would. The milieu came to resemble a tense scene from “Deadwood” or “Tombstone,” though mercifully devoid of sidearms or tobacco spit.

The streets outside the plant stood still, though not quiet. The droning of the paper mill forced us to raise our voices just slightly. The distinctly flatulent smell of chemicals mixed with wood pulp filled the warm air.

Looking back on this day it stands out for what it wasn’t. There were no throngs of sign-waving volunteers. In fact, we hadn’t brought a single sign. I carried a Nokia phone that was truly just a phone. Tom refused to use the internet (it would take ten years for that to catch up with him). The event was not publicized. It was strictly about the workers soon to enter and exit the plant gate. They’d look at Tom and Amy, and they’d look at Bob, and they’d tell their friends what they thought of them.

Amy and Tom had met before in Minnesota’s complex Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party network. Amy was a hotshot lawyer who became the high profile Hennepin County Attorney, prosecuting some of the state’s biggest criminal cases.

I had seen Amy speak. As the 20th Century turned into the 21st, she became an all-purpose aspirant who showed up to give speeches anywhere people would listen. This started years prior to her running for statewide office. She became a sort of William Jennings Bryan in flats who always had to adjust the microphone.

She’d show up at the kind of local conventions where you needed to poke the credentials officer to make sure they weren’t dead.

What’s this lady running for?

I don’t know, she’s just here.

Should we let her speak?

I guess so.

And then she got a hold of the microphone and woke the place up. She was loud, but let the union guys do the heavy duty yelling. Amy’s ticket was punched on charm. Pure charm. She was everybody’s sister. The smart schoolgirl in the front row who could turn around and shut down the bullies with a few well-chosen words.

In 2006 it looked like there might be a tough Democratic primary in the U.S. Senate race. After a few months of small local political gatherings and phone calls, Klobuchar’s main rivals each decided not to run. Before the state convention rolled around in late spring she had locked up the endorsement, the nomination and was already running a general election campaign.

She would win the fight before it started, a theme in her career.

And she was spending her political capital on a DFL legislative primary as far north as you could go, something Tom would always appreciate.

In International Falls we remarked how well our signs matched hers — blue and green accents. Laughter over the fact that we designed them with the same idea — blue and green for the labor/environmental coalition, but also the national colors of their shared ancestral land of Slovenia.

As Tom and I quietly muttered over Bob Anderson’s unexpected arrival, Amy spoke.

“Would you mind if I went to talk to him? It would smooth things over.”

It didn’t bother us, so away she went. Now the western theme really boiled over as she marched across the parking lot to greet Anderson, who — as you might guess — she already knew. No jingling spurs. Just silent casual shoes and the unmistakable voice hollering “Hi, Bob!”

She shook his hand. They spoke briefly. Then she walked back to where we had set up our post along the sidewalk to the employee lot.

You’ll be fine, she said. Besides, she opined, he’s their boss and we’re with the union.

Sure enough, when shift change happened, only a few hands were extended to Bob. Tom got a warm reception and Amy fit right in. Our opponent had hastily reacted to news of our plans. We achieved our goal by not blinking. The soon-to-be-senator knew how it would go just a few minutes after getting out of her car.

This Sunday, on the auspiciously named Boom Island in Minneapolis, Sen. Klobuchar is expected to announce her campaign for president.

People will talk about her effective prosecutorial role on the judiciary committee and her big margins of victory in her three midwestern Senate elections. They’ll remark on the fact that’s she’s a genuinely funny person. I’ve been trying to book her as a comic for my radio show as a gag for years, to no avail.

But what I think of is the woman who crossed that parking lot in International Falls. The one who strides friendly and fearlessly into what many would now call Trump’s America. A damn good politician.

George Will likes her, too, which is strange. He cites her temperament as her key strength, which is true even if primary voters don’t necessarily value that quality. On the left, she’s been criticized by some for being too safe in her political decisions, for maintaining her big margins by easing up on liberal policy priorities.

However, some call her too tough. The Huffington Post landed a timely punch this week by documenting complaints by former staffers over what they call harsh and abusive treatment in her office. Bring Me the News explored those accusations with an objective eye.

There’s no doubt she’s more sharp-elbowed than her friendly exterior would indicate. Those in Minnesota politics chuckle at the notion that Sen. Klobuchar is “too nice” to be president. Fact is, that’s the least of our concerns. She’s a deeply strategic thinker and a demanding leader, completely nonplussed by bullies, rivals or a hostile room.

Klobuchar might struggle to break out of the pack in a crowded Democratic field. After all, presidential politics extends way beyond shaking hands at plant gates. Minnesotans don’t get first dibs on the West Coast tech money or East Coast banking money.

Nevertheless, I’d advise party voters to see what the senator from Minnesota says and does before making up their minds. Her combination of charm and steel could be a potent political weapon in 2020.


Comments

  1. Klobuchar has one enormous advantage in the 2020 presidential sweepstakes: Iowa, the crucial first stop for the campaign, is just a short drive from her central base in the Twin Cities, and her core supporters can put the full court press on in Northern and Central Iowa and still be home for bedtime. Back in 2008, a largely unknown Senator from another state neighboring Iowa used that advantage to help notch an early victory that ended up with him in the White House.

    Klobuchar seems to be able to navigate the extremely difficult straits of being a successful big time woman politician with skill and success that easily tops all comers. “Likability?” Check. “Gravitas?” Check. Easygoing style combined with killer obliteration of opponents. Check, check.

    One negative is that her 2016 convention speech was uncharacteristically flat, something that means that for a lot of hard core Dems — the kind that actually watch the convention and the kind that turn out for primaries and caucuses — she gave a less than optimal look at her abilities.

    It is probably actually good that the attack on her as a boss — a topic common in Minnesota ever since she was County Attorney — has hit the media early, since now is the time to dispose of that attack and make it old news come next winter.

    Her biggest impediment is probably that she is in a middle of the road lane well to the right of many of the most activist and active members of the Party. For the start, with the left lane very crowded, that might actually help as her opponents cannibalize each other, but if she gets through the early primaries while some opponents are eliminated and ends up in a head to head with a surviving left wing candidate, her moderate stance could become a problem, and that problem could extend into the general election, since some left wing Democrats have shown themselves willing to accept the election of Republicans rather than allow compromise of the purity of their positions. Third party votes and/or stay at homes could sabotage Klobuchar and re-elect Trump.

    One other thing: the shift of California’s primary has made “Super Tuesday” into “Super-Super-Super-Super Tuesday,” and candidates will need big bucks to come out of that re-enactment of the Battle of the Borodino. Klobucher may be at a disadvantage compared with candidates who come from places nearer to the big money sources or who can generate the kind of high-energy enthusiasm that can translate into campaign cash.

    For the Democrats to beat Trump, they just need to hold all the states that Clinton carried and win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Klobuchar seems ideally positioned to do that, as well as possibly to add Iowa, Arizona, and North Carolina.

    It is also impossible to not notice that if there is a male Presidential candidate, Amy K is the ideal VP candidate. I keep wondering if it might not even be true that she would be the ideal VP for a Coastal based left leaning woman candidate, since I doubt that any people very upset by a two woman ticket would vote for a woman candidate in the first place. Donald “Grab em by the *****” Trump has the hard core misogynists locked up, and the more closeted anti-woman voters are not likely to be swayed by the inclusion of a Cory Booker or equivalent as the VP.

    It is, of course, extremely early days. This time in 2016, Scott Walker looked like the Republican best positioned to win the nomination, and he was gone when there was still snow on the ground in Des Moines. The next six months will give us all a better feel for just who, among the many volunteers for Democratic Presidential candidate, will start pulling away from the large field to become one of the finalists. At this point, I think Klobuchar has as good a chance as any, and probably better than most.

  2. Re: BMTN, Senator K admitted to being demanding saying she has high expectations. I fully endorse that vs low or no standards when hiring staff, ahem.

    • So…setting high expectations & being demanding. Good parents, teachers, managers and coaches all do that. However, no good leaders attempt to accomplished this by “bullying” employees, “mistreating” employees, “habitually demeaning” employees, “berating” employees and “humiliating” employees. All of which is being said of Ms. K. 

  3. David Gray says:

    I remember when Humphrey had a huge advantage in 1960: Wisconsin.

    That cuts two ways. You have an advantage of sorts but Klobuchar’s home state’s proximity to Iowa will also raise expectations.

    • Agree. The “regional advantage” works sometimes, but fails others. Pawlenty, Walker, and Bachman are three good examples.

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