How do you get to be the state’s most popular politician? It requires legwork, empathy, and a sense of humor, as Senator Amy Klobuchar knows.
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On a cold Monday morning last January, Amy Klobuchar was walking down the sidewalk toward Central High School in St. Paul. I first spotted her long red coat, which made her stand out amid the snow and the crowd. Without it, I might have missed the senator, being as she is short and rather ordinary-looking.
Klobuchar does not look like one of the most powerful people in the state. She does not look like one of the most ambitious politicians currently at work in Washington. She does not look like Minnesota’s most popular public official, which she is. She is neither beautiful, nor ugly. She looks pleasant, sensible, normal.
Yet I could see as we walked into the high-school lobby that most people regarded Klobuchar as anything but normal. As she moved forward, her presence sent a ripple through the crowd, which had gathered to march in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The school was full of people from all kinds of social strata. There were community organizers and aging hippies, eager students and dutiful civil servants. Some whispered as they saw her. Others pushed terrified children at her. More than a few wanted to talk.
“Thank you for fighting for us!” yelled one woman.
Klobuchar stopped to shake her hand. She seemed to know the woman, though that, of course, is the art of politics. The senator mingled easily, politely chatting, joking, and seeming to enjoy herself.
A tall, older African American man came up to greet her.
“That’s Reverend Battle,” she told me after he left. “If one thing is always the same here, it’s me and Reverend Battle. I came to this event for eight years as the Hennepin County Attorney. Then I came with Norm Coleman and Tim Pawlenty. Then I came with just Pawlenty. And now I’m here again. It’s always me and Reverend Battle.”
What she was saying, I gathered, was that she’d put in the time, the miles, to get where she is now. It was not an accident that she ended up where she is.
“She has unbelievable energy,” says Walter Mondale, who’s known Klobuchar since the 1970s. “She goes to everything in the state. She visits every county.”
“She’s a little bit like Hubert Humphrey,” says Marianne Short, a lawyer who worked with Klobuchar and who knew the Happy Warrior many years ago. “He would have this a brutal schedule, but every time he stopped to talk to someone at a café or on the street, he would just charge up like a battery. She has that same trait.”
A man with a bullhorn instructed us to go outside, and several hundred people piled out into the street.
“All dignitaries and officials up to the front, please!” the man with the bullhorn roared. There were suddenly dignitaries galore: sheriffs and police chiefs and pastors. Even the newly minted governor, Mark Dayton, materialized just in time for the photos.
Moving down the road, singing old spirituals, I tried to keep my mind on Dr. King and injustice and things like that. I fell back, and quickly lost sight of the senator. But I assumed she was still up there at the front, with Reverend Battle, marching like some wind-up toy that just keeps going and going.
KLOBUCHAR KNOWS a thing or two about endurance. One of the people she learned this from was her dad, Jim Klobuchar, a columnist with the Star Tribune for nearly 40 years.
When Amy was 14, the two of them decided to bike from their home in Plymouth to Ely, where Jim’s parents lived.
“We started from our house,” Jim told me over coffee recently. “It was about 250 miles, and we were going to do it in three days.”
“I had these little strawberry shorts on,” Amy recalls. “I’d never gone longer than 20 miles in my life, and I had this American Arrow bicycle that he’d gotten at some fire sale, and only the top five gears worked. But the first day we were going so well, because the wind was at our backs, that we got to Hinckley for lunch.”
“I said I thought we should extend our destination a little,” says Jim. “I looked at the map and said, ‘Cloquet looks like a good distance.’ She said, ‘Dad, that’s not what you promised!’ I said, ‘I know, but we’ve got to adapt to conditions on the ground.’ She didn’t talk to me for a couple hours after we got there.”
They made it to Cloquet and, by noon the next day, were in Ely.
Over the years, the two went on many such rides, even after Jim and Amy’s mother, Rose, divorced, while Amy was in high school, and even after Jim was cited for multiple DWI violations, leading someone to scratch “drunk” into the paint on Amy’s locker at school. Amy lived with Rose, a school teacher who passed away last year, and her sister, Meagan. But she still saw her dad. And already by then, she had strong ideas about who she was and who she could be.
“She was always a leader,” says Klobuchar’s high-school friend Amy Scherber. “People knew that she had dreams of maybe being governor or something like that. But it wasn’t very specific.”
“I loved organizing things,” says Klobuchar. “In high school, I was on the student council, and I organized the drive to save the high-school prom by selling Life Savers lollipops. We sold those things everywhere. I organized skits and movie groups and all kinds of things.”
Klobuchar finished at the top of her class, then went to school at Yale. Arriving in New Haven, she was prepared for every eventuality. “I even packed my pink polyester prom dress,” she says, “with the matching shoes and shawl, just in case I needed it…because you never know!”
She was one of a few token Midwesterners at Yale, and she occasionally came back to her dorm to find pictures of tractors on her door. But it was also there that she started to get more interested in politics, eventually signing on with the Carter-Mondale campaign.
That summer, she returned to Minnesota and worked construction on Highway 494. “People say, ‘Oh, did you hold a sign?’” Klobuchar says. “No, I never held a sign. I put stakes in the ground. I held an eight-pound maul.”
But other summers she did more auspicious things, like work in the Minnesota attorney general’s office, under Warren Spannaus, and intern at the White House, where her first assignment was to take inventory of all the furniture in Vice President Walter Mondale’s office.
Then, the summer before her senior year, she asked her dad to go on another bike trip, this time out west to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, a trip they both still remember well.
“It was a formative time in her life,” Jim says now. “She talked about having a serious relationship down the line. She talked about her interest in public service. I didn’t really know this young woman until that ride. We had a lot of fun. We had some arguments. We laughed at each other. We talked about a hundred things. She was full of plans for what she was going to do after graduation.”
“The first day, we’d gone 100 miles, and I wanted to stop,” says Amy. “And he said, ‘No! We can go 10 more miles.’ I was dragging behind, and I looked back and saw what looked like a tornado. I thought, ‘I’m so tired I’m now hallucinating.’ But it was a tornado.” They crawled into a ditch and watched the dark tornado pull up trees as it passed by, about 400 yards away.
They kept moving forward, gradually uphill, into the wind, through the heat of summer. They rode as far as they could each day, then pitched a tent wherever they ended up. Jim would write his column around 6 each morning, then around 10 they would stop at a café or a farmhouse so he could call it in. After 10 days and 1,100 miles, they reached the last climb up over the continental divide.
“It was about a four-hour ride to the top of the Togwotee Pass,” Jim says. “Amy wasn’t feeling well that day. She was about 10 or 15 yards behind me, and I kept looking back and asking her if she was all right. There were beads of sweat coming down her face, but she said, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay.’ We kept plugging.
“When we got to the top we rested for half an hour. And because of the stress of it, she got some tears in her eyes. The hardest part was over and we’d done it. It was a relief for her, but I think she was also very proud. It was demanding, but you had to want to do it.”
Amy has a more business-like recollection of the ride: “I’m very goal-oriented,” she says. “So this kind of trip was perfect for me.”