Chasing Amy

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.

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.”
 

 

ON TUESDAY, the morning after the march, I showed up at the University of Minnesota and followed the “Senator Klobuchar’s Innovation Summit” signs, where a different sort of crowd had gathered at her behest: lawyers, business people, policy wonks, officials, and academics. It was an ocean of blazers and bank accounts.

People settled into their seats, and one of the university deans began to make some opening remarks. But her words were drowned out by the sound of heavy machinery outside.

“We can’t hear you!” someone yelled from the back.

“Well,” Klobuchar quipped, “if they’d just stop the construction. I guess there’s a lot of innovation going on around here!”

Peals of laughter fill the room. It wasn’t that funny, but Klobuchar’s timing was spot-on. She can sometimes be funnier than Minnesota Senator Al Franken, a former comedian. In one speech, for example, she joked that her appointment to the Senate’s Subcommittee on Oceans was like Rahm Emanuel being given a seat on Ethics. She has joked about Dick Cheney radiating warmth and cheerfulness. “Her ability to see the absurdities of life is a gift,” says Jim Klobuchar. “It reminds her that this is not always life and death. That these issues she’s dealing with are important, but that there are also times to smile at the people around her. Including herself.”

Shortly after the start of the innovation summit, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the billionaire businesswoman and chair of the massive hospitality company Carlson, took the podium. “My favorite story about Amy,” she told the crowd, “is that when we were celebrating the end of the Republican convention, who showed up at the final moment to thank all the volunteers? The only national representative to show up at that meeting? In came Amy Klobuchar, our senator.”

The crowd exploded with applause.

“For the record,” Klobuchar added, “I did attend the Democratic convention.”

More laughter.

Then the jokes are put aside, and it’s down to business. Innovation is something that Klobuchar has made one of her top priorities, an issue guaranteed to appeal to both sides of the aisle. A few weeks after the summit, she would introduce the Innovate America Act, which would fund research and education, streamline regulations, and is expected to draw bipartisan support. She would also come out in favor of the America Invents Act, aimed at overhauling the patent system.

Patents, innovation, policy, process—Klobuchar has an actual interest in such stuff. Her instinct for policy was on display as far back as her college thesis (later published as a book), titled Uncovering the Dome, an in-depth, 170-page exploration of the 10-year process by which the Metrodome came into being. Riveting it isn’t, but it does offer some interesting insight into the budding political mind of young Amy Klobuchar. There is, for example, her thoughtful consideration of what constitutes the “public interest.” There is her argument in favor of representative democracy over direct democracy (“Citizens cannot possibly be well-informed on every issue,” she wrote). And then there is one very clear echo of the senator up on the stage: “This is not an idealized civics-book version of how things should work in American politics. This is a story of how they do work.”
 

AFTER COLLEGE, Klobuchar earned a law degree at the University of Chicago, then moved back to Minneapolis where she landed a job at the business-law firm Dorsey & Whitney. For the next 13 years, she worked in private practice, but the idea of a more public life was never far from her mind. She got more involved in Democratic politics, helping revive the DFL Education Foundation and working on campaigns for former Hennepin County commissioner Mark Andrew and former state representative Gloria Segal.

It was also during that period, in 1992, that she met a handsome young man from Mankato after work at City Billiards. John Bessler was a lawyer, too, and they had mutual friends.

“I don’t remember any impressions of her pool-playing abilities,” Bessler says. “She certainly wasn’t a hustler, if you want to put it that way.”

The two started talking and hit it off, so he asked her out. “We went to Wayne’s World on our first date,” Klobuchar recalls. “I didn’t know at the time, but John was almost eight years younger than me. When we went on our honeymoon, I was 33 and he qualified for a youth Eurail pass.”

They married in 1993 and two years later, their first and only child, Abigail, was born. The infant had a condition, however, that caused anything she swallowed to come out her nose. She couldn’t eat and needed intensive care, but after 24 hours the hospital kicked John and Amy out of the facility. The couple had to stay in a nearby hotel so they could visit their ailing daughter.

Klobuchar was outraged, and a few months later when a bill was being debated in the state legislature to ban such so-called “drive-by deliveries,” she showed up at the hearing with a long line of pregnant women to testify.

The bill was passed and took effect immediately.

In 1998, the Hennepin County Attorney job opened up, and Klobuchar decided to make a run for the office, even though people she trusted advised against it. They said it would be political suicide. They said no one in Minnesota had gone to state-wide office from the post since Floyd B. Olson was elected as governor in 1931.

But Klobuchar liked the idea of being in charge of an office where she could get things done as she wanted. So she organized a campaign, and ran a tough race against Republican Sheryl Ramstad Hvass.

The race was tight—so tight that after the polls closed, they were waiting at Kramarczuk’s Deli, which served as Klobuchar’s election-night headquarters, and they still didn’t know who’d won. As the night wore on, Klobuchar’s early lead seemed to be vanishing.

“We thought we might be losing,” Klobuchar says. “I was holding Abigail, who was probably three years old, and she’d eaten all this chocolate cake, which she threw up all over my red suit. And I remember thinking, ‘What can I do? Jesse Ventura just won the governorship and my daughter threw up all over me. Maybe I’ll lose. You can’t do anything about it.’ And I sort of laughed. Because that’s the thing about politics—you take the issues seriously, but you can’t take yourself too seriously. And that was one of those moments.”

Klobuchar won by less than 1 percent.

As Hennepin County Attorney, Klobuchar oversaw a staff of 400 and prosecuted roughly 10,000 cases a year. She focused on gun and property crimes, and, casting a cold eye on her father’s record, worked to make repeat drunk-driving a felony. It was an intense job that you could never quite leave at the office.

“I remember I never cried once in all eight years,” she says. “You have to be strong for these people when these horrific crimes happen or a jury verdict goes wrong.”

After serving two terms, she was ready to move on. She was trying to figure out what to do next when, to everyone’s surprise, Mark Dayton announced he was leaving the Senate. As it happened, Klobuchar had a round of radio appearances scheduled that same day, and in almost every interview she was asked if she was going to run.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m considering it.”

A few weeks later, she went ice fishing at the Eelpout Festival in Walker with then-County Attorney (now Judge) Earl Maus. On the way up, she got a call.

“It was someone who didn’t want me to run,” she says. “They told me I would never make it: I would never raise enough money, I didn’t have the connections, and the only way I could win was if I could raise $3 million in two months. I got to the fish house with Earl and told him what this person said, and he said, ‘Well, do you think you’d do a good job as a senator?’

“And I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’

“And he said, ‘Well, then, don’t you think you should do it?’”
 

 

ON WEDNESDAY, my third day with Klobuchar, we headed to southern Minnesota to do what she with does with much of her time: outreach.

It’s now been more than four years since Klobuchar’s first Senate race, against Mark Kennedy, which she won by a hefty 20 points—four years since she and John and Abigail drove to Washington, D.C., in their Saturn with their old shower curtain in back. “You could see we were from a little different background than some people in the Senate,” she says. “There are literally people whose dads were senators, and grandpas were senators, and that was always sort of the plan.”

Not being of the same pedigree, Klobuchar had to learn the ropes—and quickly.

“For someone who never really had a legislative position before, she really took to it pretty well,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report.

She also navigated partisan differences. “My working relationship with her was always a very positive one on things we agreed upon,” says Norm Coleman, then Minnesota’s senior senator. “We didn’t always vote the same way, and don’t have the same political philosophy, but when it came to working on things like the bridge collapse and citizen service issues that weren’t partisan, we worked hand in glove.”

So far, it seems Klobuchar has made more friends than enemies. One recent poll found 59 percent of Minnesotans approved of the job she was doing, the highest rating among the nearly 60 senators whose terms are set to expire in 2012.

But critics, like Tony Sutton, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, say those ratings are destined to drop. “Her support is a mile wide and an inch deep,” Sutton says. “There’s just no intensity there. People think she’s nice, but we’ve got some pretty big problems in this country, and we think it’s time for change.”

After an hour or so, we turned off the highway and rolled over snow-covered dirt roads until we arrived at the farm we were scheduled to tour. It was a medium-sized, family outfit, with just 600 or so head of cattle.

“Dairy farmers still have really tough issues,” Klobuchar told me as we pulled in. “And the next two years, we’ll be working on the farm bill. This is so we can get an idea of what they think will help.”

At the farm, everyone was friendly. There were doughnuts that no one ate. We were shown around the milk barn. We stood outside and looked at the prize-winning cows for a little while, then went back inside.

Klobuchar took it all in, looking bemused and mildly interested. Then, in the farm office, she and the owner got to talking about the how the corn and fuel prices affected their margins, and the complexities of commodities. I could see Klobuchar listening, processing, translating the conversation into some form of policy in her head.

Afterward, we drove to a technical college in Rochester where Klobuchar was given a demonstration of some computer “dashboards” the college is developing. On our way out, the senator stopped in the lobby for a short press conference, and a reporter asked her what she thought about “Amy Facts,” a website that had just been launched by her Republican critics. Klobuchar said she hadn’t seen it.

Later, I went and looked at Amy Facts. It claimed Klobuchar had voted with Al Franken 92 percent of the time. (This figure seemed at odds, however, with numbers from the National Journal, which ranked Klobuchar as the 38th most liberal senator and Franken as 15th.) “She hasn’t done a lot,” says Sutton. “She’s been involved with some superficial consumer-affairs type activities, but nothing substantive. She pretty much votes in lockstep with Al Franken and Barack Obama’s agenda.”

Over the course of her four years in Washington, Klobuchar has introduced some 50 bills, of which 25 have had Republican co-sponsors and 12 have been signed into law. “She’s passed a fair amount of legislation at a time when the Senate hasn’t been passing a lot of legislation,” says former Republican Senator Dave Durenberger. “The other thing I’ve noticed is that she seems to have spent time developing relationships with a variety of people, Republicans as well as Democrats.”

“It always helps to be somebody who other people are willing to work with,” says Jennifer Duffy. “She works well both within the caucus and across the aisle, which is harder than it seems, especially these days. She is very well liked, and will definitely move up. Her numbers look pretty solid. I have her [seat] rated solidly Democratic until somebody gives me a reason to change it.”

Our next stop was the Ronald McDonald house in Rochester to check on one of her “constituent services” cases, which Klobuchar seems to enjoy more than any of her senatorial duties. This particular case involved a pair of conjoined twins from Somalia named Amina and Aisha, who were attached at the chest and had been living in a refugee camp in Kenya. Klobuchar’s office had helped the family get a medical visa, so they could come to Mayo Clinic and be separated.

We were ushered into a conference room, which was filled with staff, family members of the girls, and the two doctors who performed the surgery. But only Amina was there.

After we sat down, one of the doctors began to walk us through what had happened, from the time the plane landed to the cheers of Somali women, to the operating room, to the moment, shortly after the surgery, when one girl lived while the other died.

In the conference room, Amina ran around, yelling, playing, smiling. She came over to me.

“Abdi,” she said. “Abdi?”

“She’s calling you uncle,” the woman next to me explained.

We stood to leave and everyone moved to shake the senator’s hand, to thank her. Then we were escorted back outside, where we got in the car and rolled on to Klobuchar’s next meeting.

“Politics is one of those vocations where there are a lot of ups and downs,” Klobuchar said, a little wistfully. “It’s not a good occupation for someone who wants to control their day or control their future, because there are a lot of things out of your control. But at the same time, there are so many rewards in getting things done for people, and representing people, and doing the best job you can.”

It sounded like the sort of thing a politician has to say. But now, somehow, it seemed a little more real. Because while politics may not always be about life and death, sometimes it is. And while you often have no choice but to laugh at the absurd, at other times you will cry about the same.

Then, after taking a moment to collect yourself, you march on.
 

Frank Bures’s work has appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Bicycling, and Scientific American, among other places. He lives in Minneapolis.

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