Why you should care
Because Sen. Klobuchar’s greatest assets — consensus-building, pragmatism and a sometimes-goofy style — may propel her to the national political stage.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
When asked whether she’s going to run for president, Senator Amy Klobuchar might say something like this:
“The joke is that in Minnesota, new moms bounce their babies on their knees and say, ‘One day, you could run for vice-president.’”
Or, as the second-term senator told OZY:
“I’ve been very supportive of Hillary Clinton running. I think she’d be a great president, and right now I love being senator.”
Notice that “right now”?
Klobuchar is a superstar in Minnesota. Her approval ratings there approach 70 percent. Her mentor, former Vice President Walter Mondale, considers her “the most popular and respected leader in Minnesota’s history.” Some see a direct lineage from President Hubert Humphrey, to Mondale, to Klobuchar. By all accounts, she’s hard-working, smart, conscientiously bipartisan and immensely likable.
Klobuchar herself is the antithesis of flashy.
No question Klobuchar wants to be more than senator. Behind her affable demeanor is an overachieving pol who drives her staff as hard as she drives herself. She appears regularly on “If not Hillary in 2016, then who?” lists, and whenever she visits Iowa, the press reminds readers that politicians never accidentally visit Iowa.
“I clearly like going around the country and helping my colleagues,” Klobuchar says, noting she had recently traveled or would travel to Texas, Arizona and North Carolina.
*As a Midwesterner, this reporter has license to tease Midwesterners.
The question is whether Klobuchar’s low-key, practical and sometimes-goofy style will play outside Minnesota. For all their virtues, which are abundant, Midwesterners sometimes lack the glamor and hint of danger we tend to crave in national leaders.*
Klobuchar herself is the antithesis of flashy. No blinding Bachmann lip gloss, no Pelosian blowouts. Washingtonian Magazine deemed her one of the two senators least likely to get into a scandal. (The other was Orrin Hatch.) And her appearance—short brown hair, minimal makeup, unremarkable wardrobe—is as careful as her politics. Despite the legions that support her, Klobuchar won’t be leading the charge to the barricades anytime soon.
Then again, some might look at the state of our democracy—shutdowns, dumb fights, legislative gridlock, polarizing rhetoric– and think a dose of Klobuchar is exactly what we need right now.
Despite the fact that she’s a Democrat, I still like her.
“I’ve looked at all the hyper-partisanship and I truly believe that being bold is looking for common ground,” says Klobuchar. Courage, she says, sometimes means standing “next to someone you don’t always agree with for the betterment of our country.”
Klobuchar likes to note that two-thirds of the bills she sponsors have a Republican co-sponsor—among them, immigration reform legislation that would revamp visa requirements for tech workers and invest in STEM education here.
More than that, though, is the affection she seems to elicit from across the aisle.
“Despite the fact that she’s a Democrat, I still like her,” says Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership. “I’ve put up with her and her liberal ways for a long time.”
But seriously, folks. Weaver counts himself as a friend and commends Klobuchar’s support of Minnesota’s business community. Klobuchar is authentic, he says. “She votes with the president 90 percent of the time, but she’s well liked, and very, very well liked and respected by the business community.”
She’s gone to bat for the state’s biotech industry, urging the repeal of a medical devices tax, and for Minnesota-based General Mills, asking the FTC to roll back voluntary guidelines related to sugar labeling. As important is her attitude, which seems genuinely respectful and positive toward business: She’s as likely to call a CEO to congratulate him on a favorable profile in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as she is to name-check local companies in the recipe for her entry to the annual Hotdish contest. (Her entry this year, a freezer pie named “It’s So Cold My Hotdish Froze,” garnered runner-up.)
Business support is key to her politics. The recession and jobs hemorrhage made Klobuchar “step back and ask—how do we be a country that makes stuff again and exports stuff to the world instead of just churning money around,” she says. It doesn’t always sit well with progressives.
But their main complaint concerns something else: Klobuchar is overly cautious, they say, eager to champion easy wins (like legislation that makes swimming pools safer), but not willing to stick her neck out on issues that might alienate conservatives. The diss goes something like: “Well, there’s Amy Kobuchar, leading on pool drains.”
I think she’s been looking at the presidency forever.
That’s not quite fair. Just last week she was campaigning for the Senate’s bill to hike the minimum wage, which she cosponsored. Moreover, even those who wish Klobuchar were bolder on issues like inequality concede she might not have much choice. “There’s not a lot of common ground to be found in DC, but to her credit, she is able to find it,” says Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, a grassroots organization.
Still, observers suspect that excessive caution could become a liability. Without a signature piece of legislation or a position in Congressional leadership, Klobuchar does not yet have the profile that would support national politicking. “You have to be around for a long time to have that kind of sway, and she’s not at that level yet,” says Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.
But it’s also clear Klobuchar, 53, is playing the long game. “I think she’s been looking at the presidency forever,” says Jacobs. Her resume is wholly Type A. As a Yale undergrad, she interned at the office of Vice President Mondale. (Klobuchar likes to quip that “she was an intern in Washington when it was safe,” Mondale wrote in an email to OZY.) Her senior thesis investigated the decade-long legislative fight to build Minnesota’s Superdome. It was published as a book.
Klobuchar studied law at the University of Chicago, where she was on the law review. She returned to Minnesota and made partner at two law firms before turning to public service. In 1998, she was elected Hennepin County attorney—chief prosecutor in Minnesota’s most populous county. She ran for senator in 2005 and won reelection in a landslide, 65 to 30 percent.
Along the way, she’s cultivated an approachable, folksy demeanor. “If you knew her 20 years ago you wouldn’t say, ’That’s a folksy person.’ She’s really worked at it,” Jacobs says. “It’s genuine, it’s not a put-on. But she’s also been very conscious of creating an aura around herself of, ‘oh, shucks.’ And the humor thing, too.”
Oh, yes, the humor thing. President Obama isn’t the only one who half-jokingly calls Klobuchar Minnesota’s funniest senator——really quite something when you consider the competition is Al Franken, formerly of SNL. Klobuchar is astoundingly good at stand-up. Whatever boldness she lacks on the Senate floor, she’s got in spades behind the podium. Just check out her jokes and the belly laughs they elicited at the GridIron dinners she headlined in 2009 and 2013.
Some liken her to a duck gliding along the water, seemingly unruffled above the surface and paddling furiously underneath the surface.
But most of the ribbing is affectionate.
Klobuchar and Franken take turns appearing at an annual dinner hosted by the Minnesota Business Partnership. Last year was Franken’s turn, and that occasioned some teasing in absentia. The joke went: “If this were the Iowa Business Roundtable, Amy would have been here, no question.”