Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar
Meet the woman who (thanks to Hillary and Sarah’s bushwhacking) many say should be pointing her ambition at the White House
Her first job-job? Working as a carhop at an A&W root beer stand at the age of 14. “They made me wear a T-shirt that said take home a jug of fun.” At Yale, she spent another summer working as a construction worker. Because she wanted a boy job. “I pounded eight-pound stakes into the ground working on a highway. With two guys on a crew. And it was after my first year at Yale, and I was obsessed with gaining more vocabulary words”—she felt a bit outmatched by her fancier Yale classmates—“and so I bought this book, something like How to Improve Your Vocabulary in 30 Days. Every time we had a break on the construction crew, I would read the book to the guys and quiz them on more words.”
At Yale she continued to indulge a passion for cycling. And not just bike riding. For Amy that meant long treks through Russia and Slovenia. When she was a junior, she did 1,100 miles (100 miles a day) with her father, from Minneapolis to the Grand Tetons. Amy didn’t do anything in moderation. Her father remembers that trip, which she planned down to every pitched tent, as the ultimate bonding experience with his daughter. “I’d known her as a child, I’d known her as an adolescent, but this was the first time I got to know her as a young woman, with all her ambitions and hopes and dreams and career plans,” which she shared with her father under the stars at night. “We cried together, we laughed, we yelled at each other.”
There was reason for that. Amy’s father battled alcoholism throughout her entire childhood and adolescence. “He had two DWIs when I was in junior high and it was on the front page of the paper,” because he was well-known. “Some kid used a key and carved drunk on my locker.” As early as age five or six, she knew her daddy had a problem. Once after he’d been in charge of babysitting her and her younger sister, she left a note for her mother on the refrigerator explaining that Daddy couldn’t get the “dipper” (she meant diaper) on Beth. “I think something’s rong. Can you please check when you get home? I didn’t want to hurt his feels.”
He got help and quit, for good, only after he got his third DWI and faced possible jail time in 1993, “my wedding year. I had told his newspaper [the Minneapolis Star Tribune] they needed to help him, and they just blew me off.”
How did her father’s struggle affect her? She thinks about this. She doesn’t seem to have the typical child-of-an-alcoholic reaction of blaming herself for things. “It made me try to…you want to influence things, to control things. So you call the employer, you take his car keys away…. It just makes you want to be in charge and take control. At a very young age.” She pauses. “But there was never any hatred, really. I always knew he loved me and my sister.”
Two weeks after Amy’s Minneapolis weekend, she is in her office at the Hart building. A huge sign out front says Welcome to Minnesota Morning with Amy Klobuchar. She does this every Thursday—a little openhouse kaffeeklatsch for anyone who happens to be visiting Washington from the home state and feels like dropping by for potica (a Minnesota walnut-roll delicacy—she has them flown in) and “Spam puffs.” Another Minnesota delicacy.
The reception area of Klobuchar’s office is all cherry wood and rather manly. (The most prominently displayed photo in the room is of Abigail fist-bumping Barack Obama.) But inside her private office, it’s all woman. The soft tones in pale yellows, the serene oil paintings by Minnesota artists (“Blanche Lincoln [senator from Arkansas] told me where to hang everything”), the soft, comfy sofa, the homespun picture frames with family snapshots. Notably, there is no ego wall—the zillions of framed photographs of said politician shaking hands with every other politician in the world.
“I think I’m different in that I come from a more humble background,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who either came in with money and resources or their families were in politics before. I still remember my first day [on the job], I dropped Abigail off at school in the Saturn, and she tripped over the seat belt thing and all her books went all over and all these kids were watching. And she picked them all up and looked at me and she went, ‘Mom, it’s okay. Those were eighth graders; I’ll never know them.’ Because she was in sixth grade. Later that day, I almost drank the Thousand Island dressing.”
She greets her hometown peeps at the coffee hour, lingering with every person who made the effort to show up. Then her staff packs her off to a Judiciary Committee meeting. She is briefed along the way, as her one-inch heels click along the mighty marble floors of the Capitol. Inside the Judiciary hearing, Amy takes her seat in order of seniority—behind New York’s Charles Schumer but ahead of Al Franken. She is most concerned with the nominee she recommended for U.S. Marshal—a woman who would not only be the second female marshal, but the only openly gay one. She gives a little spiel for her, not mentioning the gay part, as Republican senators Jeff Sessions and Orrin Hatch eyeball her. “And she was head of security for the Republican National Convention [in Minneapolis].” Her nominee passes unanimously.
“One of the things people really respect about her is she is committed to the Democratic agenda, but she is able to communicate that message in a very positive way, without being antagonistic,” says Karen Finney, a political analyst for MSNBC. “Some of the dialogue here in Washington has really disintegrated, but she doesn’t work that way, and I think that earns her a lot of respect. I view her as part of the next generation of politicians, kind of like President Obama.”
She heads next to the Senate floor, where a vote is being taken on Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski’s mammogram bill, which aims to guarantee women coverage of mammograms beginning at age 40. Amy, who is for it, of course, discreetly breaks away from the pack of women senators (who are all clustered together; it is just like high school!) to schmooze a bit with South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. As soon as she spies him walking into the chambers, she makes a beeline over to him. In her constant efforts to work across the aisle, she is quite proud that she recently got Graham to cosponsor a bill: “To get a Republican on a bill that’s called ‘Torture Victims Relief Reauthorization Act of 2009’…” Well, that was pretty cool, she notes later. But from the Senate gallery, all you can see is her chestnut bob and dimples. She’s laughing, hard, with Graham. And working it. Whatever the next big thing happens to be.