The Audacity of Minnesota: Senator Amy Klobuchar
Meet the woman who many say should be pointing her ambition at the White House
This piece was originally published in ELLE.
In Sept. 2018, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about sexual assault allegations Ford brought against Kavanaugh. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a member of the committee, immediately stood out in the hearing, asking Ford what she couldn’t forget about the night she was allegedly attacked, and at one point receiving an apology from Kavanaugh after he asked Klobuchar if she had ever blacked out from drinking, a question she also asked him. She’s also been rumored to be a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.
Back in March 2010, Lisa DePaulo interviewed Klobuchar about her path to politics. This is the article:
The first day Amy Klobuchar arrived in the U.S. Senate, she needed to visit the ladies’ room, as ladies do, and accidentally walked into the men’s room instead. Well. She would like to tell you she discovered something truly spectacular in the men’s room of the esteemed Hart Senate Office Building. Russ Feingold unzipped, maybe? (Hey, we’d line up for that!) But no. What she discovered was this: “It’s twice as big as ours and has a shoeshine chair!” Ba-da-boom.
She loves to tell that one. Today she is telling it to 800 wool-suited, kitten-heeled, and bow-bloused Minnesota women who have turned up in a ballroom in downtown Minneapolis to watch Amy—everyone calls her Amy, and if they don’t, she instructs them to do so—get a Pioneer Award. Well, who’s more of a pioneer than she? As the luncheon crowd is reminded, she’s the first woman from Minnesota ever to be elected to the Senate. (When Hubert Humphrey died, his wife, Muriel, was appointed to serve out his term.) But we would argue it’s more: Klobuchar is like the Cousin Marilyn of politicians in a state that for decades has produced Munsters: Jesse Ventura. Al Franken. Norm Coleman. And (cue the Star Trek music) let’s not forget Michele “Obama-is-anti-American” Bachmann.
So how, on November 7, 2006, did Amy Klobuchar get elected in Minnesota, in a landslide vote? Or perhaps more to the point: Could it be that her utter normalcy has something to do with the fact that while she’s one of only 17 women in the Senate (“the great thing about having 17,” as she puts it, “is they can no longer call us the Sweet 16”) and serves on the commerce and judiciary and three other Senate committees and is a major player in the health care debate, that shockingly little is known about Klobuchar outside her home state?
Besides wandering into the men’s room, the other story Amy likes to tell about her first day as a U.S. senator is about the first lunch she attended with the Democratic caucus. “There I am,” she says in a car on the way to some event in the Minnesota sticks, “I’ve got eight senators at my table. I get some soup and salad, and I bring it back to the table, and I’m thinking, `I’m in the LBJ Room!’ I’m ready to dive into my soup. And Patty Murray grabs my arm and says, `Amy, you just took the entire bowl of Thousand Island dressing, and you’re about to eat it.’ And I said, `That’s what we do in Minnesota!’ “
Herein lies a key to Amy Klobuchar. She is acutely aware of the need to blend her folksiness, her realness, with her driving ambition, which, quite frankly, no woman should have to apologize for but all of them end up doing. That she does it better than most—with humor and the requisite self-deprecation—obscures the fact that Klobuchar is no accidental politician.
A few more things you need to know about her: She is funny. At times even funnier than Al Franken.
“It is what it is,” she says about her colleague in the Senate, then quickly adds: “Oh, we get along, yes! I mean, he really, genuinely, you know, wants to do good. And he’s working really hard.”
She is scary smart (and not just because she graduated from Yale in political science and then went to law school at the University of Chicago). She has managed in her first couple of years in the Senate to be disarmingly effective. “Klobuchar conquered the learning curve very quickly,” says Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for the political insider bible The Cook Political Report. “She plays well with others, not just her colleagues but across the aisle. I’ve yet to encounter anyone either in the Senate or who does business with the Senate who doesn’t like her, and that goes a long way.”
She can also be a hard-ass, in a good way. Like when she consistently digs her heels in on consumer-protection issues despite the fact that Minnesota’s big corporations helped her get elected. You don’t get to the Senate by being a wuss. But somehow she also manages to placate. And the most important thing, even though it sounds corny: There’s a sincere happiness about Klobuchar. She laughs constantly. She giggles. She does not project the typical guarded let-me-think-about-this-before-I-answer politician response. Her sportswriter father, Jim Klobuchar, who attended the luncheon in Minneapolis, told me when I asked him to sum up what makes Amy different: “There’s a lot of joy in her. She has an eye for the absurdities of life. And that reflects itself in a lot of ways.” He is correct.
Later that night, Amy’s in the backseat of a car headed to the president’s house. Well, the president of the University of Minnesota, but still. In the course of the evening, she’ll hit all the Minnesota talking points (Brett Favre: “A natural leader,” she declares. Target: Of course she shops there! It’s a Minnesota company! “I plug Target every chance I get.” The new commuter train to Big Lake? That she just happened to help fund? What’s not to love?).
Amy begins her remarks to the CARE group following several anguished speeches from workers who’ve returned from the fields of the world’s atrocities by telling a story about the last time she was at Eastcliff. Her daughter Abigail, who’s now 14, was a wee thing at the time and, all agog at the president’s house, went wandering off. “When we found her, my daughter was opening up his wife’s underwear drawer!” The crowd—so serious up till this point— bursts into laughter.
Abigail is a running set piece for Amy’s speeches. There’s a thing about telling stories about your kids when you’re a politician. They either hit the exact right tone or (see Senator Scott Brown) bomb in cringe-inducing fashion. Amy almost always manages to hit the right tone. “And when we got in the car, I said, `Honey, do you know what you were in?’ And she said—and yes, this is a girl who learned to read too young—`I was in her LING-oray drawer, Mom.’ ” More laughter. Then she proceeds to thank the CARE people for being a moral force in the world.
Amy’s only child was born with a condition that kept her from being able to swallow. For three years she had to be fed through a stomach tube. But 24 hours after she was born, “they threw me out of the hospital, which is horrible even if your baby’s not sick,” Amy recalls, sipping a glass of chardonnay with a group of women after the Eastcliff speech. That was when she, then “just” a working mom, albeit a corporate lawyer mom, used her lawyer contacts to get an audience before the state legislature and successfully lobbied Minnesota to pass one of the first laws in the country guaranteeing new moms and their babies a 48-hour hospital stay. Her first foray into governance was quite a success: President Clinton later made it a federal law. “I had to go and testify about things like your water breaking,” she says, “so I told them very detailed things to make them feel squeamish so they’d pass the bill the right way.” But the best part, Amy says with relish, was “when some lobbyists wanted to delay the time until the bill took effect.” So she took six of her “closest pregnant friends” with her to appear before the legislature. “When they asked when this bill should take effect, all my pregnant friends raised their hands and said, `Now.’ ” Of course, it worked.
Now the ladies of Eastcliff want to know when she’s going to run for president. “Yeah, yeah, right,” Amy says. No, really. “Let us know when you’re going to announce.”
“Right now,” she says, “I’m going to announce that I’m getting some food.”
The next morning in Minnesota, at 7:45, two of Amy’s frightfully young female staffers pull up to the senator’s house in a working-class neighborhood six blocks from where the bridge collapsed. Chez Klobuchar is a very modest two-story affair with gray aluminum siding and a screened-in porch. Amy says she and her husband have, let’s see, “our 401(k)s. We have some in a college fund for Abigail. We have this house, and we have two 10-year-old Saturns. We have no income property; we have no stock.”
Does Amy have household help?
“We have none,” she laughs. “In both places.” They also rent a small house in Arlington, Virginia. She notes, more soberly, that all the women senators who have school-aged kids moved their families to Washington, DC. “Hardly any of the men did.”
John Bessler, her husband of 17 years, is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and an expert on the death penalty. They met in a pool hall. At 35 (she’s now 49), she gave birth to Abigail. “She was sick for so long,” Amy says. “It was really scary. That’s part of why we had one child. But she’s gotten better every year. We don’t even think about it anymore.” Abigail, now 14 and in public high school, writes a column for the student paper. Her mother is enormously proud.
Amy admits that her husband does a lot of the Mr. Mom stuff. Right now, John is back in Virginia with Abigail, ferrying her to various lessons and preparing to have a group of his students over for brunch. Occasionally he calls Amy to double-check the “egg bake” recipe with her. It’s one of the few things she knows how to cook.
She loves to talk about how her husband “is, in fact, the first man to be active in the Senate spouse club, okay?” A beat. “They meet every week, they plan a luncheon with the first lady. He got on the hospitality committee!” This is all delivered in a bitingly funny tone. “But I knew things were getting a little out of hand the day that Claire McCaskill and I were driving out of the Capitol to go to an event, and she looks out the window and says, `Isn’t that your husband walking across the lawn with a pink box?’ And I rolled down the window and I said, `What are you doing?’ And he said, `I’m going to Jim Webb’s wife’s baby shower.’ “
Today, Amy is headed to Big Lake, in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s very Republican district, to inaugurate the new train line. She arrives to find a packed tent and color guards. And she manages to upstage Bachmann on her own turf. She has to be practically dragged out by her staff, who are trying to keep her on schedule. But Amy is very Bill Clinton–esque in how she works a crowd. She stays till the last hand is shaken, the last photograph is taken. She’s supposed to spend part of this afternoon dialing for donors—the next election is but two years away—but when she hears there are five more train events at various local stops along the line, she instructs her staff to “cancel everything else.” She wants to hit everyone. “We’re going rogue!” she announces on the phone to her finance director.
Five color guards later, Amy is still going strong, if not rogue. She doesn’t return home until after midnight, spending the last few hours at a goodbye party for one of her staffers being deployed to Iraq. “Once we get inside, this is the only part that’s off the record,” she says, entering the crowded bar. “I want them to have a good time.” At the door, she gets carded. The bouncer, a young lady with multiple piercings, has no clue who she is, and Amy doesn’t tell her. Rather, she says, “I left my purse in the car. I’ll go grab it.” Then to me, euphorically: “I got carded!” Ahem, says one of her aides, clearing her throat, and whispering to the bouncer, “This is the senator from Minnesota.”
There are those in DC who say Amy Klobuchar best represents, as Robert Draper, veteran political reporter and author of the Bush book Dead Certain, puts it, “the new generation of extremely politically ambitious women who could dare to plot a path not just to Congress but perhaps all the way to the presidency—because her female predecessors have made it possible for her to do so. But make no mistake. She has carefully considered every move.”
Amy campaigned one pancake breakfast at a time. “We did 3,000 lawn signs, 29 parades, and 85 pancake breakfasts. It was really intense.” She won by less than one percent. It was also the year Minnesotans swept Jesse Ventura into the governor’s office, which made Amy Klobuchar’s victory even more remarkable. She was reelected four years later with no opposition.
After eight years as county attorney, she again made the great leap forward, this time to the Senate. She got 58 percent of the vote to the Republican candidate’s 38 percent and carried all but eight of Minnesota’s counties, including many very conservative ones. Until she was sworn in, her only experience on Capitol Hill was as a summer intern for Walter Mondale when she was at Yale. She was assigned to do an inventory of all the vice president’s furniture. “So I spent two and a half weeks crawling under desks and writing down serial numbers. That was my first job in Washington.”
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 they needed to help him, and they just blew me off.”
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 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 , 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 .” 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.
Lisa DePaulo has been a national magazine writer for more than 35 years and doesn’t want anything to with the business anymore