Home >Magazine >What Makes Amy Klobuchar So Tough? It Starts With a Painful Past

What Makes Amy Klobuchar So Tough? It Starts With a Painful Past

Amy Klobuchar is holding her own in the Democratic primary. What fuels her? Does she have any hope of winning by taking a moderate position? Lorraine Glennon reports.

Anyone who is surprised that Amy Klobuchar (pictured above with supporters in Iowa) has outlasted high-profile contenders like Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination probably has forgotten a key moment in the Senate last year. Klobuchar, the senior U.S. senator from Minnesota, showed her grit during the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

When it was Senator Klobuchar’s turn to question the then-Federal Appeals Court judge about the accusations by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in 1982, she asked him, after mentioning her father’s struggles with alcohol, if he’d ever blacked out from drinking. “I don’t know—have you?” Kavanaugh asked with a sneer. Klobuchar, 59, was clearly rattled, but retained her poise, saying simply, “I have no drinking problem, Judge.”

It was a wow moment, and a rare grace note in a tawdry process. (Even Kavanaugh realized he’d crossed a line and apologized to Klobuchar—for responding to a question with a question—after a break.) In marked contrast to some of her colleagues on the committee, Klobuchar didn’t grandstand. She didn’t seize the momentary spotlight to toot her own horn, to put forth her own agenda, or merely to bask briefly in that spotlight’s glow. In a polite, no-drama way that fairly screamed “heartland values,” she gently-but-firmly put the judge in his place and moved on.

And thus was Minnesota’s most popular politician catapulted from regional celebrity to national hero. Almost instantly, her name began cropping up on lists of potential presidential contenders. Perhaps here, went the reasoning, this seasoned political pro—a woman who is “Minnesota Nice” but demonstrably tough enough to stand up to a belligerent, entitled male—was just the candidate Democrats needed to take on the even more belligerent, entitled male currently occupying the Oval Office.

Amy Klobuchar Reaches Across the Aisle

A quick scan of Klobuchar’s Senate record confirmed that hunch. She is reliably left of center on most issues, but her record is more moderate than those of other senators who’ve declared for the presidency—a virtue among Dems who want an alternative to both Joe Biden and to the more far-left Sanders/Warren wing of the party, which they fear is unelectable. Unlike Harris, Warren, and Sanders, for instance, Klobuchar has not called for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, nor has she endorsed Sanders’s “Medicare for All” bill. (She wants to expand Medicare, but she also argues for the importance of keeping private insurance companies in play.)

In a polite, no-drama way that fairly screamed “heartland values,” she gently-but-firmly put Kavanaugh in his place and moved on.

She is no hawk, but she supports a strong military and balks at widespread cuts in defense spending. (One of her foreign-policy tutors was the late Senator John McCain.) And while she believes college should be more affordable, she rejects as too costly the increasingly popular Democratic idea of tuition-free, four-year public college for all. Also, for the record, she did not join the majority of senators who asked for the resignation of her fellow Minnesota senator and close colleague Al Franken in December 2017 amid eight allegations of sexual misconduct, believing that the matter should have been decided by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Moreover, in a hyper-partisan age of insta-stardom, Klobuchar has 12-plus years as a senator under her belt and has racked up an impressive string of legislative accomplishments, partnering with Republicans to sponsor and pass 126 bills, as of June 12, 2019, according to the Congressional database congress.gov. Her emphasis on such pragmatic, consumer-oriented issues as sky-high prescription costs, online privacy, and swimming-pool and toy safety has earned her the epithet “the senator of small things.” She bristles at the latent sexism in that phrase, pointing out that the message is: “like I’m a little girl, doing little things.” She adds, They’re big things for the people whose kids’ lives were saved.”

In fact, an experience from her own life sparked her first big policy battle—for longer hospital stays for new mothers. After giving birth to her daughter, Abigail, in 1995, Klobuchar, then an attorney in private practice, was forced by health insurance rules to leave the hospital 24 hours later. She and her husband, John Bessler, an attorney and law professor who specializes in death penalty topics, had to rent a nearby hotel room to visit their newborn, whose serious health condition necessitated extended treatment in the ICU. Klobuchar’s successful effort to change the law in Minnesota eventually led to a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton. It also laid the groundwork for her future career in elective office.

“Trump’s Worst Nightmare”? 

Amy Klobuchar 2020: Running Hard for the Presidency After a Painful Past

Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar with Nancy Pelosi in May 2019. Image: Amy Klobuchar/Instagram

Most of all, Klobuchar wins elections, and she wins big. After becoming the first woman ever elected prosecutor for Minnesota’s most populous county, Hennepin County, in 1998, Klobuchar became the first woman ever elected to the Senate from Minnesota in 2006, running on the Democratic Farmer Labor Party ticket (the DFL is Minnesota’s somewhat eccentric tributary of the national Democratic party) and clobbering her nearest opponent by 20 points. In her reelection campaign of 2012, that spread grew to a stunning 35 points (she carried all but two of the state’s counties), and in 2018, it was 24.

To achieve victories like that, a candidate has to carry plenty of rural, traditionally Republican areas—not just Democratic strongholds. In a presidential election that will hinge on the Democrats’ ability to win back some of the populous midwestern states that fell to Trump in 2016 (only Illinois and Minnesota—barely—stayed blue, while Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin all lined up in the red column), Klobuchar is uniquely well-positioned to attract the disenchanted midwestern voters who she says “felt left behind” in 2016. She bemoans “a lack of understanding and attention to rural issues at the national level,” including the fact that unemployment for young people in rural areas is higher than that in urban areas. “There is a whole America up there that felt forgotten, and I think that was part of why they voted for Donald Trump.”

Klobuchar wins elections, and she wins big.

It’s not hard to see why Klobuchar—down-to-earth, funny, appealing (at least in her public persona), and, at 59, nearly two decades younger than the other prominent heartland moderate in the race, Joe Biden—was dubbed “Trump’s Worst Nightmare” in a Washington Post op-ed piece. By December, the presidential buzz around Klobuchar had grown to the point where she was placing fourth in a poll of potential voters in the all-important Iowa Caucuses, which kick off the feeding frenzy known as the presidential primary season in the U.S. The fact that her home state is Iowa-adjacent is another advantage, though less so than it used to be. Still, it helps, as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin puts it, that Klobuchar “can talk dairy farms and soybeans with the best of them.”

And so it came to pass that on February 10, on a frigid day in Minneapolis, as a blizzard dropped globs of snow onto her hair and shoulders—conditions that prompted Donald Trump to mock both Klobuchar’s appearance (“Snowman/woman!”) and her vows to fight climate change—Amy Jean Klobuchar declared her candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Within days, she was back in Iowa, delivering the keynote address at a Democratic fundraising dinner and courting potential delegates who would be chosen a full calendar year later (the Iowa caucuses are scheduled for February 3, 2020).

Read More: How Nancy Pelosi Beating Trump Was a Landmark Moment for Older Women

A Hill Staffer’s Worst Nightmare?

By then, of course, a shoe had dropped. The big reveal, reported in Politico, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other media outlets—that Klobuchar was among the worst bosses on Capitol Hill—had been an open secret for more than a decade. The recent stories have included a host of unsavory details—humiliations and dressings-down of subordinates, angry emails fired off at 3:00 a.m., attempts to sabotage future employment by bad-mouthing staffers to prospective employers, even a thrown binder that accidentally hit someone. Most notorious (and more than a little head-scratching) was the story reported in The New York Times of how Klobuchar, enraged to hear that the employee who’d brought her a salad to take on a short flight had failed to provide a fork to eat it with, rummaged in her purse for a comb, used that comb as a makeshift fork, and afterward ordered the employee to wash it. 

Her constituents seem to view her temper outbursts as a (positive) sign of the fierce toughness that Minnesotans have to cultivate.

Accustomed to and apparently unfazed by these stories, her constituents seem to view them, if anything, as a (positive) sign of the fierce toughness that Minnesotans have to cultivate—of what Klobuchar herself calls “grit.” Other observers chalk up the outrage these stories have generated to sexism. “No one would blink if a male boss were accused of this behavior,” insists one of Klobuchar’s former constituents—a sentiment echoed by many others. “Male senators yell quite a bit,” a former aide of Klobuchar’s told the  New York Times. “But if a woman yells at you, it’s like, ‘I got yelled at by my mom.’” Some people, like Meghan McCain of The View, go so far as to hail her behavior. “Being a bad bitch is a good thing,” says McCain. “It’s like you’re tough and you’re strong and you’re going to get things done.”

Yet, as a House committee staffer who works almost exclusively on women’s empowerment issues points out, “there are also plenty of males on Politico’s ‘Worst Bosses in Congress’ list. The key piece of data that Politico uses to measure a boss’s badness is staff turnover, and that’s a pretty gender-neutral metric.” Besides, she adds, “I know some former Klobuchar staff members, and they say the horror stories don’t begin to do justice to the reality of that work environment. Abuse like that speaks to character—and as quaint as this may sound, I still believe character matters in public service.”

Read More: A New Women’s Group Gets Ready to Rock the 2020 Election

The Father Factor

As with so much in Klobuchar’s life, all roads—or most of them, anyway—lead to her father. Just as it was her father (or more accurately, his alcoholism) who lifted her to the national stage and ignited the serious presidential talk, Jim Klobuchar likewise played a role in his older daughter’s election to public office in the first place. His fame across the state boosted her name recognition and raised her profile when she was an otherwise unknown attorney first running for office.  

For more than 30 years, Jim Klobuchar was a wildly popular columnist for the Minneapolis Star (later the Star Tribune)—a local journalistic legend of the sort that big-city newspapers, in their glory days, used to churn out in abundance (think Mike Royko in the Chicago Sun-Times or Jimmy Breslin in the New York Daily News). A champion of the common man (and woman) who was, as a recent article put it, practically “an unelected representative,” Jim Klobuchar, the grandson of Slovenian immigrants who worked the iron ore mines in northeast Minnesota’s famous “Iron Range,” traveled all over the world for the paper, wrote on an endless variety of topics (including his family, to their occasional embarrassment), and published 23 books.

In a classic response to being raised by an alcoholic, Klobuchar became a super high achiever, a brainiac.

The hard-living, hard-drinking, ink-stained wretch is a cherished figure in newspaper folklore, and for many years Jim Klobuchar embodied the innocuous version of that cliché. But behind the scenes and eventually in public—when he received a DWI in 1993, the Star Tribune forced him to write a column in which he admitted to and apologized for his drunkenness on the paper’s front page—he was turning into a severe alcoholic whose disease badly damaged his family, including his wife, Rose (a second-grade teacher whom he divorced in 1975), and their two daughters.

In her 2015 book, The Senator Next Door: A Memoir from the Heartland, Amy recalls the forgotten birthdays, when Jim would show up late without a present; the hours spent watching out the picture window waiting for him to come home; the times he’d pull over to use some “mouthwash” he kept in the trunk of the car. Once, after attending a Vikings game with Amy, Jim stopped at a friend’s bar and left Amy sitting alone at a downstairs bar nursing a 7-Up while he disappeared upstairs to drink with his buddy. On the way home that night, he drove the car into a ditch. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the senator likened her exchange with Kavanaugh during the confirmation hearings to those she had with her alcoholic father: “The click that went on in my mind was, ‘I am not going down there with you. I am going to take the keys away from you,” she said. Dealing with an alcoholic, she added, means “you have to be the grownup in the room.”

In a classic response, Amy became a super high achiever, a brainiac who was valedictorian of her class at the largest high school in Minnesota, graduated magna cum laude from Yale, and earned her law degree at the University of Chicago. (In a 2010 Huffington Post ranking, Klobuchar’s name was first on a list of “Smartest U.S. Senators.”)

Jim Klobuchar straightened out eventually. After the public shaming on the front page of his beloved newspaper, his editors insisted he seek treatment for his alcoholism. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and rediscovered the religion of his youth as a way of maintaining his sobriety—a process he detailed in his 1998 book, Pursued by Grace: A Newspaperman’s Own Story of Spiritual Recovery. Today, still sober at 91, he is retired from journalism and shows symptoms of incipient dementia, but he was at his daughter’s side on that frigid day when she announced her candidacy. Amy’s mother, Rose Klobuchar, died in 2010.

Does Klobuchar Have a Chance?

The rage that Klobuchar has been accused of harboring, in the aftermath of the revelations about her treatment of employees, dovetails almost perfectly with the archetypal child of an alcoholic. Whether the senator’s anger issues will have lasting traction is unclear. Certainly, it has faded from the headlines, as most “scandals” do when exposed to the ever-shorter attention span of American media and its consumers. After exhausting a story to within an inch of its life, the outrage industry generally abandons the outrage at hand in favor of a fresh one.

That’s undoubtedly good news for Klobuchar, but the bad news is that her candidacy is still in the single digits. There’s still time, of course. Political fortunes rise and fall indiscriminately, and the landscape could be transformed in the time it takes for a candidate to fumble a debate question. Stay tuned. 


Lorraine Glennon, a Brooklyn-based editor and writer, was the editor-in-chief of  Our Times: An Illustrated History of the Twentieth Century.

A version of this article was originally published in June 2019. 

More profiles on female candidates running in 2020:

Elizabeth Warren 2020: What Every Voter Needs to Know

Kirsten Gillibrand: The Star that Trump Built

Kamala Harris: Golden State Golden Girl?

By Lorraine Glennon


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