Amy Klobuchar on Al Franken, Brett Kavanaugh and the Road Ahead
Editor’s note: This piece appears in the March 2019 issue of Rolling Stone, “Women Shaping the Future.” After the magazine was sent to press in early February, Sen. Klobuchar’s alleged mistreatment of staffers became a national story. Reached by Rolling Stone to comment on the allegations, the Minnesota senator sent the following statement: “I’m incredibly proud of the work our staff has done and I would not be here without amazing staff. I know I can be tough, I know I can push people too hard, and I also know I can do better — and I will.”
There’s a theory that every president is followed by his opposite. If that’s true, it would be good news for Amy Klobuchar. The Democratic senator from Minnesota, who announced her 2020 candidacy in February, is the president’s antithesis: competent, detail-oriented, even-tempered, Midwestern. In a 2010 survey of congressional staffers of both parties, she was voted one of the funniest members of Congress (alongside Saturday Night Live alum and fellow Minnesotan Al Franken) and the least likely to become embroiled in scandal (unlike Franken, as it turned out).
And compared to our current commander in chief, Klobuchar tweets sparingly, but when she does, things actually get done. Case in point: On the evening before our interview in January, Klobuchar logged on to Twitter to announce that Attorney General-designate William Barr was refusing to meet with her and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of his confirmation hearings, having cited the partial shutdown of the federal government.
The senator was having none of it: “Memo To Whoever Is In Charge: Last time I checked, AG nominee Barr was not a furloughed worker.” She wanted a meeting, and added dryly, “Will serve coffee.” Whether it was the promise of caffeine or the widespread outcry that followed, Barr was in the senator’s office within a matter of hours, where, as promised, there was a small silver serving tray and a pot of coffee waiting for him.
As members of both parties retreat deeper into their respective corners, Klobuchar has stuck out for operating under the charmingly novel pretense that it is possible to treat members of the opposing party as humans worthy of engagement, even empathy, rather than blood-feud rivals. “That doesn’t mean you’re naive, it just means that you have goodwill toward our country and you have goodwill toward people even if they didn’t vote for you,” she says.
It’s such an exotic concept in the capital these days that it’s become its own kind of tactic for catching Republicans off guard. When, for example, Klobuchar shared during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings that her father had struggled with alcoholism, before she asked Kavanaugh if he’d ever blacked out, the nominee angrily spat the question back at her, again and again, before offering a sheepish apology. The ugly exchange gave Klobuchar the high ground to argue for further investigation of Kavanaugh’s behavior — a request to which Republicans begrudgingly submitted.
A former prosecutor, Klobuchar insists she wasn’t baiting Kavanaugh. “I really wanted to get him on the record and answer the question, as opposed to just rage,” she says. His reaction surprised her, but it also felt familiar. “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’ — I literally had to do that with my dad,” she says. “You have to be the grown-up in the room.”
Minnesotans appear to like that about her. While Hillary Clinton nearly fumbled the state to Trump in 2016, clawing out a win with just 1.5 percentage points to spare, in 2018 voters re-elected Klobuchar resoundingly. She cruised to victory with a 24-point margin. “The Midwest felt left behind” in 2016, Klobuchar says. Broadly speaking, there’s a lack of understanding and attention to rural issues at the national level, she says: “It is understanding where our food came from and not being all snobby about it. It is understanding that the unemployment rate for rural kids is higher than in urban America, that there is a whole America up there that felt forgotten, and I think that was part of why they voted for Donald Trump.”
The Kavanaugh hearings spotlighted a steely restraint, but it was righteous fury that drove Klobuchar into politics more than two decades ago. She was a lawyer in private practice when she gave birth to her daughter, who was three weeks early and very sick. Abigail was whisked into intensive care immediately after her birth, but Klobuchar, who had been up all night in labor, was shown the door. Back then, the hospitals had a rule: “You got kicked out after 24 hours.” Her husband would wheel her back and forth to the ICU every day from a hotel room they booked nearby. “I refused to get rid of a hospital robe,” she says. “I would wear it just to make a point. I was so mad.”
That anger turned into action: Klobuchar lobbied the state Legislature to enact a law that would double the guaranteed hospital stay for new mothers to at least 48 hours. Today, it’s federal policy. “With these legislators — men — you just start talking about epidurals and breast-feeding; they were so embarrassed, they were like, ‘OK, we’ll go for this thing,’ ” she says.
Lobbying led her to seek public office, and Klobuchar became the first woman elected as the top lawyer for the state’s biggest county, then the first woman elected as senator from Minnesota. “Literally, I was being asked by newspaper editors, ‘Do you think a woman could actually win in our state?’ It was 2006.”
In the 12 years since, she’s become one of the most industrious members of the Senate — in 2015-2016, she sponsored or co-sponsored 27 bills that were enacted into law, more than any other senator. Her portfolio ranges from crafting language that would lift the Cuba trade embargo to strengthening online-privacy protections and revamping the mediation process for sexual-harassment complaints on Capitol Hill.
There was a certain degree of irony in her spearheading of that bill: Klobuchar was one of only three Democratic women in the Senate who didn’t call for Sen. Franken’s resignation last year after he was accused by eight women — including a former congressional staffer — of forced kissing and groping.
“It really wasn’t that close a call for me,” she says of the decision not to speak out about Franken. “We had long talks during that time period, including that day. . . . And I always believed — maybe naively, given what happened — that it would go through the [Senate] ethics committee. I still believe that was the right thing,” she says, adding, “For some of these things, there should be due process, and I felt like this was one of them.”
Klobuchar has become known for focusing on legislation that governs the minutiae of everyday life, like a bill that forced public pools to add safety covers to their drains. “People sometimes say, ‘Oh, those are small things.’ They are not small when all these kids were dying,” she says emphatically. “The Consumer Product Safety Commission testified that not a kid had died since we passed that bill.”
The “people” she’s referring to are GOP operatives in her home state, who have fixed her with the derisive nickname “The Senator of Small Things.”
She acknowledges a certain sexism in the critique — “like I’m a little girl, doing little things” — but just rolls her eyes at it. “You can’t let it dominate your mindset,” she says, smiling. “You have to keep going. That’s the only way you’re going to get power.”