By Allison Sherry, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Sen. Amy Klobuchar traveled to a veterans’ dental clinic here recently for a ribbon-cutting, then sped west to give a speech at a dairy and creamery an hour away. Between events, she was dialing up members of the Canadian Parliament from the back of the minivan.
Days earlier a gunman had opened fire in Ottawa, and Klobuchar was checking to make sure the people she had met at a trade conference were safe. On each call she asked their story: Where they were when shots were fired, how they were holding up.
It was standard practice for a woman who has become one of the most polished, tireless politicians in Minnesota and among the top hobnobbers in Democratic politics nationally. No phone call is too minor, no relationship too remote, no event too small-bore.
Klobuchar, 54, maintains a breathless schedule. A typical day will have her hugging a uniformed veteran, telling a self-deprecating joke about cheese to farmers and then meeting a foreign dignitary, dispensing the same neighborly charm to all. Downtime is just another chance to squeeze in a quick talk with Medtronic’s CEO about repealing the medical devices tax, or ring up a chamber board member because it’s his birthday.
In short, Klobuchar has higher ambitions.
She’s already elevated her profile to the point where her name surfaces whenever there is a top Obama administration vacancy. She travels regularly to Iowa, a must-stop for presidential aspirants. Over the past two years, Klobuchar trekked to a dozen states, delivering keynote speeches and raising money for other Democrats — essential relationship-builders for pols on the rise.
But now she’s facing a dramatic new political dynamic that she must master if she is to advance. When the new Congress is seated in January, Republicans will control the Senate and House and she will be in the minority party for the first time in her tenure.
Klobuchar sees opportunity there, too. She can easily rattle off any number of Republicans she’s built ties with and bipartisan accomplishments she’s forged. She jokes that she and one of her closest buddies — North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven — could easily step in as majority and minority leaders, since they get along so much better than the current leaders, Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.
“It’s not going to be as hard for me as some people,” Klobuchar said. While the balance of power in the Senate will change, “in some ways that will give me some opportunities, that they’re going to be looking for people who can work for them.”
Klobuchar won her last election by a whopping 21 percentage points. According to polls, she is among the nation’s most popular senators, with approval ratings that regularly top 60 percent.
But with eight years under her belt, Klobuchar has yet to break into that top tier of senators moving historic deals across the president’s desk. From the beginning, she has been drawn to measures with bipartisan appeal and tends to reach for more achievable goals rather than put herself on the leading edge of divisive issues.
Klobuchar wants to tackle the big stuff, like tax reform and energy policy, but in a routinely gridlocked Congress she also relishes smaller triumphs: a bill helping people with muscular dystrophy, a military sexual assault prevention act, a bill to prevent caller ID scams.
Those smaller deals are worthy in themselves, she contends, but also can lead to larger playing fields. Plus, she says, finding areas of common ground keeps her spirits high in a Congress too often mired in partisan muck.
“I just keep working on what we can get done and I’ve had a pretty pragmatic approach to that,” she said.
On that note, she counts being part of a bipartisan group of senators that helped end the government shutdown among her biggest accomplishment in this Congress. Klobuchar was the first Democrat who asked to join the group, which had a series of closed-door meetings to craft a proposal that they eventually presented to Reid and McConnell.
“We kept meeting and basically the last day that it was resolved, we had gone to them in the morning, to Harry and Mitch, and said, ‘This is what we’ve got, this is how we think we can resolve this and … we respect you announcing it or doing it, but if you don’t, we have the press gallery reserved for noon,’ ” she recalled.
What is unclear is what Klobuchar is aiming for in the next two years. A Cabinet post? A Supreme Court slot? A federal judgeship? She is not up for re-election until 2018. She clearly relishes getting asked about her future. Her response is usually a smile and a sentence about being committed to Minnesota.
“Amy can do whatever she wants to do,” said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a Republican who worked with Klobuchar back when she was the county’s lead prosecutor. “She just needs to choose.”
Klobuchar has a liberal voting record — she sides with Democrats 92 percent of the time — but she also works the state’s red and rural areas with messages about economic prosperity.
In addition to her crime-fighting portfolio, Klobuchar has developed a reputation for doggedly protecting local business, earning her respect among Republicans. When new school lunch rules threatened to diminish the role of frozen pizza, Klobuchar wrote a letter to the agriculture secretary extolling the virtues of tomato paste — and throwing a lifeline to Minnesota-based Schwan’s, the nation’s largest provider of pizzas to K-12 schools.
Klobuchar doesn’t mask her ambition and is known for phoning people directly between 8 and 10 p.m. to massage a relationship or just check in. “Harry Reid stays up until 10,” she noted recently, walking from one committee hearing to another in a Senate office building.
She also is conspicuously aware of her own image. At the Moorhead airport in late October, a Klobuchar staffer was showing iPhone pictures of the senator standing next to a freshly felled tree from Chippewa National Forest that was heading to the U.S. Capitol for a Christmas bedecking. Klobuchar vetoed broadcasting the pictures for fear of angering environmentalists.
Charlie Weaver, who leads the Minnesota Business Partnership, called Klobuchar the “master of the five-minute phone call.”
A former Republican lawmaker, Weaver recalled a breakfast he hosted with business lobbyists from 25 of the nation’s biggest states in September. Klobuchar, impeccably prepared, said something personal and specific to each state — a senator she knew or a piece of legislation important to that region — as she made her way around the room.
“All of my colleagues came out of that meeting and said ‘Whoa,’ ” Weaver said, adding, “She is skillful.”
Klobuchar surrounds herself with mostly young people who work constantly. One former staffer said Klobuchar operates like she’s always in cycle — whether a re-election is four years away or four weeks away. Klobuchar aides are always girded for an impromptu working weekend, if necessary. She is often the lead name on letters and initiatives supported by the entire delegation — such as a recent request from the delegation that Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald meet with them to talk about problems.
GOP Rep. John Kline says he expects Klobuchar to elevate her career. “I mean this in a positive term, not a pejorative term, she is quite a good politician,” he said. “I expect she intends to stay active.”
Klobuchar says it’s in her nature to stay busy, and throughout her life she has required only about four or five hours of sleep a night. Her home is one where overachievement is the norm. Husband John Bessler just got tenure at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Daughter Abigail is a freshman at Yale University, following in her mother’s footsteps.
The senator tells the story of when Abigail was just 4 playing with dolls in her room with an older friend when her mother overheard the two talking about their futures. Klobuchar, holding a stack of clean towels she was about to put away, paused at the door to eavesdrop. Abby’s friend said she wanted to grow up and “have a baby like this doll.”
Klobuchar held her breath, waiting for her daughter’s reaction.
“I’m going to have a baby, too,” her daughter said. “But not for a long, long time because you can’t have a baby until you run for office and win an election.”
Klobuchar beamed with relief.
“I thought, ‘We have set expectations high in our household,’ ” she said.
Photo: Iowa Democrats via Flickr