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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Sen. Amy Klobuchar Quietly Climbs Washington Ranks

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

Despite His Safe Seat, Ellison Plunges Into Race

By Allison Sherry, Star Tribune (MCT)

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, running in his heavily Democratic Minneapolis congressional district, could put his campaign in neutral and coast to victory if he wanted.

But that’s not how he’s approaching this race.

As Democrats across the country fret over projections that Republicans are now heavily favored to take the U.S. Senate and that Democratic governors are at risk, Ellison wants to do his part.

So even though he faces only token opposition, the four-term congressman is spending nights canvassing Minneapolis neighborhoods and college dormitories, strumming his guitar and trying to get people excited about politics — or more accurately, about voting. He plans to rent vans to shuttle city churchgoers to the polls after Sunday services in a “souls to the polls” effort. His re-election team has devised an “apartment program” where they identify whole buildings of voters who may never get called because they are so transient. Ellison then goes to those places and knocks on doors.

It’s not because he needs it. Two years ago, only seven House members in the country racked up more raw votes than Ellison. His urban district is what political insiders call a “D+22,” which means Democrats are favored to win by a full 22 percentage points over Republicans.

The reason Ellison expends all this energy is twofold. First, he wants to be a team player and aid fellow Democrats Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken at the top of the ticket and he has the luxury of a safe seat from which to do so. Second, as he demurely nurses ambitions of cultivating voter outreach efforts nationally, it helps to have a track record.

“I believe that if there is any antidote to big money in politics, it’s grassroots organizing and massive voter turnout,” said Ellison, 51, whose GOP challenger is former software engineer Doug Daggett, 50, of Minneapolis. “I really believe if this kind of turnout operation was replicated all over the country it would change the whole dynamic. It would create a significantly different landscape. But to motivate those voters, you gotta talk to them, you gotta talk to them about something they care about.”

The truth is, when any campaign is asked about its voter outreach efforts, staffers promise they are doing the next big thing. Minnesota Republicans boast 18 “victory offices” they opened around the state — something they have never done before. Minnesota GOP Chair Keith Downey says the offices — and the activities going on inside them — help counter the sophisticated Obama ground campaign that swamped Republicans in 2008 and 2012.

“I can’t tell you the last time we really did a bang-up job,” Downey said. “Clearly we got beat badly on the ground in 2012, and that was my commitment coming in as chairman, to improve our field operation and rebuild our ground game capability to help our candidates. I think the party is in a much better position this year. Our brand is positive again.”

Franken’s campaign says it is building up micro-campaigns in neighborhoods around the state and that volunteers will run voter drives out of their living rooms. Mike McFadden’s camp says it has a “database guy” who has built a profile of what undecided voters who may support the GOP Senate challenger may look like and are using that strategy to do their own microtargeting.

Ellison is spending some of his own campaign cash — some $200,000 on hand through July — to attract voters like University of Minnesota student Lindsay Powell, who just turned 18.

The Wisconsin native, who lives in a U dorm, says she would have tried to register to vote ahead of the election, but the aggressive voter registration efforts made it easy for the busy college student to send in an absentee ballot.

“I’m a lot busier than I thought, but this whole idea of them coming to the dorm room, it was definitely a good approach,” she said.

Democrats face a constant battle on the turnout front because Republicans are generally better at consistent voting — even in bad weather, in off-years, in uninteresting elections. Quick case in point: In Ellison’s 5th Congressional District, only 234,000 voted in 2010, the last midterm election. In the heavily Republican Sixth Congressional District, 305,000 people showed up to vote that same year. Congressional districts are drawn to be roughly the same population size.

Staffers point out that after much work between 2010 and 2012, Ellison pulled a full 142,000 more voters to the polls last cycle.

Asked why he isn’t funneling efforts somewhere else, maybe to save some plummeting Democrat in another state, Ellison said he liked sleeping in his own bed and “throwing down your buckets where you are.”

“I wish everybody would do this,” he said, coy about whether he wants to take this kind of work to a national platform someday. “All these races, all these Senate races that are so close right now, they have urban pockets where there are huge numbers of Democrats. … A lot of things we’re doing, I’d like to see replicated.”

Photo: Center for American Progress via Flickr

Food Companies Back Group Fighting Nutrition Standards On Capitol Hill

By Allison Sherry, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

WASHINGTON — A special interest group representing school nutritionists and backed financially by big food companies — including six from Minnesota — is pushing legislation that would allow school districts to bypass new lunch rules restricting sodium and requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The Minnesota companies — Schwan’s, General Mills, Cargill, Land O’Lakes, Hormel, and Michael Foods — have officially stayed neutral on the issue, taking no position on the dispute on Capitol Hill. Some companies, such as General Mills, say they already are working on products that would conform to the new standards.

Instead, the fight over the phased-in nutritional rules signed into law in 2010 is being waged by the School Nutrition Association. Once a genial, low-profile school nutrition advocacy group that initially supported the new rules, the SNA now is leading an aggressive charge in lobbying Capitol Hill for waivers from those very requirements.

The rules require school districts to gradually reduce sodium, calories, and starch while increasing vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. When passed in 2010, it had bipartisan support that stretched from first lady Michelle Obama to the U.S. Senate and some House Republicans. School districts and the SNA were among the cheerleaders.

That has all changed. The SNA now is pitted against more than 200 health organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Medical Association, which support keeping the requirements intact. Even the food industry, which has long funded the SNA, is publicly distancing itself from the group’s prominent lobbying efforts.

The SNA, which has local operations in every state, is urging lawmakers to adopt waivers that would allow school districts that are losing money on school meals to opt out of the rules. That position is backed strongly by Republicans, including Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The White House has threatened a veto of waivers to the nutritional rules.

Jean Ronnei, vice president of SNA and chief operating officer for St. Paul public schools, said her district has been able to make the new rules work so far, but she wants flexibility going forward. She worries about the growing number of students dropping out of the school lunch program.

“I’m losing customers,” Ronnei said. “What do I decide to do? Charge more for that entree?”

The business of feeding school kids is lucrative: The Department of Agriculture this year will devote $16.5 billion to pay for students’ lunches, breakfasts, milk, snacks, and state administrative expenses.

Compliance with the new standards so far is high. More than 90 percent of schools across the country meet the current standards.
Yet the SNA has become increasingly dogged in its efforts to obtain waivers that would allow some schools to deviate. Association officials cite the healthier food — more whole wheat, fruits and vegetables, and less salt — as a reason behind falling participation in the school lunch program. They also say the 6 cents more given by the feds for lunches meeting the requirements fails to offset the higher cost of fruits and vegetables.

The SNA for years worked from a different playbook. It employed an old-school Washington lobbying firm that specialized in agriculture. It worked closely with the USDA, made few waves and captured even fewer headlines.

That changed last year. The SNA dumped its old lobbyist and hired Barnes & Thornburg, a group known for its top-notch, aggressive grass-roots outreach, whose client roster includes the National Rifle Association. The NRA last year snuffed out two major gun control measures in the U.S. Senate, employing a similar grass-roots approach.

Nutritional advocates and USDA officials say privately that with the new SNA lobbyist came a new, tougher approach. SNA stopped working through the executive branch and began pushing legislative fixes. In media calls, school directors told stories of food waste and dwindling bottom lines, all because of the new rules.

USDAGov via Flickr

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