Minnesota’s first elected woman senator was once described as “the Cousin Marilyn of politicians in a state that only produces Munsters” by Elle Magazine. She climbed from attorney general in the Twin Cities to Washington D.C. and has taken charge on bills affecting women, agriculture, immigration and international relations — earning her nods for high-profile seats.
by Natalie Daher
illustration by Grace Molteni
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota may hail from a state that’s often too humble to brag, but in the throes of 2016 politics, she was name-dropped for high-profile positions: Democratic vice president or Cabinet member, Supreme Court justice, and most recently, POTUS candidate 2020.
A former prosecutor in the state’s largest county, Klobuchar is deeply invested in criminal justice and immigration reform and maintains a pro-business track record. She’s championed bills on everything from universal access to mammograms for women over 40 to enhanced U.S. relations with Cuba and attended the first all-woman senator trip to Africa.
The granddaughter of a Swiss immigrant, iron ore miner was educated at Yale. Upon her solo arrival on-foot in 1978, she hauled her suitcases— which held her pink polyester high school prom dress, because you know, college — instead of taking a cab. It was decades later, after graduating from a conservative Chicago Law School, that she decided to go into politics.
In her position, Klobuchar, most importantly, can talk shop and has widespread appeal; she can reach across the aisle to Republicans and conservatives, yet advocate for progressive policies.
Originally from the Philadelphia area, I lived in Minnesota for over a year, and was struck by how many of my east coast friends either thought I was living like Hannah Horvath while getting her MFA, or just didn’t understand why I’d move to the Midwest (well, journalism). It’s not just “flyover country” (!) as Sen. Klobuchar and I both know. We spoke before the inauguration, with both of us talking over the rush hour traffic as she walked home to her D.C. apartment, and I sat in my Manhattan apartment.
Natalie Daher: How would you culturally describe America’s Heartland, and what do you think most people misunderstand about it?
Amy Klobuchar: Well, I think there are a lot of hard working people who love where they live. People sometimes have this attitude like, “you’re not as cool if you’re not from one of the coasts.” And that’s just not true. I challenge them to come to Minneapolis or St. Paul and visit one of our breweries. One of my favorite places is the [speakeasy named after] Congressman Volstead from our state who brought in Prohibition. The owners made an entire wall a portrait out of beer bottle tops, which is great.
ND: Yes! I know that one.
AK: Yes, very cool. Or the Walker Art Gallery, the theaters, the bike paths. Some people think that it’s a frozen tundra as opposed to this warmth of the heartland.
The economy is also a lot more diverse than people think. We have everything from Target to Best Buy, household names to many, and we have a lot of places to work in different industries, which attracts a lot of younger people.
The culture, socially, can vary in the Midwest, though it’s open overall. We have the second biggest Somali population, and I think people don’t know that, they don’t expect that.
ND: Absolutely. After the election, it’s also become clear that many voters in the United States, particularly those outside of cities and in the Midwest, wanted a change. Many of them felt that the political establishment had failed them, to say the least. Do you think the coastal establishments’ elected leaders particularly pay enough attention to rural and suburban communities?
AK: No. I think that people, especially in rural areas, were taken for granted by both parties. While you can get Wi-Fi throughout Iceland and Canada, there are major swaths in my state where business people and farmers are going to the McDonald’s parking lot to do their work every morning, because they don’t have access to Broadband. We also don’t have enough people to fill technical jobs, like welders.
There’s this idea that we should be figuring out innovative ways to educate people in greater Minnesota and in other states. There’s no surprise that a higher percent of National Guard members are from rural areas. In my state, people work in rural manufacturing — where they grew up, they stay. There’s just a lot of loyalty to country and loyalty to their town.
I just think the idea that one-size-fits-all, and everyone should move to the urban areas, is wrong. And it’s also wrong politically.
ND: Mm-hmm. Yeah, the Twin Cities draw a lot of college grads to white-collar jobs because they’re also affordable. But then it seems like the greater state can often be forgotten, especially on the national level.
AK: Yeah, and then I think the most stunning thing is that the rural poverty rate is actually higher than the urban poverty rate. And yet they don’t have all the services in one place.
AK: You know, I think, for good or for bad, even though I think Hillary Clinton would have formed stronger policies for rural America, Donald Trump was able to appeal to rural America with a message of change and rallies in those areas. I just think that our party has to change and focus more on troubled rural areas.
If you can find that economic message — bringing down costs for college, bringing down pharmaceutical prices, those kinds of things — then you will be able to win, because people will be with you.
ND: Yeah, and to come back to the loyalty to the town, the desire for face-to-face contact is very much alive.
AK: You know, about that, Washington Post reporter Chris Ingraham [moved to Minnesota]. He did that story where he went to Red Lake County [which he previously described as the “worst place in America” because] they invited him. I visited him. I had dinner at his house with these humongous steaks, when I was on the county tour.
ND: Wait, did you say he made a humongous steak?
AK: Yes, he did, and the neighbor had given him these steaks. It was the biggest steak I’d ever ate.
AK: So I guess he’s fitting in.
ND: He’s really connecting with the culture. Well, kind of in this vein, you’ve had an ability to work with people outside of your own party. In his farewell address, President Obama said, “it’s become too easy to retreat to our own bubble,” and this is something that I’ve personally been struggling with a lot. And I think a lot of young, liberal, feminists, who live in a city, or anyone for that matter, need to learn how to break out of their bubble. So how might you advise someone to do that?
AK: Mm-hmm. Well, I think in your bubble of where you live, there are a lot of people that have different lives than yourself. You don’t even have to go very far. Talking to the waitress at the restaurant, or start talking to the janitor that works at your building. It’s not even about politics; it’s about getting to know them.
Reading other newspapers or blogs or Internet sites that you don’t always read. Things get so segmented. I think our media should be promoting more joint interviews with Democrats and Republicans on topics.
ND: Yeah, I think it’s an experiment in empathy to have a joint interview like that.
AK: Yeah, exactly.
ND: And what do you think, it is a little existential, about the argument that it’s an inefficient use of time to try to understand those who refuse to try to understand us? I hear it on both sides.
AK: Well, people will often surprise you. You just have to work for those golden moments, and really that’s what being in a democracy is about. Whether it is a union or a chamber of commerce, or whether it is the book club.
I can remember when my daughter was in high school. She would come home every day and say, “I have to join something new!” [laughs]
ND: Oh yeah, extra-curricular activities!
AK: We’ve got to somehow bring that back into our culture as a norm and as something that we want to do.
ND: I think as adults we like to call that ‘work-life balance’ or just, exposing ourselves to…
AK: Yeah, it’s almost become like, uncool to join things. It’s just pushing yourself to be with different kinds of people in some cause or hobby or non-profit that you’re interested in and you want to volunteer with.
ND: And you started out at the local level…
AK: Yup, actually started out at a law firm with student loans and everything. I did prosecuting, defending, criminal, multi-prosecuting cases.
I volunteered on the board at Big Brothers Big Sisters. I visited a woman in prison once a month. She still writes me. I was on a neighborhood board for economic development. But it wasn’t like these were fancy boards. Like if you showed up and went for a year, you could probably get on the board, you know.
I later became a prosecutor and it really informed my opinions after visiting that prison every month for ten years or so.
ND: Yeah, and there’s something to be said for showing up and being consistent and now you have accomplishments that you can cite. In your first successful senate campaign, you intentionally left gender out and instead cited accomplishments. How would you advise female politicians or female candidates to handle gender?
AK: I think that you’re always gonna have a strong base of women’s support. I do think that for the people who elect you, they want to know that you’re running to do something for them, instead of just being a symbol of something as important as that symbolism is.
ND: And how do you think the relationships among the women have changed the culture of the senate, which is still dominated by men?
AK: I think it’s changed it significantly. First of all, there are less of all these age-old stories of physical grabbing and sexism. I’m not saying it’s all gone away, you just don’t see it. We’re supposed to be models and leaders for the country, and if you’ve got that stuff going on then we’re never gonna get ahead.
ND: Mm-hmm. And are there any particular issues that you feel you’ve been able, as women, to target together that maybe wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t women in the room?
AK: Well, yeah. I did that sex trafficking bill and got that in. While I read it with John Cornyn from Texas, it was when all the women of the Senate demanded a hearing that we really got it moving. The Violence Against Women Act, we really melded that together. There are just numerous examples where the women have taken on things that were unfair to women, and unfair to the country because of that.
ND: So, you mentioned earlier in the conversation, the fact that there are numerous refugee communities in Minnesota.
ND: How might the groups who have been relocated to Minnesota be a case study for the rest of the country? I know that there has been friction between the existing population and the newer populations that have come to Minnesota, so how might other states resolve that problem?
AK: Well, you know, it’s never easy when people come, any immigrant group, going way back to my Slovenian relatives up north, and there’s always some tension.
I think we are reaching a much better point in Minnesota with that. It wasn’t easy for the Hmong when they came over, but part of our heritage has been a strong interest in internationalism. We have one of the highest rates of international adoption, churches, missionaries, synagogues and business. We also have a lower unemployment rate than some states, so there are, you know, a little less resentment of the people coming in. And also, remember the refugees are legal, so it didn’t get to that issue of are they illegal or not. Some of them would later pursues citizenship, which was their right.
There clearly have been issues and the vast, vast majority of the Somali community is law-abiding.
We’ve had a number of cases at the U.S. attorney’s office involving people who were leaving to engage in terrorism overseas. And so, I think that is a difficult issue with our community and our state.
After 9/11, Bush stood up and said, “This isn’t about an entire religion.” In Minnesota, the Bush U.S. Attorney and I went around and met with all the Muslim groups and said if there are hate crimes, please report them immediately.
AK: In Minnesota, there have been a number of things that we’ve had to cope with. And I’m proud of how our state has handled it. We’ve had the threats on the Mall of America. We’ve learned that you really have to get to know people, and one of my fondest memories of all of this was all of the churches, including some Conservative ones, and synagogues, posted “Happy Ramadan” signs to make a statement.
ND: Absolutely. And aside from some of the newer communities in the state, there are also a lot of native tribes in Minnesota.
AK: There are.
ND: I’m curious what you think contemporary politics could draw from, I mean this could go on and on, but what are some primary, if you had to pick one lesson from Native culture, that could be adopted?
AK: One of my favorite lessons from Native culture is the Ojibwa saying that you make decisions not for this generation, but for seven generations from now. And I think we could learn a lot from that, from the Native American people, because decisions in Washington are often short-term.
ND: It’s terrifying to think of what our world could look like for future generations if we don’t act now.
ND: And as we do wrap up this conversation, you’ve been cited many times for high profile positions, both before and after the recent presidential campaign. So, would you consider running for president? In 2020.
AK : Look, right now I am focused on my own job. We are in the process of bringing in a brand-new president and that is going to create a lot of work. The Senate is where it is at right now. I think that one of the things I’ve always done in my life, whether when I was becoming an attorney, I ran forward and did the job in front of me, instead of just thinking ahead.
Natalie Daher is a journalist working at CNBC.com who recently relocated to New York City. She’s previously reported for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, NBCNews.com, Atlas Obscura, National Geographic, Pittsburgh Magazine and Patch.com. She misses the ambulo at Karmel Square, Grain Belt beer, and of course, all 10,000 lakes.
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.