Scott Wente, Forum Communications
WASHINGTON – It’s a steamy summer morning on Capitol Hill, but dozens of Minnesota visitors have found a cool spot for an unusual breakfast.
They pack into a reception area in Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office to nibble on local treats – an Iron Range pastry and meats from a central Minnesota butcher – and relish a few minutes spent with the Minnesota U.S. senator.
Klobuchar cheerfully works her way around the room, shaking hands and chatting up vacationing Minnesota families and other visitors. She meets Emma Olson, a Lake Park, Minn., native and recent University of Minnesota student body president.
“A visiting dignitary,” Klobuchar playfully proclaims.
Klobuchar addresses the crowd gathered at the folksy event dubbed “Minnesota Morning” – held every Thursday the Senate is in session – with a talk that ranges from weighty issues before Congress to jokes about the hair style of a former Minnesota politician whose photo hangs on an office wall.
Life is good for the freshman Democrat these days. Approaching the two-year mark of her first six-year term, Klobuchar points to several early accomplishments, is enjoying consistently high approval ratings back home and is drawing an unusual amount of national exposure for a newcomer on Capitol Hill. Her name even has been brought up as a vice presidential candidate.
Just days after being sworn in, Klobuchar stood with other Democrats – including presidential candidate Barack Obama – to push for ethics reform. She secured a spot on the Agriculture Committee just in time to help write new farm legislation. And from her position on commerce and public works panels, she focused on a handful of high-profile issues, including toy safety, mobile telephone contracts and swimming pool safety.
“I think that if you’re going to have credibility in Washington, you just don’t want to be a mouse in the corner,” Klobuchar said. “By gaining credibility on an issue, it helps you to work with your colleagues.”
“Part of it is just that we work hard, (but) we also have these issues that have come to us,” she continued.
She cited new federal pool safety regulations, which arose after the death of a young girl following an accident at a Twin Cities pool, and expedited federal aid for Interstate 35W bridge reconstruction among unexpected issues she tackled.
Good timing also has contributed to Klobuchar’s early successes and visibility, observed Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Washington-based nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Like a few other freshman in recent years, Klobuchar was able to link her past career to issues before the public. She was a county prosecutor and took a get-tough stance on congressional ethics and headline-garnering consumer issues.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck,” Duffy said.
Even an ardent conservative familiar with the job said he has been impressed by Klobuchar’s ambitious approach. Republican Rod Grams, who had Klobuchar’s Senate seat from 1995 to 2001, said Klobuchar has taken full advantage of the early years of her term, which he described as “kind of the honeymoon.”
“Amy, I think, has been very aggressive,” Grams said. “She’s been working hard and whether you agree with her or not on her positions, I think she has grabbed it by the horns, so to speak.”
But, Grams added, while Klobuchar may believe her votes are reflective of what she campaigned on, she is “among the most liberal” senators. That is not getting a lot of attention right now, he said, in part because Klobuchar has “one of the best spin machines of any freshman senator” and the press has given her a free pass on some of her positions – particularly on energy issues. But Klobuchar’s record will get more attention and criticism beginning next year, he added.
“After this election she’ll be looking ahead and becoming more in the cross hairs,” Grams said.
Observers say how Klobuchar navigates the next two years could determine whether she is among the next generation of Democratic leaders. She already has proven effective for her party. She is campaigning for Obama and, as the third-in-line at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – the caucus’ fund-raising and recruiting arm – Klobuchar is speaking at party events and fund-raisers from South Carolina to Washington state. That may be as much the result of her ability to articulate the party’s message as it is an example of her paying back others who helped her coast to victory in 2006.
“She’s playing the game in the right way, in a way that earns her the respect of her constituents and the respect of her fellow senators,” said Paula O’Loughlin, a University of Minnesota Morris political scientist. She added: “Klobuchar wasn’t a rock star, but has sort of become a rock star in the chamber.”
Klobuchar is quick to downplay her budding role as a go-to Democratic spokeswoman, saying her efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates is limited and does not come at the expense of work for her home state.
And the senator who a Washington newspaper columnist dubbed the funniest freshman uses humor to dismiss some of the speculation about her political future, including a report earlier this year that she could be considered a potential Obama vice presidential running mate.
“I’ve always said that I think Obama has a hard enough name without adding mine,” she said.