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WASHINGTON — On the day she announced her intention to run for the presidency of the United States at a rally in Minneapolis, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., faced intense headwinds in the form of reports that she has been routinely demeaning to employees in her Washington office. Those accusations, which have been countered by allegations of sexism, present the first significant challenge to the 58-year-old former prosecutor, who is the fifth woman to have entered the Democratic primary for the 2020 presidential contest.
“We are all tired of the shutdowns and the showdowns, the gridlock and the grandstanding,” Klobuchar said on Sunday, as she announced that she would seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Quoting the poet Walt Whitman, she portrayed herself as a healer, a capable Midwesterner who will unite where President Trump has divided.
But conversations with more than a dozen current and former staffers lead to a more complex portrait, one that is significantly at odds with the image of “Midwestern nice” that has coalesced around Klobuchar in recent months. While some of those who worked for her remain ferociously supportive of the senior senator from Minnesota, others allege that her record of mistreating and even abusing staff makes her as unfit for office as the man she is trying to replace.
A number of former staffers — both male and female — describe a workplace environment governed by fear and dread, one in which Klobuchar treated her Capitol Hill staffers with cruelty and humiliation, while fixating on seemingly minor issues. A minor mistake in an internal document, for example, could lead to a “multi-day affair,” one former staffer said. Like other Klobuchar alumni, she described haranguing late-night phone calls and critical emails written in all caps, sometimes sent in quick succession.
The former staffer said that Klobuchar “has fully earned reputation” as an exceptionally difficult boss “independent of her gender.” She added that, given the behavior that she witnessed from Klobuchar, she could not vote for her in the Democratic primary, in which the senator is expected to portray herself as a sensible Midwestern progressive who can win over independent voters.
“The way she treats staff is disqualifying,” the former staffer said.
Klobuchar has one of the highest rates of staff turnover in Congress, according to congressional research site LegiStorm. Last year, that led to Politico calling her one of “the worst bosses” in Congress. And though Klobuchar’s alleged mistreatment has been an open secret in Washington for years, it had also gone largely unmentioned in press reports. That changed last week, when HuffPost — which, like Yahoo News, is part of Verizon Media — published a report that said that Klobuchar’s reputation had hindered her in hiring a campaign manager.
A subsequent HuffPost report said that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., then the chamber’s minority leader, rebuked Klobuchar for her behavior in 2015. This appears to not have been the first effort by Klobuchar’s colleagues to change her behavior, though details of an earlier such intervention were not available. Klobuchar first joined the U.S. Senate in 2007, and has raised her profile since by advancing legislation with Republican co-sponsors and garnering an ever-greater amount of media attention.
BuzzFeed has also reported in recent days on what the news site described as “a workplace controlled by fear, anger, and shame.”
Former staffers say that the reports are not only accurate, but, in fact, only the beginning. Many of those who worked for Klobuchar knew that when Klobuchar declared her intention to run for the presidency — something she has longed to do for years — they would be forced to decide about how much they should say about what they had witnessed while in her employ.
“This was coming,” one former staffer said.
Speaking out could lead to retribution from Klobuchar, should she be able to identify them. She has been known to grow irate at staffers who find work elsewhere, calling their new employers to have the offers rescinded. The practice, which three former staffers for Klobuchar described and one other Capitol Hill veteran confirmed, was seen as vindictive, mystifying and counterproductive. It was also a sign of how far Klobuchar would go to punish those who she thought betrayed her.
One former Klobuchar staffer says she and others have been sharing a recent Washington Post column by conservative (and anti-Trump) pundit George Will in which he called her the Democrat “best equipped to send the current president packing.” In particular, those former staffers have found laughable — and flagrantly inaccurate — Will’s assertion that Klobuchar’s “temperament” is “her special strength.”
Klobuchar’s temperament could be her greatest weakness, according to detailed descriptions of working for the senator provided by five employees. They describe office objects thrown, sometimes directly at other people, as well as outbursts over seemingly inconsequential matters.
Two former staffers who spoke to Yahoo News wondered why Klobuchar has been unable to stop a pattern of behavior that was seemingly bound to come to light sooner or later.
“There’s definitely something there,” one former staffer said. He said that her behavior “crosses the line.”
And while it is not uncommon for members of Congress to ask staffers to perform personal tasks outside their professional duties, veterans of Capitol Hill say that in this regard, too, Klobuchar went beyond many of her peers. One former staffer says that she asked staff to clean her house and wash dishes, as well as to help her pack for travel and make travel arrangements for her husband.
Klobuchar must contend with these allegations as she begins to make her case to donors and voters whose money and attention are both fiercely contested resources. “Yes, I can be tough, and, yes, I can push people,” Klobuchar told members of the media after her Sunday announcement, in apparent recognition that a crisis was in the works. She also said that “there are so many great stories of our staff that have been with me for years.”
Three female former Klobuchar employees say that while sexism remains a dismayingly potent force on Capitol Hill, it does not inform their own assessment of Klobuchar. Each of them separately said that the senator’s behavior was plainly abusive and went far beyond that of other senators known to be demanding and difficult.
“She can’t hire top-tier staff,” one former staffer says. “It’s real.”
The critical assessment of Klobuchar is not universally shared. In fact, a half-dozen former staffers say that they never witnessed any of the behavior that is now becoming public. “I came to Capitol Hill to work hard and to get stuff done, and there is nobody that works harder or gets more done than Amy Klobuchar,” former Klobuchar staffer Asal Sayas told Yahoo News. “These are tough jobs and you need to be able to rise to the occasion. I learned a lot, we got a lot done and had fun along the way.”
“I’ve loved working for her,” a current Klobuchar staffer told Yahoo News, calling the senator a “great boss” and “great friend.” Others described how Klobuchar could show genuine solicitude about staffers’ family lives or health matters. “That ‘Midwestern nice’ is real,” said one former male staffer, alluding to the image popularly used to describe Klobuchar. He said he believes that criticism of Klobuchar stems from a “subconscious, implicit bias about women.”
“She is a tough boss, for sure,” says former Klobuchar staffer Tristan Brown. But like others who remain supportive of Klobuchar, he is appreciative of her exacting standards. He says that she “may be the brightest person I’ve ever worked for. Certainly the savviest.”
Klobuchar “doesn’t sleep,” says someone who worked for her in Minnesota, and “never stops working.” The former staffer meant this as praise, though also as explanation for the high turnover with which her office has been plagued. “She definitely burns people out,” he said. At the same time, he said that some former staffers “didn’t serve her well.” He believed that it was these staffers who were now speaking to the press.
And even some of her harshest critics praised Klobuchar’s intelligence and determination. The daughter of an alcoholic, she earned admission to Yale for college and, later, law school at the University of Chicago. She worked in private practice before winning election in 1998 to become the attorney for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as surrounding suburbs.
In response to this article, a campaign staffer for Klobuchar sent Yahoo News a transcript of her post-announcement remarks to journalists in Minneapolis. A request to her Senate office for an interview was denied; her office also did not respond to questions about the allegations.
Behind the scenes, staffers worked to contain the crisis, as they tried to find out who had been behind the damaging quotes and anecdotes that have emerged thus far, say two people aware of those efforts (a primary reason for why some of those who spoke for this article wanted no identifying characteristics to be used, and others refused to be quoted at all). At the same time, they urged reporters to contact former Klobuchar staffers who were known to have a favorable assessment of the senator.
The crisis is especially dangerous to Klobuchar’s prospects because competence and comportment are central to her case as a presidential candidate. Sometimes called “the senator of small things,” she has a legislative record that is bipartisan but relatively quotidian. “She’ll never stick her neck out on anything controversial,” one former male staffer said.
Others said that Klobuchar’s main imperative was positive press coverage, to a degree unusual even by the standards of Capitol Hill, where self-promotion and self-regard are almost seen as survival skills.
“Her No. 1 priority in that office was herself,” a former female staffer said.
Klobuchar has been a recipient of positive press for her tough but civil questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, during the contentious confirmation hearings that took place last fall in the Senate Judiciary Committee. A gifted retail politician, she is popular in her native Minnesota, leading some to believe that she could repair the “blue firewall” that collapsed when Trump romped across the Midwest during the 2016 election.
The narrative now emerging about Klobuchar’s alleged mistreatment of staff could be especially damaging in a crowded Democratic primary where each candidate has to make the case that he or she alone can defeat Trump.
Should that narrative continue to build — and it is expected to, with more Klobuchar alumni coming forward — it could give Trump all the ammunition he needs for withering statements and tweets to motivate his own base and rally independent voters against Klobuchar.
For some former staffers, any crisis now developing is of Klobuchar’s own making.
“If you can’t treat the people closest to you with respect,” one former staffer said, “I don’t trust you to treat the American people with respect.”
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