Credit: Lorie Shaull

On Sunday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar officially entered the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. After some of the recent reports in the media about how she treats her staff, it is understandable that a lot of people are scratching their heads and wondering just who this woman is.

Following her re-election to the Senate last November,  Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote a profile of Klobuchar that resonated with what most people knew about her.

Ms. Klobuchar is the embodiment of “Minnesota nice” — polite and intent on being able to “disagree without being disagreeable,” as she wrote in her 2015 memoir, “The Senator Next Door.”

Klobuchar built her career as a senator on an image of being the embodiment of “Minnesota nice.” That is in direct conflict with how she has recently been portrayed by her staff. When asked about those charges, the senator responded with this:

“Yes, I can be tough, and yes I can push people,” Klobuchar told reporters following her rally at Minneapolis’ Boom Island Park. “I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for the people that work for me, but I have high expectations for this country.”

Based on the information that has been made public so far, the allegations against Klobuchar don’t have to be disqualifying. But she will have to chose between portraying herself as “Minnesota nice” or someone who is tough and pushes people. For several reasons, I think the latter would be the best choice.

The truth is that most of us who live in Klobuchar’s home state have a love/hate relationship with “Minnesota nice”—at best. On the surface, it means being courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. But underneath all of that is something more troubling.

Beyond that, there is the fact that “Minnesota nice” exacerbates the state’s racism. Given the tendency to avoid confrontation, it means that even among liberals, important discussions are avoided:

Tackling racial disparities requires having difficult conversations. It is true that “Minnesota Nice” makes that particularly difficult. When white liberals try to engage on this topic, the goal becomes to convince everyone of how forward-leaning and unracist you are. There is a lot of personal back-slapping and tut-tuting of “those racists” who haven’t evolved yet. That means that the hard stuff never gets talked about or addressed.

When it comes to the kind of policies Klobuchar has promoted as senator, “Minnesota nice” also explains what Stolberg wrote about her.

Early in her tenure, she carved out a niche in consumer protection, shepherding passage of bipartisan bills to ban lead in toys and improve swimming pool safety after several highly publicized child deaths, measures that Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist here, said have earned Ms. Klobuchar a derisive nickname: “The Senator of Small Things.”

As others have noted, Klobuchar “has a legislative record that is bipartisan but relatively quotidian.” One former staff person added that “she’ll never stick her neck out on anything controversial.”

The recent reports about Klobuchar could provide her with a pivotal moment. She could step out from behind the mask of “Minnesota nice” and give us all a chance to see the toughness that lies beneath the surface. More specifically, as a former district attorney with a questionable record of being “tough on crime,” she could pave the way for that pivot by taking a more bold position on an issue like criminal justice reform.

Being the “Senator next door” who hides behind “Minnesota nice” just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.