You Do Know Amy Klobuchar Is an Abusive Boss, Right?

Emma Roller February 14, 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) speaks during a town hall at Nashua Community College on October 25, 2019 in Nashua, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Based on a third-place fin­ish in New Hamp­shire, pun­dits have declared Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to be surg­ing”—despite the fact that nation­al polls show her rough­ly 16 points behind Sen. Bernie Sanders. CNN ana­lysts are work­ing around the clock on the ques­tion of whether her cam­paign has momen­tum.”

Both pun­dits and vot­ers have large­ly over­looked Klobuchar’s rep­u­ta­tion as a ter­ri­ble boss since the Min­neso­ta sen­a­tor launched her cam­paign last Feb­ru­ary. Accord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer employ­ees, Klobuchar reg­u­lar­ly yells at staffers over minor infrac­tions and throws objects — alleged­ly hit­ting one aide with a hurled binder. She report­ed­ly sab­o­tages staffers who try to leave her office by call­ing their new employ­ers and attempt­ing to have their job offers rescind­ed. Her rep­u­ta­tion is so well-known in Wash­ing­ton that she had trou­ble staffing her own pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Huff­Post report­ed. The way she treats staff is dis­qual­i­fy­ing,” one for­mer staffer told Yahoo! News last year.

In the year since, Klobuchar’s his­to­ry in the work­place has got­ten lit­tle media trac­tion. You’re far more like­ly to hear about Bernie Bros” tweet­ing the snake emo­ji—despite the fact that one involves a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and the oth­er involves peo­ple who are not run­ning for pres­i­dent. In an inter­view, the New York Times Edi­to­r­i­al Board asked Klobuchar about the high turnover rate in her Sen­ate office, but ulti­mate­ly didn’t find the issue dis­qual­i­fy­ing, and hand­ed Klobuchar its endorse­ment along with Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth Warren.

Klobuchar’s office had the high­est turnover rate in the Sen­ate between 2001 and 2018, accord­ing to a report from the web­site LegiS­torm. Klobuchar’s best answer when asked about her rep­u­ta­tion as a ter­ri­ble boss has been that she has high expec­ta­tions for her staff, and to repeat­ed­ly point out the few staffers who have man­aged to stick around. But a greater num­ber of staffers (always anony­mous) have talked about how Klobuchar’s treat­ment cre­at­ed a work atmos­phere irra­di­at­ed with anx­i­ety and paranoia.

Aides in Klobuchar’s office quick­ly learned to walk on eggshells. Dur­ing her first Sen­ate run in 2006, aides assem­bled an eight-page memo for how to han­dle their boss’s errat­ic behav­ior. Espe­cial­ly while in the car dur­ing a busy day: if she is EXTREME­LY upset about some­thing, let her rant through it, DON’T inter­rupt her unless ABSOLUTE­LY nec­es­sary and be care­ful when try­ing to calm her down,” the memo read.

Klobuchar’s record as a boss goes beyond the typ­i­cal tough boss arche­type. Tak­en togeth­er, the sto­ries of cur­rent and for­mer aides paint a dis­turb­ing pic­ture of a boss eager to demor­al­ize and humil­i­ate her own staff. One for­mer aide to ex-Sen. Al Franken told Huff­Post about a telling encounter with a young Klobuchar aide. Klobuchar was run­ning late to an event with Sen­a­tor Al Franken, and the young staffer was sent to explain why her boss was late. I’m sup­posed to tell you,” she said, Sen­a­tor Klobuchar is late today because I am bad at my job.”

The tox­ic cul­ture in Klobuchar’s office appears to go beyond per­son­al inter­ac­tions. The employ­ee hand­book once includ­ed a pol­i­cy requir­ing staffers who took parental leave to remain in the office for three times as many weeks as they had been gone once they returned to work, accord­ing to the New York Times. Bizarrely, the pol­i­cy also direct­ed staffers who left dur­ing that peri­od to pay back the mon­ey earned while they were on leave. After the news­pa­per raised ques­tions about the pol­i­cy, Klobuchar’s office promised to revise it.

Klobuchar’s rep­u­ta­tion became such a prob­lem with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus that in 2015, then-Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Har­ry Reid per­son­al­ly admon­ished Klobuchar and told her to change her behav­ior, accord­ing to a Huff­Post inves­ti­ga­tion.

I’ve always been taught that your true char­ac­ter shows in how you treat those with less pow­er than you, espe­cial­ly behind closed doors,” one anony­mous for­mer Klobuchar staffer told Buz­zFeed News last year. The way Sen. Klobuchar behaves in pri­vate with her staff is very dif­fer­ent than when she’s in the pub­lic eye, and that kind of cru­el­ty should­n’t be accept­able for anyone.”

Some have argued that crit­i­cism of Klobuchar as a boss is a sex­ist dou­ble stan­dard, not­ing Pres­i­dent Bill Clinton’s rep­u­ta­tion for pur­ple rages” and Bernie Sanders’ speak­ing vol­ume. But a bad boss is a bad boss, full stop. The way to com­bat sex­ism is not to relax our stan­dards for women; it’s to hold male law­mak­ers to an equal­ly high stan­dard befit­ting their office. (As for Bernie, there’s a dif­fer­ence between a sen­a­tor who doesn’t use his indoor voice” while speak­ing at ral­lies, and one who ver­bal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly abus­es their staff.)

The descrip­tions of Klobuchar can’t be writ­ten off as sim­ple back­lash against a woman in a posi­tion of author­i­ty. A record num­ber of women have run high-pro­file pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns in the past five years: Hillary Clin­ton, Kamala Har­ris, Mar­i­anne Williamson, Jill Stein, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, Kirsten Gilli­brand, Tul­si Gab­bard. None have faced alle­ga­tions like this.

Dur­ing Klobuchar’s 2006 sen­a­to­r­i­al cam­paign, the pres­i­dent of the local AFSCME chap­ter argued in a let­ter that the union should with­hold its endorse­ment over Klobuchar’s shame­ful treat­ment of her employ­ees.” James Apple­by, the union leader, argued that Klobuchar’s behav­ior made her whol­ly unde­serv­ing of AFSCME’s endorse­ment,” writ­ing that as Hen­nepin Coun­ty Attor­ney, Klobuchar had cre­at­ed a hos­tile work envi­ron­ment” and severe­ly dam­aged the morale of the office.” In short,” Apple­by wrote at the time, Amy Klobuchar is exact­ly the kind of can­di­date that AFSCME should oppose.”

So why haven’t more labor unions and work­ers spo­ken out in sol­i­dar­i­ty with Klobuchar’s staff dur­ing her 2020 cam­paign? Per­haps it’s dif­fi­cult to muster much sym­pa­thy for peo­ple who decide to pur­sue a career in pol­i­tics. But when a boss is abu­sive, it’s not usu­al­ly the chiefs of staff mak­ing six-fig­ure salaries who suf­fer the worst abus­es, but the most junior employ­ees with the least power. 

The life of a typ­i­cal Hill staffer is already one of thank­less labor result­ing in being under­paid and over­worked. Among 16 staff posi­tions in Sen­ate offices, the medi­an income actu­al­ly decreased over the past two decades, accord­ing to a 2019 report from the Con­gres­sion­al Research Ser­vice. The medi­an pay for leg­isla­tive assis­tants in Sen­ate offices fell 0.8% from 2001 to 2018. Over the same time peri­od, medi­an pay dropped 20 per­cent for exec­u­tive assis­tants, 26% for press sec­re­taries, and 11% for chiefs of staff. Mean­while, the cost of rent in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. metro area near­ly dou­bled between 2005 and 2019, accord­ing to a report from the web­site Zil­low. Com­bine a gru­el­ing work envi­ron­ment and deplet­ed wages with a sky­rock­et­ing cost of liv­ing, and you’re left with a chron­i­cal­ly stressed-out, mis­er­able workforce.

The cul­ture on the Hill already encour­ages staff to main­tain an intense lev­el of loy­al­ty, bor­der­ing on syco­phancy, toward mem­bers of Con­gress. On top of this, Con­gres­sion­al staff are not allowed to union­ize, so aides have lit­tle to no recourse for being mis­treat­ed in the work­place. Their options are to go to anoth­er office, leave the Hill entire­ly, or suck it up and stay.

Why shouldn’t we hold a pres­i­dent — or a sen­a­tor, for that mat­ter — to the same work­place stan­dards we would any oth­er man­ag­er? Why is it OK to mis­treat your employ­ees, so long as it’s in the name of fur­ther­ing your own pow­er? And what does it say about a coun­try for whom such sto­ries bare­ly reg­is­ter in our col­lec­tive conscience?

An Amy Klobuchar pres­i­den­cy would undoubt­ed­ly be bet­ter than a sec­ond Trump term. But it would also com­mu­ni­cate a very spe­cif­ic mes­sage about her party’s stat­ed val­ues: Name­ly, that it doesn’t mat­ter if a Demo­c­rat upholds those val­ues in her own life.

Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.


Get the lat­est news and analy­sis from inside the labor move­ment in your inbox every Fri­day. Sign up for the Work­ing In These Times newsletter.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH