Senator Amy Klobuchar, in Vietnam with Senator John McCain on Tuesday, eagerly awaits a Minnesota colleague.
That bust looks to be Ho Chi Minh, quite an irony.
Norm Coleman, left, is battling for a second Senate term against Al Franken, right.
April 9, 2009
Sole Minnesota Senator Has Problems Built for 2
By MONICA DAVEY
As the fight over a United States Senate seat from Minnesota seems certain to drag into a sixth month, forgotten in all the fussing is the senator left behind.
Amy Klobuchar, the “other” senator from Minnesota, the one whose election was not contested, recounted or re-recounted, now finds herself the only senator from Minnesota — a peculiar circumstance in a system that provides two senators per state, and certainly a situation rarely experienced for quite so long.
“I keep hoping that it will end,” Ms. Klobuchar, a Democrat elected in 2006 to her first term, said this week, adding that her biggest concern is a doubling of requests from ordinary constituents in need of help — with a missing Social Security check, say, a stalled adoption in Guatemala, or a tangled problem with veterans’ benefits.
“The system,” she said, “was set up for two senators for a reason.”
Ms. Klobuchar’s weekly invitation to share Spam puffs and Slovenian pastry (tastes from her home state) with Minnesotans visiting Washington drew 180 people last Thursday morning, more than twice the number from a year ago. The weekly reception, once held in her office lobby and perhaps a conference room, now spills out through the office, past workers’ desks and into halls.
With only one senator to inundate with advice, to seek help from, or to complain about, six times as many people are calling Ms. Klobuchar’s offices than before the election. A new telephone system was installed in her Washington office so calls could be routed to more staff members, not just to the front desk, where the ringing never seemed to stop.
And Ms. Klobuchar’s meetings with advocacy groups — like those trying to cure diseases, help injured soldiers, or support ethnic groups in Minnesota — are up 30 percent.
Those who once might have met with Norm Coleman, the Republican who held the other seat for a term and is now battling for a second term against Al Franken, the former comedian and a Democrat, now all show up on Ms. Klobuchar’s doorstep. One recent day, she had 17 meetings.
“I am a mother, so I’m used to balancing things,” Ms. Klobuchar said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Vietnam, where she is part of a visiting Congressional delegation led by Senator John McCain. (Her daughter, too, she said, has accepted the new intensity of her mother’s responsibilities “in the grudging way that a 13-year-old does.”)
And her staff — 20 members in Minnesota and 26 in Washington — has dutifully handled more and more, she said. But she recently asked Senate leaders for some extra help despite relatively rigid rules about such things.
“It’s not our state’s fault that this is happening,” Ms. Klobuchar said. She at least jokingly considered suggesting an amendment — aiding Minnesota — to a bill the Senate considered to allow the District of Columbia a voting seat in the House.
“We have the same issue of taxation without representation at this point,” she said.
In a way, the time for a state to have a lone senator could not be worse, political experts said.
Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, a former senator from Minnesota, said the nation’s economic woes and the growing needs of constituents increased the already overwhelming demands facing a senator. “Doing that all by yourself?” Mr. Mondale said. “It’s a big burden, really daunting.”
A political scientist at the University of Minnesota, Lawrence R. Jacobs, said that given the deluge of requests for help from those losing jobs, homes, everything, Ms. Klobuchar was “a little like the Dutch boy trying to plug the dike.”
Perhaps especially for a first-term senator, there is a fear of something falling through the cracks. When flooding threatened a part of the Midwest recently, she flew there twice and went to great lengths to remind administration officials, “I’m just one senator, but I want to make sure that you understand that Minnesota is under just as high risk as in North Dakota.”
And when a Medicaid financing matter that could have meant millions of dollars to Minnesota came up in the Senate, Ms. Klobuchar devoted several days to it, worried that her state’s lack of a second vote might actually threaten the measure.
“I felt like, if I didn’t do this, there was no one else to pick up the sticks,” she said.
Ms. Klobuchar has heard the amusing questions. Does she get two votes? (No.) Does she get the other senator’s salary? (No.) And Capitol tour guides have come to point her out as a curiosity. (“Senator at large,” she says, is the one riff she does not much care for.)
She takes care to say that Mr. Coleman, who trails in the recount, has every right to pursue his options. Then, too, she has often voiced hope for an outcome — and a second senator — by the time the ice melted in April on Lake Minnetonka, down near the Twin Cities.
She has scaled that hope back a bit lately, to a decision on a fellow senator by the time Lake of the Woods, up near the Canadian border, thaws.