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The Carletonian

Senator speaks at convo, encourages political debate among students

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United States Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) began her speech at Opening Convocation last Monday with a story. In 2005, raising money for her first Senate campaign, the then-Hennepin County Attorney called through her entire address book, which meant having conversations with a number of her ex-boyfriends. Those conversations yielded over $17,000. “You want to keep friends with your old boyfriends and girlfriends,” she advised Carleton students.

Ten years later, now halfway through her second term in the Senate, Amy Klobuchar has been mentioned as a candidate for the presidency, vice presidency, U.S. Supreme Court, and various Cabinet positions. But she remains fiercely loyal to Minnesota.

In almost nine years in Washington, D.C., Sen. Klobuchar has focused on issues ranging from LGBT rights to national security, climate change to infrastructure, and Americans veterans to Syrian refugees. She holds a seat in Senate Democratic leadership and maintains one of the best known and closest bipartisan relationships in Congress, with North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven.

And therein lies the central tension of Amy Klobuchar’s political career. She is at once a policy wonk and savvy politician, a regular Minnesotan and a skilled Beltway operator, a bipartisan champion and a partisan warrior.

This tension is also her greatest strength. The ability to convincingly maintain each of these seemingly contradictory personas allows her to balance the constant tug of two forces: one from the political realm of D.C., where party bosses decide whether she is promoted, and the other from her home state, where voters determine if she is reelected at all.

And she does it really well. “Senator Klobuchar has the background qualifications and the experience … [and] the respect of Senators on both sides of the aisle, so most any cabinet or judiciary post is within her reach,” says Political Science Professor Richard Keiser, also a longtime friend of Sen. Klobuchar.

There may be no moment more representative of exactly this tension than the other joke Sen. Klobuchar told at Opening Convocation. She welcomed the students from outside Minnesota to the state with a version of a quote from “sort of poet laureate” Garrison Keillor of National Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“We welcome you to our state,” she said, “a state where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the Carls are above average.”

As it turns out, Sen. Klobuchar used the same opening in a speech to the Democratic National Committee Summer Meeting in Minneapolis this past August. Actually, she’s been using it since at least 2009, with everything from bankers to recounts being above average.

Her Opening Convocation speech landed appropriately at the intersection of the two, focusing on a comprehensive foreign policy approach laid out in her book, using a term borrowed from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius: “Heartland internationalism.” She urged students to follow the lead of the previous Carleton classes and the administration in continuing to engage with international affairs and think beyond not only the boundaries of the academic institution but also the borders of the country.

“In Minnesota we’ve embraced internationalism – in business, in humanitarian aid, and in the openness we’ve shown to immigrants and refugees from around the world,” Sen. Klobuchar told The Carletonian. “Our state’s colleges and universities have some of the highest percentages of students who study and volunteer abroad, so it is clear our young people are strengthening this tradition … And that’s because Carleton students aren’t just in school to receive a degree so they can get a good job – they’re there to help change the world.”

Students and faculty across the political spectrum have been receptive to her message. Some students, however, have begun to question whether the administration was right to invite a politician – whose ideas, they argue, would inevitably alienate some segment of the student body – to speak at an event that is supposed to set the tone for the entire academic year.

But even on that issue, Sen. Klobuchar has bipartisan support. “We would be significantly limiting ourselves as an institution and as students if we avoided all speakers who may present ideas that do not align with those of every member of the Carleton student body,” argues Carleton Democrats (CarlDems) Co-Chair Becca Wiersma ‘17. “I understand that politics can be divisive, but this does not mean that political discussion should not occur; if anything, the opposite is true.”

“Hearing opposing arguments that make one uncomfortable, out of place, and many times angry is the only way to refine your own arguments, develop an opinion, and speak with confidence when you yourself have to go up and speak to an dissenting crowd,” says Carleton College Republicans (CCR) Co-Chair Patton McClelland ‘17.

The administration is entirely cognizant of the possibility of controversy but sees Opening Convocation as rising above the politics. The College has a history of inviting high-level Minnesota government officials to speak at the event, including at least each of the last four sitting Minnesota governors.

“Whether they’re Republican, Democrat, or Independent – and all three have been represented – they are the leader of our state,” said Joe Hargis, Associate Vice President of External Relations and Director of College Communications, whose office recommended Sen. Klobuchar to President Poskanzer to speak at Opening Convocation. “What she has to say is important and relevant to the campus,” regardless of the student body or speaker’s political leanings.

Wiersma and McClelland agreed, urging students and the administration to continue promoting political dialogue. “It is incredibly important to be exposed to ideas that you do not share, and I often wish that Carleton hosted more conservative speakers,” she said.

“No matter who speaks, some group of people [or] students will feel ‘left out,’” he added. “With that said, I also believe that it is important that Carleton invite politicians with varying viewpoints and opinions that range across the political spectrum so that everyone can hear many different sides to arguments and not feel ‘left out’ all the time.”

For the political pundits, the question remains whether Sen. Klobuchar will be able to parlay her success into a Cabinet position or a spot on the 2016 Democratic presidential ticket. But, warns Professor Keiser, “Questions that require a crystal ball often yield answers of broken glass.”

As for Sen. Klobuchar, she would probably acknowledge that the competition is tough and leave it there. After all, to Amy Klobuchar, everyone is above average.  

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