CAP TIMES IDEA FEST

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, at the Cap Times Idea Fest in Madison Saturday.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

For a Minnesotan speaking before Wisconsinites, Amy Klobuchar might have felt a little pressure.

“I’ll be competing with another session on the future of cheese,” said the first woman to be elected U.S. senator in Minnesota.

On Saturday, Klobuchar kicked off the Cap Times Idea Fest at UW-Madison’s Gordon Center — just a few blocks from Union South where there was indeed a discussion on the future of cheese and down the hall from a panel on formidable Wisconsin women — with her renowned homespun humor and her irrepressible optimism on display.

Elected in a 2006 landslide, Klobuchar has since gained a reputation for getting things done, and in a nice way. She’s one of those skilled politicians who can be ardently partisan while still being able to reach across the aisle.

“You need people who stand their ground, but yet find common ground,” she said.

Consequently, some see her as a potential presidential candidate in 2020.

“I like my job now,” she said when the subject came up. “That’s what I’m focused on. We’ll figure that out later.”

But whether she’s in that mix of Democrats who will be seeking the office or not, she thinks someone from the Midwest should be.

Spinning the yarn about how her husband, the third of six boys, was twice left by his parents at gas stations, she said, “I just don’t think we can leave the Midwest behind at the gas station.”

Cap Times political reporter Jessie Opoien, who moderated the event, pointed out that with Donald Trump taking the presidential vote in Michigan and Wisconsin, the Midwest has hardly proven itself to be a dependable bastion of progressivism.

But Klobuchar offered some perspective on the 2016 election results.

In Minnesota, where Hillary Clinton edged out Trump, “Hillary actually got a lower percentage in Minnesota than she did in Wisconsin.”

Same was true in Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania.

“So you wonder how she won in Minnesota?” she said. “What do you think that Minnesotans did in the home of Jesse Ventura? They voted independent.”

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In this case, they voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson.

For Democrats to win those independent votes, she said, they’re going to have to find a better way to sound populist themes, creating a narrative of no one being left behind.

“It’s this idea of a better deal,” she said. “This idea of not everyone needs a four-year degree. If you don’t want one, we respect that – I know I’m talking about this in a college – but I don’t think that message got out there very much at all, and I think it was hurting us. When in fact we had the ideas for community college and doing more with apprenticeships and things like that.”

She said the Democratic message didn’t resonate when it came to pocketbook issues, “whether it’s cable rates, whether it’s beer — this is Wisconsin — taking on this issue of bigger is not always better.”

On the last point she noted that she’s introduced in recent days two anti-trust bills.

“I think taking these kinds of things on, I think people are willing to listen and think about maybe this isn’t as easy as just wearing a hat that says, ‘Make America Great Again,’” she said.

Addressing the resentment dredged up by the Trump campaign won’t be easy, she said. But it can be done if Democrats can sell their agenda of humanitarian and economic justice.

“This is not just a moment to overcome,” she said, “this is a moment to shine.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.