Since launching her presidential campaign, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has faced questions about her mistreatment of her staff, as reported by HuffPost and other outlets. Former aides said she berated them, physically threw objects at them, made them do her personal chores, undermined their advancement to other jobs and created an anxiety-ridden workplace that led to high staff turnover and trouble hiring new talent.
The political world has largely received these stories as sexist criticism, dismaying and infuriating former aides who experienced Klobuchar’s fury firsthand. From tweets by prominent Democratic strategists Hilary Rosen and Patti Solis Doyle:
Several staffers HuffPost spoke to forcefully rejected such criticism.
“None of what we are saying has anything to do with Amy being ‘likable’ or ‘emotional’ or whatever other nonsense people throw out at women,” said a former female staffer. “It’s that she is a terrible manager and abusive to her staff. I can’t emphasize enough that there is a big difference between being demanding and being abusive.”
On Friday, The New York Times also published a new report with additional details on Klobuchar’s conduct, including her tendency to blame her aides for all of her problems, such as stymied political ambitions and the state of her marriage.
Klobuchar has responded to the reports by saying she is tough, not abusive. On Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, and in similar comments at a CNN town hall, she said, “I’m going to take the high expectations and bring them out to the country because if we want to really get these things done, some of these things should happen.”
While some writers and media outlets have expressed concern at Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff, plenty of political operatives and journalists have jumped to her defense. The arguments have largely broken down into three categories:
The staffers clearly don’t know how to deal with a tough work environment. “She is also getting criticism, albeit anonymously, as a tough boss who mistreated her staff. She has had some of the highest staff turnover on Capitol Hill, but the stories would have more credibility if the critics lent their names. Perhaps the Senator is simply less tolerant of millennial demands,” wrote The Wall Street Journal editorial board in one such example.
Ultimately, the stories don’t matter because regular voters won’t care and she’s still well-positioned to take on President Donald Trump. A Washington Post analysis asked whether it mattered that Klobuchar was a mean boss, and whether it would factor into her success as president: “Is how a person treats their staff a reflection of how they’ll perform in their job?”
Klobuchar is a victim of sexism. In Politico, Jennifer Palmieri, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton, wrote that there was “hidden sexism” in the media reports about Klobuchar. “I, like others, doubt that a male candidate with similar staff complaints would have seen them become the lead narrative of his presidential announcement,” she said, adding, “We still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses.”
Many Klobuchar staffers who spoke to HuffPost requested anonymity to discuss their experiences because many of them still work in politics and fear retribution for speaking out against a powerful, popular senator.
Particularly frustrating for some of these staffers have been the charges of sexism. Many of the aides who spoke with HuffPost are women, who consider themselves feminists and have worked for other strong female politicians.
One former staffer called the Palmieri op-ed “offensive as fuck.”
“It’s not that there’s not merit to the argument that other men have been abusive and gotten away with it,” she said. “It doesn’t make it OK for anybody. We don’t say, we haven’t held men accountable in the past for this on Capitol Hill, so why start now?”
Indeed, the Klobuchar coverage has set off a discussion on whether a male presidential candidate would be getting the same media attention. While there’s no doubt that for years, working for a male politician with a temper was considered something of a badge of honor, that conception has been shifting. Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.), for example, was shamed in the press for misusing and mistreating his staff last year. There are plenty of other cases as well.
“What if, instead of approaching this story as a matter of political intrigue, we treated this story as it should be treated ― as a labor story, a story of a shitty boss and workers who deserve better?”
“We have been evolving in how we think about sexual harassment in the workplace, and we’ve been evolving in how we think about bullying in school, and we should be evolving in how we think about bullying the workplace too,” said another former Klobuchar staffer. “It’s not right and it’s not good for women to excuse bullying and cruelty because the person who’s doing it is a woman. That’s going to set women back.”
Advocates for women in politics have long been focused on dismantling the barriers that kept men in power and shut women out. And while the 2020 Democratic primary is the first time in history when a significant portion of the candidates running are women, many of those barriers still exist. Women still face more questions about their fitness for office in ways that men don’t.
But with women in power, there are going to be good bosses. And there are going to be bad ones. And criticizing a female politician doesn’t mean that it’s a sexist attack. Feminism is, of course, ultimately about more than getting women into elected office.
“The only way to excuse the Klobuchar allegations is to conflate cruelty with feminism,” wrote Jezebel writer Ashley Reese. “It’s the reductive Bad Ass #GirlBoss model of empowerment that celebrates virtually anything women do — because a woman did it. It’s about getting ahead, not other women.”
Klobuchar faced allegations of mistreating her staff as far back as 2006, when she was the Hennepin County attorney in Minneapolis ― undercutting the Wall Street Journal’s view that the upset aides are just a bunch of snowflake millennials.
“I’m hearing people saying, ‘They just didn’t know how to work in a high-pressure environment,’ or ‘they couldn’t take the high stakes or the tough boss or the tough feedback.’ It’s incredibly insulting. It’s gaslighting,” said one of the former Klobuchar staffers. “It’s the kind of thing people tell people who have been abused. It’s not abuse, you just didn’t live up to the standards, and that’s your fault.”
Because Klobuchar is running for president, much of the discussion about her treatment of staff has centered around what effect it will have on her chances of winning. Klobuchar is known for a “Minnesota Nice” image, and plenty of people have dismissed the stories about her staff treatment as ultimately inconsequential. If people like her policies and think she can beat Trump, they’ll still go for her.
But there are other considerations aside from political ones. Capitol Hill has long been known as a grueling place to work, with low wages, no unionization and little accountability for members.
“What if, instead of approaching this story as a matter of political intrigue, we treated this story as it should be treated ― as a labor story, a story of a shitty boss and workers who deserve better?” wrote journalist Libby Watson in Splinter. “In the American workplace, the boss has outsized power and workers have increasingly less. This is far more pressing in low-wage jobs, but it is also true in Congress, where staffers are underpaid and overworked and the boss is a member of the ruling elite. It says something important about Klobuchar’s understanding of labor rights ― and her politics ― if she abuses the power she has over her staff to demand they complete her menial personal errands, or screams at staffers for tiny errors.”
Molly Redden contributed reporting.
Correction: This piece originally listed Garrett as being a congressman from New Jersey. He represents Virginia.