In recent weeks, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has positioned herself as a leading contender in the race to join former Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. But growing civil unrest in her home state of Minnesota in response to the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer—and renewed scrutiny of her record as the top prosecutor in the state’s largest county—appears to have severely hampered her ambition to be the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee.
“Vertiginous,” a campaign advisor said in a one-word text, describing Klobuchar’s fall in the rankings of potential running mates.
The three-term senator’s drop has been so swift that a planned Minnesota digital event with Dr. Jill Biden and coronavirus first-responders scheduled for Friday was pulled, according to a source familiar with the campaign’s deliberations, “partly because we need to avoid her.”
“This is very tough timing for Amy Klobuchar, who I respect so much,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was instrumental to Biden’s victory in the first-in-the-South primary, said in a phone call with reporters on Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported. “The timing is tough.”
The death of George Floyd—a 46-year-old black man who appeared to suffocate as now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes—has ignited days of protests in the Twin Cities, as demonstrators have called for Chauvin and three other since-fired police officers to be charged with Floyd’s death. On Thursday night, protesters set a police station on fire while chanting “I can’t breathe,” the same words Floyd spoke repeatedly as Chauvin kneeled on his neck as a bystander recorded the episode on their phone. On Friday, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter for his role in Floyd’s death.
As Minnesota’s governor has called in the National Guard to quell the uprising and President Donald Trump has called for the “shooting” of looters who have damaged private property during the protests, criminal justice advocates have pointed to Klobuchar’s seven-year tenure as Hennepin County attorney, when she declined to bring charges against numerous police officers who had been accused of police brutality. Instead, she preferred the use of grand juries to weigh charges, a process that usually obscured proceedings and tended to favor police.
Recent anger at Klobuchar has focused on a shooting of a civilian involving Chauvin in October 2006, months before Klobuchar would leave the Hennepin County Attorney’s office for the U.S. Senate. On social media Thursday night, progressives seized on reports that Klobuchar declined to prosecute Chauvin in the case. Her successor, Mike Freeman, issued a statement Friday saying he, not Klobuchar, was responsible for Chauvin’s prosecution, which resulted in a grand jury declining to charge the officer.
Appearing on MSNBC Friday, Klobuchar hit back against those reports, saying “this idea that I somehow declined a case, which has been reported on some news blogs and then sent out on the Internet, against this officer is absolutely false.” She also bristled at questions from Andrea Mitchell about whether she should drop out of contention for the VP nod. “This is Joe Biden’s decision,” Klobuchar said. “He will make that decision. He’ll decide who he’s considering.”
Klobuchar has been under consideration for the running-mate role practically since she dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination and endorsed Biden in early March. That endorsement kickstarted a coalescing behind the former vice president of nearly all of his former rivals for the nomination, helping Biden regain frontrunner status after a series of blistering losses in early-voting states; he openly credited Klobuchar with his surprise win in Minnesota’s primary. Klobuchar has since been a visible surrogate for Biden’s campaign, hosting million-dollar fundraisers and appearing with other campaign surrogates regularly.
Those anxiously waiting on Biden’s decision—particularly Democrats of color—see the unrest in Minnesota clearly impacting Klobuchar’s case to be the strongest possible companion for the former vice president. “I do think the past couple of days adds several more layers of complications for a potential Amy Klobuchar pick,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “The events that are happening around us also tend to fertilize the soil more for an African-American woman to be planted and nurtured as the VP pick.”
“I don’t think we can afford to have really any division or confusion, anger or frustration, within the party,” said Seawright.
Rashad Robinson, executive director for the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change, has been critical of Klobuchar’s record when she was running. He didn’t say Klobuchar should not be considered as a nominee but told The Daily Beast her explanations this week of her record prosecuting police brutality cases have been “far too cute” and “have seemed to avoid responsibility at a time when we know DAs were not doing their jobs.”
“To look us in the eyes and pretend we don’t know what’s happening,” said Robinson, “is a disappointment.”
Meanwhile, at a “Women for Biden” fundraiser on Friday afternoon, Jill Biden appeared alongside Rep. Val Demings of Florida, a former Orlando police chief and another contender for the vice presidential slot. Demings, a favorite of Jill Biden’s who has been increasingly mentioned as a potential running mate, said during the event that the nation’s police officers must “take a serious look at ourselves as law enforcement agencies, not just Minnesota but throughout the nation.”
Perhaps Klobuchar’s greatest weakness as a presidential candidate—and as a vice presidential candidate—stems from her inability to reach and win over voters of color.
The senator’s years as a big-city prosecutor in the tough-on-crime 1990s and 2000s heavily influenced that struggle, as scrutiny on her record revealed very little to like for a Democratic primary electorate more attuned than ever to issues of race and criminal justice.
Those issues ended up literally punctuating Klobuchar’s presidential bid: the day before she dropped out of the race, on March 1, protesters overtook a Twin Cities rally for her campaign as they chanted for justice for a man named Myron Burrell. In 2003, Burrell—a teenager accused of murder—was aggressively prosecuted by Klobuchar’s office, and was sentenced to life in prison. A February investigation by the Associated Press, however, revealed that the case against Burrell was built on shaky evidence. After the story broke, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office began a review process—which Klobuchar supported—but the revelation outraged criminal justice reform advocates, some of whom called on the senator to drop out of the presidential race.
Over her yearlong presidential candidacy, Klobuchar frequently found herself explaining these aspects of her record and trying to persuade Democratic voters that she’d approach things differently now. But that didn’t translate into increased support from black voters: a January Washington Post/Ipsos poll found that 62 percent of black Democratic primary voters didn’t know who Klobuchar was or had no opinion of her. The amount of support she got from black voters was represented by an asterisk—unmeasurable.
In South Carolina, the primary’s barometer for black support, Klobuchar notched 3.2 percent of the overall vote, lagging behind leading candidates. Exit polls found that just one percent of black voters—who made up more than half of the primary electorate—backed Klobuchar.
In responding to the unrest in Minnesota, a low point even in her home state’s long history of racial tension, Klobuchar has appeared animated by criticisms of her record and of her past outreach to voters of color.
The senator’s response to the Floyd killing was quick: she called for an investigation into it and declared “Justice must be served for this man, justice must be served for our community, and justice must be served for our country.” But she took criticism from activists for the statement’s phrasing; for example, it didn’t state explicitly that he had been killed by a police officer.
On MSNBC Friday from Minneapolis, Klobuchar was more direct. “Anyone that watched that video of George Floyd’s life literally evaporating in front of our eyes as he’s trying to breathe while that police officer had a knee on his neck, is something that’s etched in the minds of everyone in our state and everyone in our country,” she said.
In that interview, Klobuchar also took pains to note that she was busy on the ground meeting with civil rights leaders in Minneapolis, mentioning in particular the Rev. Al Sharpton, in a show of stepped-up outreach to the black community. The New York Times reported that the head of the Minneapolis NAACP—which had called for Klobuchar to exit the presidential race over the Burrell news—received a surprise call from the senator to talk about Floyd’s death.
Biden, of course, has faced pressure from progressive and minority groups to select a person of color as his running mate, reflecting how essential voters of color—a core constituency of the Democratic Party—are to Biden’s chances to defeat Trump in November. Biden, said Color of Change’s Robinson, will “have to explain to the public why he thought, in this moment, that Sen. Klobuchar was the best candidate” to run with him, if he continues to consider her.
In livestreamed remarks on Friday, the person whom Klobuchar has said will make the ultimate decision about her future on the ticket told viewers that the unrest in Minneapolis “will require those of us who sit in positions of influence to finally deal with the abuse of power.”
“With our complacency, with our silence, we are complicit in perpetuating these cycles of violence,” Biden said. “Nothing about this will be easy or comfortable. But if we simply allow this wound to scab over once more, without treating the underlying injury, we will never truly heal.”
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