Sen. Amy Klobuchar used a well-worn phrase midway through her snowy presidential campaign launch in February, vowing to do the job “without fear or favor” the same way she had earlier “as a prosecutor.”
She used the same words in her 2015 autobiography to title a chapter about her days as Hennepin County attorney. Since joining the Senate, Klobuchar has rarely shied from pointing to her experience leading an office that brought high-profile cases against an appellate judge and a baseball legend while pioneering new police lineup identification standards.
“I think there’s a very strong argument to be made that someone with this experience, who has a track record of getting things done in this area is actually the best person to put in front of the ticket if you care about criminal justice reform,” Klobuchar said in an interview.
But the same job that served as the foundation of her political career has been the source of fresh skepticism among voters of color and progressives in the Democratic Party who are wary of former prosecutors seeking higher office.
Klobuchar trails a top tier of candidates that includes former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris from California. Both have managed to weather sharp attacks on their criminal justice records and respond with detailed policy plans. Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts launched her own criminal justice platform while inside a Minneapolis warehouse barely 2 miles from Klobuchar’s former office.
Though widely viewed as being in the mainstream of prosecutors in the 1990s and 2000s, Klobuchar has not convinced some community activists that she has done enough to address topics like police brutality and racial disparities in the prison system.
Time may be running out on chances to lead that conversation.
“The challenge she’s facing now is that she had that window when she came out,” said John Pfaff, a Fordham University School of Law professor who is closely tracking the criminal justice platforms of presidential candidates. “Now, months later after people initially criticized her record and she didn’t say anything, I think it’s a little too late.”
Prosecutors under pressure
Having only prosecuted six misdemeanor cases, Klobuchar became Hennepin County’s top prosecutor in 1998 with a 38-page “leadership plan” and ended each year with a set of publicly declared goals for the next year.
“There was a sense of having to prove yourself when you were the first,” said Klobuchar, referring to being the first woman elected county attorney in Hennepin County.
Among her proudest moments, Klobuchar said, was helping resolve unsolved killings like that of 11-year-old Byron Phillips, who was caught in the crossfire of a gang dispute as he sat on the front porch of his north Minneapolis home.
Klobuchar also ramped up white-collar prosecutions, one of which led to a prison sentence for state Court of Appeals Judge Roland Amundson, convicted of stealing from a trust fund he set up for a friend’s disabled daughter. Klobuchar’s office also helped devise a new set of countywide policies for law enforcement, requiring police to use double-blind photo lineups and show photos sequentially instead of all at once.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a longtime mentor for Klobuchar, said he thought Klobuchar “was a great prosecutor,” something he said the public recognized with big electoral victories since then.
But, he acknowledged, “prosecutors are under pressure now.”
Klobuchar has faced questions about declining to charge officers involved in more than two dozen fatal encounters with civilians during her tenure — something no Minnesota county attorney did until 2017. Klobuchar has since said she supports a shift away from grand juries to probe police shootings in favor of county attorneys making charging decisions themselves.
The era in which Klobuchar served as county attorney, from 1998 to 2006, has since been examined as a contributor to long-running racial disparities in prison systems around the country.
“The truth is, when we got in there, people in the African-American community — particularly north Minneapolis — were coming to us saying we’re not getting justice for our kids,” Klobuchar said. “That doesn’t mean that there are not other problems, but it’s very important to note that our job was to enforce the law. If we were to not pay attention to their cases, then you have a double standard.”
Klobuchar’s campaign has noted that the prison incarceration rate for African-Americans in Hennepin County dropped when she was in office. Yet according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice, prison admissions for African-Americans still were 22% higher than for whites in Hennepin County during her last year in office.
“When you say ‘tough on crime,’ that was us going to the penitentiary,” said Spike Moss, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis.
To some people in law enforcement, such questions are inevitable for prosecutors.
“If you run for president and you have experience pulling the levers of government, you’re going to have a record,” said onetime U.S. Attorney for Minnesota B. Todd Jones, who is also a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) director now working as chief disciplinary officer for the National Football League. Jones also successfully represented the late Minnesota Twins star Kirby Puckett in the sex assault case Klobuchar’s office brought in 2003. “She’s got a record just like Kamala Harris has a record,” Jones said. “To a certain degree, I think it’s a bit unfair because things were different then.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who crossed paths with Klobuchar’s office as a defense attorney and later as a Democratic state lawmaker, also defended Klobuchar’s record. Ellison is backing for president Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont, but he said he appreciated Klobuchar’s focus on improving truancy rates and supporting the county’s drug and mental health courts.
“I never got the sense that she was a belt-notcher, or somebody who was trying to use their office to try to climb a ladder at the expense of justice,” Ellison said.
‘Racism in system’
Last month, during an NAACP candidates’ forum in Detroit, Klobuchar drew jeers from the audience when she said it “is for the justice system to decide” whether to charge a New York police officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a man under arrest for selling cigarettes illegally.
After asking to finish her answer, Klobuchar added, “I think in a broader sense we have to make a decision on how we are going to deal with a criminal justice system that has very strong problems with racism.”
Mark Haase, who unsuccessfully ran for Hennepin County attorney last year on a reform platform, said Klobuchar’s statements related to her time as county attorney fall short of “acknowledging the specific harms that were created and her role in it.”
But Haase urged against disqualifying candidates over their records as prosecutors or as lawmakers whose past legislation is now being seen in a different light.
“We need to look forward to the present and judge whether they are ready and able to move on from that,” Haase said.
For much of her campaign, Klobuchar has pivoted more toward issues like immigration, climate, health care and the economy. Of the 100 policy priorities she outlined in June, a little more than a half dozen concern criminal justice, including proposals to create a clemency advisory board and move away from mandatory sentencing.
“I don’t think I should hide from what I did,” Klobuchar said. “I’m proud of what we did. We put together a fantastic management team and hired really good people, we hired more people of color. We had a good track record and I want to be able to tell that story.”