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Michael A. Cohen

Amy Klobuchar’s bad behavior is indefensible

Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar greets local residents in Mason City, Iowa, Feb. 16. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo/Associated Press

Over the years, I’ve had some lousy bosses, especially when I worked in politics (though never, of course, at The Boston Globe, where my editors are among the finest people I know — and perhaps the finest people on earth).

But working for Minnesota Senator — and now Democratic presidential candidate — Amy Klobuchar sounds like a uniquely horrible experience.

Over the past two weeks, multiple news outlets have reported on the toxic work environment in Klobuchar’s senate office. Based on interviews with eight former staffers, Buzzfeed called her office “a workplace controlled by fear, anger, and shame” in which Klobuchar “demeaned and berated her staff almost daily, subjecting them to bouts of explosive rage and regular humiliation.”


She would criticize her aides for “word choice or grammatical issues” in press releases and tweets, wrote The New York Times. Staffers are subjected to “haranguing late-night phone calls” and “critical emails written in all caps,” sometimes with their colleagues cc’d on the missives, reports Yahoo News. Worse, Klobuchar allegedly would “grow irate at staffers who find work elsewhere, calling their new employers to have the offers rescinded.” Former aides regularly spoke of being driven to tears by Klobuchar’s behavior (even, as it should be pointed out, some former staffers defended her as a good boss).

Then there is the comb incident. According to the Times, Klobuchar snapped at a staff member for failing to have a fork for her to eat a salad on a plane trip, proceeded to then take a comb out of her purse, which she used to consume the meal, and then demanded the staffer clean it.

All of this isn’t pretty, but I keep coming back to one incident in particular: She’s a thrower.


According to Yahoo News, “she yelled, threw papers, and sometimes even hurled objects; one aide was accidentally hit with a flying binder.”

Both the Times and Buzzfeed reported the same.

As a former Capitol Hill staffer, I understand that it is not an environment for hothouse flowers. But throwing an object at a person, in many places, is a crime. At the very least, it’s a line that no employer should ever cross. If I worked for a boss who threw a binder at me, I’d not only walk out the door, never to return, I’d also seriously contemplate calling the police.

Considering that the default treatment of staff by members of Congress generally falls somewhere between terrible and contemptuous, that Klobuchar’s behavior so notably stands out is, in itself, newsworthy. To be known as a bad boss on Capitol Hill means you’ve really done something.

Yet, somehow all these stories are not stopping many from defending Klobuchar as, I kid you not, the real victim.

“Perhaps the Senator is simply less tolerant of millennial demands,” sniffed the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

“These attacks from anonymous sources on Amy Klobuchar are a bunch of gendered bullshit,” said progressive activist Amy Siskind on Twitter.

Writing in Politico, former Clinton staffer Jennifer Palmieri complained that Klobuchar is being subjected to “hidden sexism” because “we still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses.”


At Vox, Laura McGann argues that Klobuchar’s critics are implicitly judging her harshly because she’s an assertive women. They are, says McGann, not just “angry about emails and binders and forks, they are angry about something more fundamental. Klobuchar is breaking the rules. She puts her ambitions, her work, and herself first.”

I don’t doubt that there may be a gendered double standard at play in the focus on Klobuchar’s conduct and that a male counterpart might not get the same attention for treating their staff badly.

But that isn’t a defense. Klobuchar can be receiving more scrutiny than a male politician, but it doesn’t mean that she hasn’t done the things she’s been accused of. It doesn’t make it suddenly OK to humiliate and dehumanize your staff. And it certainly doesn’t justify throwing things at them.

Indeed, it is striking that Klobuchar isn’t even trying to defend her actions. “Yes, I can be tough, and yes I can push people,” she told reporters. Instead, she is trying to turn the stories into a reason to make her president. “I have, I’d say, high expectations for myself,” she said. “I have high expectations for the people who work for me. And I have high expectations for this country.”

The filmmaker Michael Moore, who has made a career out of purportedly being a voice for working-class Americans, offered Klobuchar a similarly themed back-handed compliment, tweeting that when he heard “how she mercilessly beats up on her staff AND eats salads with a comb, I thought, huh, maybe she COULD beat him [Trump]. A crazed street fighter versus a crazed street fighter?”


At a time of greater focus on bullying and workplace harassment, it seems insane, and stupefyingly hypocritical, that so many on the left are rushing to defend someone who is credibly accused of being a bully and degrading her staff.

Klobuchar’s behavior raises serious questions about her temperament to be president and her qualifications as the potential overseer of the executive branch. But the issue is larger than just her presidential aspirations. At the very least, we should expect that every employer treats their workers with respect. One can be a tough boss without being a jerk. Brushing aside Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff, in effect, normalizes it.

If she is not going to hold herself accountable for behavior that is indefensible (and throwing anything at a staffer is indefensible), then Democratic primary voters should do it for her.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.