It was 2012, and the state of Minnesota was split almost exactly in half. Republicans had worked to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would ban marriage for same-sex couples, and it had left voters divided. Some days, LGBTQ leaders thought they could narrowly defeat the amendment; other days, it looked certain to pass.
The debate was everywhere in the state, with Democrats publicly opposing the ban. But a young staffer came to a realization just days after she started working on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s reelection campaign: Her new boss was not going to talk about it.
Sen. Al Franken, Klobuchar’s counterpart in the Senate, had come out against the amendment in May 2011, days after Amendment 1, as it was known, was first approved by Minnesota Republicans; by January 2012, Franken and his wife were cutting ads supporting marriage equality.
But as the months ticked by, Klobuchar, whose name would also be on the ballot that fall, was silent. Inside her campaign, the staffer said, it was clear that Klobuchar did not want to speak out.
“I remember being like, totally wrecked,” said the young staffer, who asked that her name not be used because she feared retribution. “I called my parents and asked, ‘What am I supposed to do? Should I leave the campaign?’”
The staffer knew that Klobuchar personally opposed the amendment. But saying so publicly was an entirely different calculation.
“I thought, Oh, this is politics.”
As a presidential candidate this year, Klobuchar has sold herself to Democratic voters as the primary’s true “electable” moderate, the only candidate who has proven they can win in rural, red areas across the Midwest. It’s an image that has gained momentum recently among Democratic voters looking for a centrist, bipartisan voice.
Her outsize popularity in the mostly purple state of Minnesota has been cultivated with careful attention to local issues and a record of working across the political aisle. But Klobuchar’s “electability” is also rooted in a long history of political caution — a desire, according to former staffers, not to rock the boat on controversial issues, or find herself out of step with mainstream voters. That caution dictates almost everything Klobuchar does, staffers say.
There is perhaps no sharper example of that caution than Klobuchar’s approach to marriage equality in 2011 and 2012, when her own electoral future was on the line. Klobuchar lagged significantly behind other state Democrats in saying she opposed the state's marriage amendment. Despite pleading from LGBTQ Minnesotans and activists, she frequently refused to talk about it — especially in the red, rural areas where she was so popular. Months after the amendment was introduced, her office told voters Klobuchar simply wouldn't be taking a stance on it at all.
Minnesota eventually became the first state in history to vote down a marriage ban for same-sex couples — by a narrow 4 percentage points. Klobuchar won reelection by 35 points.
Klobuchar’s presidential campaign argued to BuzzFeed News that the senator opposed the amendment “from the beginning,” pointing to a speech at a gala for the Human Rights Campaign in September 2011, months after Amendment 1 was put on the ballot. In the speech, Klobuchar said, “We don’t need divisive and undemocratic marriage amendments to our state’s constitution – we need a citizenry that looks for the common good and common solutions.”
That statement, however, was not broadly interpreted by LGBTQ advocates — or some members of Klobuchar’s own campaign — as a clear sign of opposition to the amendment. Klobuchar did not speak of it again in public for months.
Klobuchar came out in favor of marriage equality in April 2012, shortly after then-president Barack Obama said he had evolved to support it, following a public push from his vice president and current Klobuchar rival Joe Biden. She gave a statement to the local paper saying that she “agreed with the president.” (In 2009, she’d called civil unions “the way to go.”)
But it wasn’t until the summer and fall that some LGBTQ activists in Minnesota remember Klobuchar becoming a vocal opponent of the marriage ban, as some activists told MinnPost this October. She spoke at several events and rallies where she decried the ban, and two weeks before the election, she donated $10,000 from her campaign to Minnesotans United for All Families, the group founded to oppose the amendment.
For some LGBTQ activists in Minnesota who were closely involved in the 18-month battle, Klobuchar’s conspicuous yearlong public silence spoke volumes.
Activists approached Klobuchar repeatedly throughout 2011 and early 2012, asking her to speak up against the ban, four people close to the marriage equality campaign remember. She refused.
“She was very late in getting on board,” said John Sullivan, who sat on the board of directors for Minnesotans United for All Families. “There’s no question she did in the end, but it was not at a time when we really needed her.”
“It’s frustrating to me, because she clearly wanted to play it safe.”
“It’s frustrating to me, because she clearly wanted to play it safe,” said Brad Michael, a government worker who was a committee chair at the group Minnesotans for Equality, which worked with a Minnesota Vikings player, Chris Kluwe, to oppose the amendment.
“We didn’t need people to play it safe, we needed people to be on our side from the beginning,” Michael said.
Klobuchar’s campaign disputes the idea that she did not fight against the amendment until the fall of 2012.
“Senator Klobuchar opposed the amendment from the very beginning and spoke out against it throughout the campaign at public rallies and events, including one in September of 2011, more than a year before the 2012 election,” a spokesperson said. “Her opposition to the amendment was important because she was the leader of the statewide ticket.”
“I managed the 2012 campaign and am managing this campaign right now, and I can tell you we worked with Minnesota United for All Families every step of the way," Justin Buoen, Klobuchar’s presidential campaign manager, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
The campaign did not provide any instances of Klobuchar speaking about Amendment 1 before the September 2011 HRC gala, some four months after the bill was passed, or any other instances that year. In the summer of 2012, they said, Klobuchar said she was opposed to the amendment in response to a voter’s question in a debate. She also opposed it in a speech at the Democratic party convention that June.
“One thing I can say with certainty and that most other folks would tell you is that Amy was always supportive of marriage equality,” said Ken Martin, the chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “Where people start to quibble a little bit is, ‘Did she do enough?’ And I think that’s a subjective measure.”
“I think people forget she was also on the ballot that year running herself, and had her own campaign,” Martin said. While Klobuchar was “more active” in the summer and fall of 2012, Martin said he felt there was never any question of where she stood personally.
Klobuchar’s campaign provided photos of that year’s Pride parade, where people marched in Klobuchar’s group waving “Vote No” signs. But the Pride celebration that stuck out for Brad Michael was the year before, a few months after the marriage amendment had first been put on the ballot.
Klobuchar’s office reached out to some of Michael’s coworkers to ask if they would march in the parade alongside her, he said. When one asked about Klobuchar’s stance on the marriage amendment, they got a surprising response: Klobuchar wouldn’t be taking a position, her office said, because she only dealt with issues “on a federal level.”
The news spread quickly throughout the LGBTQ community, Michael said — many people hadn’t realized that their senator had not yet explicitly said she opposed the marriage ban, as other Democratic politicians had done. People posted in frustration to the Facebook page of Twin Cities Pride, letting other marchers know that Klobuchar was staying quiet. One post viewed by BuzzFeed News laid out Klobuchar's office's response and urged marchers to call “and voice their concern at her lack of support on this issue.”
When the 2011 Pride parade rolled around, Michael remembered, Klobuchar was repeatedly pressed by people in the crowd: What was her stance? Why wasn’t she saying something?
“People were calling her out on it as she was marching,” Michael said. “It was pretty crazy.”
Sullivan, the Minnesotans United board member, said he had "multiple conversations" with Klobuchar urging her to take public stance against the marriage ban early in the campaign. She made it clear to him that she didn’t like the idea of the amendment. But she was equally clear, he said, that she was not going to speak out against it.
Klobuchar told him the marriage ban for same-sex couples was a “state issue,” Sullivan said; as a senator, she said, she was instead focused on federal issues.
“That was where I got a little frustrated,” Sullivan said. He understood the distinction between the two spheres of government. But he thought Klobuchar’s voice would have been invaluable as they worked to convince rural voters across Minnesota, especially, to open their minds to the idea of marriage for same-sex couples.
“Amy was the senior Democrat, and she had support in parts of the state that we felt were crucial,” Sullivan said.
No state had ever voted against a marriage ban for same-sex couples, a fact often touted by anti-LGBTQ campaigns as evidence that marriage equality was widely unpopular. LGBTQ activists in Minnesota tried a different approach than the one that had failed in 30 states, including California: Rather than confrontations or arguments about “discrimination,” they centered the campaign around personal relationships and one-on-one dialogues with voters. The idea was to give them space to connect emotionally and rethink prejudices.
That was where Klobuchar could have come in, Sullivan said. Klobuchar’s family came from Minnesota’s Iron Range, a rural area that had a history of voting Democratic but could be deeply conservative on social issues.
“They trusted and respected her,” Sullivan said of rural Minnesotans. “Her opposition to the amendment might have given people pause to think, Maybe we ought to have these conversations.”
As she runs for the Democratic nomination for president, Klobuchar has told a different story about the marriage amendment. She called the victory over the amendment part of “my journey,” saying at a fall LGBTQ forum in Iowa, “We were able to defeat that amendment, in a major election, my reelection.”
Sullivan said he and other activists were “grateful” that Klobuchar ultimately came out against the amendment. But hearing Klobuchar use the word “we” to describe the victory rubs Sullivan the wrong way.
“To me, knowing that we had approached her frequently early in the campaign to get her support, and that she’d turned us down — when she talked about the ‘we,’ it felt a little disingenuous to me and those who had really worked on the front lines for this campaign,” Sullivan said.
Michael, the Minnesotans for Equality member, compared Klobuchar’s stance on the marriage amendment and other LGBTQ issues to a train.
“Amy’s at the back of the train at the beginning, and then as it picks up steam, she moves towards the middle. At the very end, as it’s pulling into the station, she runs up front and it’s like she was driving the train all along.”
Richard Carlbom, Minnesotans United for All Families’ campaign manager, said Klobuchar had played an important role in the campaign against Amendment 1, especially by offering significant support through fundraising. Money, he said, was one of their top priorities — a way to counteract conservative messaging about marriage that had been so effective in stoking fear in other states.
“We were in conversations throughout 2012, and in May, she became more public,” he said of Klobuchar. “She headlined our premier Pride fundraiser [in June].”
In March 2012, local LGBTQ leaders held a tense meeting with Klobuchar at an annual lobby day. Klobuchar had still not said anything publicly about marriage equality, or said she opposed the amendment. Sitting around a large table, one activist told Klobuchar, “There’s a perception in the LGBT community that you’re not helping fight the amendment.”
Then they twisted the knife: “You could be more supportive, more vocal, and maybe you’d only win by 60% instead of 63%.”
Klobuchar grew angry, remembered one Minnesota marriage activist in the room, who did not want to be named because he is still active in state Democratic politics. She said she spoke about her opposition to the amendment in small groups.
But that private support didn’t feel like enough to some people. “She was so popular — she was cruising to victory,” the activist said. “She could have been out on the campaign trail in these rural areas, talking about marriage in every speech. It could have made a lot more people aware.”
“You could be more supportive, more vocal, and maybe you’d only win by 60% instead of 63%.”
To almost any political observer, there was no question that Klobuchar would win reelection in 2012. In January 2011, she had the highest approval rating of any senator in the country — 59% of Minnesotans approved of her job, compared to just 29% who disapproved, a 30-point margin.
Klobuchar was intensely focused on those electoral margins, according to former staffers: She wanted to win everywhere across the state, not just by 5 or 10 points, but by 20. When her statewide popularity seemed to be threatened by taking a risky political stance on virtually any topic, four former staffers said, Klobuchar routinely chose caution.
“She wanted to be liked by everybody,” one former staffer, who did not want to be named, explained. “She was incredibly focused on her image in Minnesota. She wanted to be involved, but she never wanted to take a controversial stand on an issue because of that.”
Klobuchar’s caution had come out over LGBTQ issues in the past. She was known in the state for her attention to the detailed concerns of groups like farmers and miners. But members of the state’s LGBTQ community often found themselves frustrated.
Klobuchar was one of the last two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to take a position on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA; a local LGBTQ group, OutFront Minnesota, called her out in March 2011 for her silence. Though Klobuchar said later that year that she supported the repeal, she did not announce that she was cosponsoring the repeal bill until August, under pressure from activists.
The same thing happened the year before, with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, when activists criticized Klobuchar for not co-sponsoring a repeal bill at a lobby day in 2010. One activist said he’d had “a horrible time” getting Klobuchar to sign onto an LGBTQ rights bill called the Uniting American Families Act, that would have allowed same-sex immigrant partners to obtain citizenship, just as heterosexual spouses did.
“I think it goes along with her always wanting to be nothing controversial,” said the LGBT activist, who did not want to be named, of Klobuchar’s cautious stance on the amendment. “The contrast between her and Al [Franken] and some of the other folks was just remarkable.”
Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, was so opposed to the marriage amendment that he’d insisted on symbolically vetoing the bill that put it on the ballot.
Franken, who resigned in 2018 after he was accused of sexual misconduct by eight women, was not up for reelection when he opposed the marriage amendment. But he had won his first election in 2008 by one of the smallest margins in the history of the Senate — 312 votes, the result of a protracted recount battle that meant Franken wasn’t sworn in until July 2009.
After that narrow victory, Franken was widely seen as electorally vulnerable and was known for avoiding national press on Capitol Hill. But he was outspoken on marriage equality.
“My wife Franny and I have been married for 36 years, many of them happy,” Franken said in an ad he made for Americans for Marriage Equality in January 2012. “I think everybody should be able to marry the person they love.”
Michael, of Minnesotans for Equality, said he wasn’t surprised by Klobuchar’s months of silence on the marriage amendment.
“I knew she never takes a stand on anything that’s of any controversy,” Michael said. “It’s funny, because people used to say she didn’t want things to hurt her when she ran for higher office.”