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Q: What got you into politics?
A: First of all, the big moment where I decided I was interested in politics beyond just helping on some campaigns or the high school student council was actually when our daughter was born and she was really sick and couldn’t swallow. Back then, they had a rule that you [the new mother] were kicked out of the hospital after 24 hours, and she was in intensive care. I’d had no sleep, I got kicked out and I thought, “I can’t let this happen to anyone else.” So I became the major advocate for a 48-hour hospital stay for new moms and their babies. That actually ended up passing, and Minnesota was one of the first states to do it.
And I learned a lesson. No one could say they were against the bill, but they were trying to delay it, so at the conference committee I brought in a bunch of pregnant women that were my friends and they outnumbered the lobbyists two to one. And when the legislators said, “Well, when should this take effect?” the pregnant women all raised their hands and said “Now!” And that’s what happened.
Q: What exactly was your role in pushing this reform?
A: I was just a mom. I told my story, I testified. And that was it.
Q: That’s a nice segue, actually. So your first big political issue was an important women’s issue, and you were the first women elected to the senate from Minnesota. How has being a woman in a traditionally and still predominantly male establishment shaped your experience?
A: Well, I think a lot of the women that have gone to the Senate, including myself, came up through what I call the “accountability route.” We actually had to show that we got things done. We couldn’t exactly strut around with a flight suit on saying “Mission Accomplished,” because the voters thought, “Well, can they really do this job?”
People held us to this standard. When I was first running, I remember looking at the websites for Janet Napolitano when she was back serving in office in Arizona, and Kathleen Sibelius, who was the governor of Kansas at the time. I noticed they would all put goals, and then they’d say what they accomplished, and that really defined my work and a lot of women who get to the Senate. And that carries through — a recent study out of Harvard just showed that the women senators sponsor each other’s bills more, they pass more bills, they get more things done and that is what I’ve found to be the case.
Q: How do you think Hillary Clinton’s gender has affected this campaign?
A: I still think you have the issue that I talked about today, that some people can’t imagine a woman in charge of things. You really have to get around that, and the way you get around that is by showing that women can do these kinds of jobs — whether it’s being a mayor, or a police chief, or the president of the United States. And that then encourages other little girls to think they can run, and encourages men to be supportive.
Q: What has been your proudest moment in the Senate?
A: Well, there have been a few, but I was really happy when we got the funding for the I-35W bridge, the bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River [in Minneapolis in 2007]. We got that done really fast and the bridge was rebuilt in a little more than a year.
But the single moment that was amazing was when we passed this bill — a family and a Republican congressman had come to me about a little girl who had gotten maimed in a swimming pool because the drain malfunctioned. I went and visited her in the hospital, she survived for almost a year. She had about 16 surgeries, her name was Abby Taylor, and her parents were convinced that we could pass this bill that had been sitting around for years, going nowhere, called the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act. It was named for Jim Baker, the former secretary of state, whose granddaughter had been killed in this way. But it had just been sitting around.
Every week, he [the father] would call me and ask, “What’s happening with the bill?” And finally I got the head of the consumer subcommittee [the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security] to help. We started moving, we actually strengthened the bill — Ted Stevens, the former Republican senator, helped — and finally it got passed. It got attached to a bigger bill, an energy bill, and I’ll never forget calling that dad, Scott Taylor, and the mom and telling them from the cloakroom that it had passed.
What has happened since then? I asked the head of Consumer Products and Safety [Commission] six months ago. We were having a lot of kids killed every year, dozens of kids died that way. There hasn’t been one death since the bill passed, because it required simply a special kind of drain.
Q: Is that the kind of thing that makes you feel like you’re doing important work?
A: Yeah, even though it seems like — you wouldn’t think I’d answer about a pool-drain bill, because we’ve passed a lot of pretty important things like the TARP bill and the stimulus since I’ve been there, and we were able to get out of the downturn. But for me, those individual moments when you’re helping someone in your state, and in this case we couldn’t help her, but her spirit lived on by helping other kids.
Q: That seems to me to resonate with the current debate over gun control. We’re not sure what would or wouldn’t work, but doesn’t it seem like people aren’t valuing the saving of one life?
A: You asked about the best day. The worst day in the Senate was the day the Sandy Hook parents were in my office, because I was one of the advocates for the background check bill, and I had to tell them that I didn’t think it was going to pass. We’d been working it the night before — [Joe] Manchin [the Democratic senator from West Virginia] and other people … It would help in suicide cases, domestic violence cases and this one woman told me how, the morning of the massacre, that she and the other parents were gathered in the firehouse and one by one the kids came in. And pretty soon they knew their little boy was never coming in. He was autistic, he could hardly talk and every morning he’d point at the picture of the school aide who would be with him all day. And as she sat there in the firehouse she knew that not only he had died but that the school aide had died. And when they found them, the school aide had her arms around him and they were both shot and killed.
And I thought to myself, “They had that kind of courage and we don’t have the courage to pass this background check?” Obviously I voted for it, but I think that was my lowest moment and a reminder of the challenges we have ahead.
Q: To a lot of people, gun control is emblematic of how stuck and broken our political system seems to be — most Americans support expanding background checks, but no law has been passed. How can we improve American politics so we don’t have issues that get stuck like this?
A: Well, I’d love to get rid of Citizens United with a constitutional amendment because then the money factor wouldn’t be there. I think of TV pulling people apart — Fox on one side, and MSNBC. I would love to see show hosts having people on together, not just to divide them but to talk about the work they do in common, and, by the way, there is a lot of that going on. And then I think citizens stepping back, I think that’s going to happen — there’s so much interest in this presidential race and trying to elect someone who will be civil.
Q: Any interactions with Ted Cruz in the Senate? Any stories?
A: Ah, yes. Right now he’s holding up the Norwegian and Swedish ambassadors, who went through the Foreign Relations Committee without objection. They’re the only two major countries without ambassadors, they’re taking in record numbers of refugees and they’re on the frontline of the Russian issue with Ukraine. So I’ve now given four floor speeches asking for them to be confirmed, and he [Cruz] isn’t there, ever. But other senators aren’t holding them, he’s holding them. All we want is a vote.
It’s not over them, he has no problem with them, and he has no problem with the countries, it’s just over other issues. So I have had some issues with that kind of governing, yes.
Q: If you could use one word to describe Ted Cruz, what would it be?
A: I don’t have one word.
Q: You went to law school before going into politics, like a lot of people. Do you think that you learn things in law school that translate into politics? Why is that relationship so strong?
A: Well, I think learning what the laws mean and how they work and how they interact with each other is really important. I also think, for me, it taught me the Socratic method and having to give moot court arguments. It taught me how to stand up and speak for myself and for others; college did that some but law school did that a lot, especially for women. Now it’s different, you saw a lot of women asking questions here today, but when I was growing up a lot of the guys would do the talking in class. So I think law school was really important in that way too.
Q: Obligatory last question: What advice would you give a Yale student looking towards politics, or really any Yale student at all?
A: Get involved in campaigns — and it doesn’t always have to be a presidential campaign. I didn’t talk about this today but the first campaign I managed was a city council race in a suburb, and the guy ended up moving to Florida four years later. But starting small and having those [kinds] of experiences, you can actually have those experiences while you are working in the private or nonprofit sectors or in government, either helping a little piece of a big campaign or actually doing a lot more on a small campaign.
I think people sometimes neglect those small campaigns. But if you pick the right person, and you get to know some people — I mean, that guy moved to Florida but I got to know other people. Then I ran a legislator’s campaign, it was an easy race, fine. Then I ran a county commissioner’s campaign, and then pretty soon I was running myself.