Near the end of a debate performance that arguably pulled her presidential campaign back on track, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) made the case to New Hampshire voters that her family’s hardscrabble background would immunize her from the corrosive effect of money in politics.
“I can’t stand the big money in politics,” Klobuchar said in an exchange about the outsize influence of the super-rich in government. “I didn’t come from money, and I just simply think people don’t look at the guy in the White House and say ‘Can we get someone richer?’ I don’t think they think that.”
“I am not,” Klobuchar reassured the audience, “a billionaire.”
But while the Minnesota senator has successfully parlayed her grandfather’s work in an Iron Range mine into working-class bona fides, some of Klobuchar’s most important longtime backers are billionaires and billion-dollar corporations. Chief among them: Cargill, the agriculture behemoth and the largest privately held company in the United States, which has donated a small fortune in campaign contributions over the course of Klobuchar’s political career.
The agribusiness titan, 90 percent of which is still owned by the descendants of founder William W. Cargill, is based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of Minnetonka, and has a hand in nearly every political office in Minnesota—all but one member of the state’s congressional delegation received donations from Cargill in the 2018 election cycle.
But even among Minnesota politicians, Klobuchar ranks among Cargill’s favorites. The senator is the top recipient of donations from Cargill’s PAC and employees this cycle, receiving almost five times as much as the conglomerate’s next favorite member of Congress, and has been one of the company’s top recipients for much of her political career.
The relationship has been mutually advantageous. On issues ranging from greenhouse-gas-emissions regulation to labels for genetically modified food to sodium in school lunches, Klobuchar has voted in line with Cargill’s extensive lobbying agenda. Klobuchar has also gone out of her way to cite Cargill as a “private-sector leader” in environmental issues, despite a long record of fines for environmental violations and accusations that it has profited from the use of child slave labor in West Africa.
Klobuchar has even sourced staff from Cargill’s ranks. In 2015, she hired a former Cargill lobbyist who eventually rose to become her legislative director.
Klobuchar’s campaign denied that past votes that benefited the company were a result of anything other than the senator’s personal convictions, noting that she has authored antitrust legislation intended to prevent hyperconsolidation in industries like agriculture and has “led efforts to reform the farm support payment system.”
“Senator Klobuchar has long been a leader when it comes to prioritizing America's family farms and standing up to Big Agribusiness,” a campaign spokesperson said. “While special interests may think they own Washington, they don’t own Amy Klobuchar. Throughout her career, Senator Klobuchar has worked to get big money out of our politics and reform our broken system, and as president she will continue to prioritize that fight.”
Cargill’s top brass and corporate PAC, at least, have not taken that promise seriously.
David MacLennan, Cargill’s chair and chief executive since 2013, has long been one of the top donors to both Klobuchar and Cargill’s political action committee, itself a major bankroller of Klobuchar’s political campaigns. MacLennan and his wife also appear on Klobuchar’s list of campaign bundlers—those who have raised at least $25,000 for the campaign by gathering contributions from other donors. Altogether, Cargill and its employees have donated nearly $120,000 to her various campaigns, according to Open Secrets—although since her campaign launch last year Klobuchar’s presidential campaign has not accepted corporate PAC donations.
In turn, Klobuchar has frequently been a reliable vote on various bills of extreme interest to the agribusiness giant.
In 2011, Klobuchar voted opposite a vast majority of her Democratic colleagues, as well as future presidential rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), on an amendment that would have suspended the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions for two years, and would have exempted the American agricultural industry from greenhouse-gas-emissions rules.
That same year, Cargill had spent $380,000 lobbying Congress on greenhouse-gas regulations and green energy, among other issues, according to Senate lobbying disclosures.
Also in 2011, Klobuchar wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging the Obama administration to continue counting tomato paste as a vegetable in school lunches, and to “reconsider the quantity and the proposed timeline” of a plan to cut sodium consumption in school lunches in half.
“It is imperative to take into account the change in taste preferences of school-aged children,” Klobuchar wrote at the time, telling the secretary that “reducing current actual sodium consumption by 54 percent is virtually unattainable when serving a dairy-based center-of-the-plate item—such as pizza—with a recommended serving of low fat milk.”
That same year, Cargill had spent $360,000 lobbying Congress on sodium-reduction and the USDA’s school meal program, according to lobbying disclosures.
The next year, Klobuchar cast multiple votes against efforts to roll back, phase out, or otherwise overhaul a federal program that guarantees profits for the American sugar industry through tariffs on foreign sugar, price controls, and a unique loan program that allows growers to pay back loans in sugar form if the market crashed.
Cargill, unsurprisingly, forms one-half of the largest sugar trader in the world.
In 2016, Klobuchar was one of three Democrats to vote for a bill in committee that would have blocked state labeling requirements for genetically modified foods, siding with Republicans in the Senate Agriculture Committee that would thwart state attempts to tell consumers that foods include genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Cargill publicly thanked members of the Agricultural Committee for their vote against GMO labeling.
“We appreciate the hard work of both Republicans and Democrats to find a workable solution to give consumers in all 50 states accurate and consistent information on their food label,” Cargill said in a statement applauding the bill’s passage out of committee. The measure also stipulated the creation of a taxpayer-funded public education campaign explaining the benefits of “agricultural biotechnology.”
Klobuchar has not always supported legislation that served Cargill’s corporate interests. In 2007, her first year in office, she pushed an amendment to the 2008 Farm Bill that would have established a $750,000 income cap on commodity support payments, which would have favored small and family farms over corporate agribusinesses. She has also publicly called for increasing the corporate tax rate and raising renewable-fuel goals, both of which Cargill opposes.
In spite of Cargill’s opposition, Klobuchar has also supported voluntary country-of-origin labeling for agricultural products, which, as the name implies, would allow agribusinesses to opt in to declare where their products come from. But Klobuchar was a cosponsor of legislation that aimed to repeal mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork, and chicken in favor of a voluntary system—a system that critics say creates a loophole for agribusinesses to avoid saying that their products aren’t grown or raised in the United States.
Klobuchar’s work in Congress that benefited Cargill and the agribusiness industry extends beyond the nuts and bolts of farming. Klobuchar has, for example, name-checked Cargill both on the Senate floor and in speeches and press releases as a model corporate citizen on carbon emissions and environmental sustainability—despite the conglomerate being labeled “the Worst Company in the World” last year by former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who was instrumental in passing environmental and food-quality reforms during his three-decade tenure in Congress, over its history of “deforestation, child labor, and pollution.”
“Cargill’s dithering results in a continuing environmental and human rights disaster,” Waxman wrote at the time. “And because Cargill’s reach is so broad, they drag other companies into aiding and abetting their environmental destruction and human rights abuses, too.”
Two years ago, Klobuchar went against the vast majority of her Democratic colleagues—including future rivals Sens. Sanders, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—to oppose a farm bill amendment that would overhaul checkoff programs for agribusinesses. These programs collect funds through taxes on farmers and ranches and redistribute them into advertising and research budgets related to that commodity.
Checkoff programs have helped fund some of the most iconic advertising campaigns for American agribusiness, including “Got Milk?” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” But the programs have come under fire in recent years from farmers and ranchers who say that some of the money being collected from the sale of their products is being used instead to fund lobbying efforts on behalf of policies and companies that hurt family farms and rural communities—meaning that their own business profits are being used to pave the way for policies that harm their businesses.
Among the companies that disproportionately benefit from the program, and sit on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association product council: Cargill.
Small family farmers have urged for an overhaul to the checkoff system that they feel advocates against their interests with their own money—and worry that agribusiness conglomerates could put them out of work if politicians don’t do so.
“The pork checkoff hasn’t done a darn thing for me, except take my money to promote big industrial ag,” said Chris Petersen, a pig farmer in Clear Lake, Iowa, who has been involved in production agriculture for 40 years. Petersen, who is the vice president of the Iowa Citizen Action Network and a regional representative of Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, told The Daily Beast that the rise of industrial-scale agriculture operations like Cargill is a threat to family farms and rural communities—and that defenders like Klobuchar clearly don’t have farmers in mind in supporting them.
“Everybody needs money, but there’s better ways of doing it, OK?” Petersen said. “The way the family farm is today, politically, we need some friends… Warren’s been good on it, Sanders has been good on it, Booker’s been good on it. But Klobuchar, she’s kind of taken a different position on all that stuff.”
“She’s running around saying she’s another Paul Wellstone, yeah? Oh, really?” Petersen asked sarcastically, of the late Minnesota senator who came up in the agricultural labor movement and who Klobuchar has cited as a political mentor. “Paul Wellstone was a personal friend of mine, and she’s no Paul Wellstone.”