John Bessler is a University of Baltimore law professor, author, ardent death penalty opponent, writing coach, dad, and informal adviser — and husband — of Minnesota senator and Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar.
He is also — says his law school dean — “Minnesota nice.” That’s an expression in the Midwestern state describing a brand of friendliness that’s without any streak of self-promotion.
A kind of reticence, for instance, emerged after a Baltimore Sun reporter asked an otherwise outgoing Bessler about becoming America’s “first man” (the term “first gentleman” has also been suggested) if Klobuchar won her party’s nomination and was elected the first female U.S. president in 2020.
Bessler paused, suggesting he did not believe it would be particularly Minnesota nice to presume his wife’s victory and discuss his ascension to a first-ever role.
Like other possible “first men,” he also wanted to make sure the story remained centered on the candidate.
Bessler said he hasn’t done many media interviews, although he and the couple’s 24-year-old daughter, Abigail, have been in news photos from the campaign trail — most memorably being pelted with falling snow when Klobuchar announced her candidacy last winter at an outdoor rally during a Minnesota storm.
A handful of other Democratic presidential contenders also have male spouses, including South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“It’s a little premature to talk about,” Bessler said when asked what agenda he might embrace at the White House. Presidential spouses have traditionally adopted issues such as Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign focused on children and against cyberbullying, and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” effort to combat childhood obesity.
Bessler started at the Baltimore law school in 2009, a few years after his wife arrived in Washington after being elected in 2006 to her first term in the Senate. He had previously taught at George Washington University’s law school and handled civil litigation for a Minneapolis firm.
He has written a half-dozen books about the death penalty. His stance is reflected in the title of one: “The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition.” He also specializes in international human rights law.
“Human rights is a big passion of mine. And then, also, the craft of writing is something I’m really passionate about. It’s an issue for us even in law schools. A lot of students struggle with basic issues related to writing," he said.
Bessler, 51, said he has advised Klobuchar on antitrust issues — she is the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee — and on U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings. She has said monopolies are hurting American consumers in myriad ways.
“I do offer advice,” he said. “Anybody who has been married knows the spouse doesn’t always take your advice.”
But Klobuchar, 59, told The Sun in a statement: “Every campaign I’ve run has been in partnership with my husband. He is great with people and loves policy.”
Ronald Weich, the University of Baltimore law school dean, calls Bessler “a Renaissance man” and “modest,” as well as “Minnesota nice.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune calls the quality “polite friendliness” along with “a disinclination to intrude.”
“That’s a moniker I would certainly embrace,” Bessler said. “Even when I’m using the Socratic method in my classes, I try to bring that ethic of Minnesota nice into the classroom.”
His University of Baltimore classes include civil procedure and contracts. He is also an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.
Weich said Bessler doesn’t bring the campaign into the classroom, but “students are generally aware of his wife’s employment and prominence. I think the word is out.”
The family has a home in Minnesota and a small apartment in Washington. Bessler gets to work in Baltimore by MARC commuter rail.
The couple’s daughter lives in New York City, where she is legislative director to Keith Powers, a Democratic City Council member.
Because of his affiliation with Baltimore, Bessler said he was offended by recent tweets by Republican President Donald Trump denigrating the city. Trump alleged without evidence that billions of dollars in federal aid to Baltimore has been “wasted” and “stolen." He derided the district of Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
“Baltimore goes back a long, long way in our country and it’s a great American city,” Bessler said. “To have a kid in Baltimore wake up and have the president saying that about Baltimore I think is appalling. The president should be offering assistance, not offering insults and attacks on an entire city.”
Klobuchar made a similar statement about the Baltimore tweets, defending the city last week during the second round of nationally televised debates in Detroit.
“One of the reasons I’ve been so outspoken about defending Baltimore in light of the president’s comments is that I’ve gotten to know the city because of my husband’s work there," the senator told The Sun. "It’s a very important part of his life and he loves teaching in Baltimore.”
The candidate trails in the polls behind former Vice President Joe Biden and others, but is hopeful that continued visibility will boost her numbers. She recently qualified for next month’s debate by surpassing 2% in designated polls and gaining contributions from at least 130,000 unique donors.
“Amy is from a smaller state and didn’t have the same kind of pre-existing list that some of the other candidates have,” Bessler said. "She’s got to spend a lot more time introducing herself to the public. And that’s why the debates are so important."
Bessler graduated from Indiana University law school in 1991 and took a job with a Minneapolis firm.
He met his future wife, a fellow lawyer, through mutual friends. He proposed to Klobuchar in 1992 at The Hungry Mind, a now-closed independent bookstore in the Twin Cities.
“I made the proposal in the nonfiction aisle. Very exciting,” he said.
The couple married in 1993. She posted a wedding photo on Instagram last year — they are smiling and he has more hair than now — on their big anniversary.
“Happy 25th Anniversary to my husband, John. It isn’t the most romantic anniversary we ever had with you in Minnesota and me at a caucus lunch in Washington but I love you all the same," she wrote.