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Volume 27 - Issue 1348 - Cover Story - October 4, 2006

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Michele Bachmann's recipe for success: Christian piety and not-so-Christian opportunism



Illustration by Robin Eley for City Pages

by G.R. Anderson Jr.


 

Michele Bachmann's Greatest Hits

How did she become the most divisive pol in Minnesota? Let us count the ways


By G.R. Anderson Jr.

· March 14, 2001 Just weeks after taking office, Bachmann introduces a bill that would prohibit the use of state money for abortion services. S.F. No. 1748 is referred to committee and dies.

· April 26, 2001 Bachmann votes against a bill that would provide funding for higher education across the state—some $138 million in new funding for the U of M, and another $130 for the MnSCU system.

· February 19, 2002 A bill that would require that stillbirths be noted as official births with the state registrar is introduced in the Senate by Bachmann. It dies in committee.

· September 29, 2003 Bachmann is quoted in the Stillwater Gazette after giving an interview on religious station KKMS-AM (980) in which she weighs in on creationism. "I give more credence in the Scripture as being kind of a timeless word of God to mankind, and I take it for what it is," she's quoted as saying. "And I don't think I give as much credence to my own mind, because I see myself as being very limited and very flawed, and lacking in knowledge and wisdom and understanding. So, I just take the Bible for what it is, I guess, and recognize that I am not a scientist, not trained to be a scientist. I'm not a deep thinker on all of this. I wish I was. I wish I was more knowledgeable, but I'm not a scientist."

· October 31, 2003 Bachmann attends a "Ten Commandments Rally" on the steps of the Capitol, which has Bachmann and 200 others calling for the commandments to be displayed in schools and public buildings.

· March 9, 2004 Bachmann introduces a bill in the Senate proposing an amendment to the state constitution "recognizing as marriage only a union between a man and a woman." S.F. No. 2715 goes on to propose that "any other relationship shall not be recognized as a marriage or its legal equivalent."

· March 2004 Bachmann conducts a series of interviews with Jan Markell, founder of Olive Tree, a "Jews for Jesus" ministry. On KKMS, Bachmann calls the gay marriage issue a "ticking time bomb" that must be voted on by Minnesotans before "an activist judge could impose his morality on all Minnesotans."

"Little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and perhaps they should try it," she continues, claiming that a gay agenda would infiltrate schools. "It will take away the civil rights of little children to be protected in their innocence, but also the rights of parents to control their kids' education and threaten their deeply held religious beliefs.

"This is not about hating homosexuals. I love homosexuals," Bachmann concludes. "But should we allow them to teach sinful ways [to] our children?"

· January 26, 2005 In a Senate subcommittee hearing, Bachmann is a voice of dissent on a Senate bill that would raise the minimum wage. "Literally, if we took away the minimum wage—if conceivably it was gone—we could potentially virtually wipe out unemployment completely because we would be able to offer jobs at whatever level," she offers at one point. "I had wondered, if most employers are doing this anyway, isn't minimum wage just superfluous? Why do we even have one?"

· February 3, 2005 Bachmann authors a state resolution to honor the birthday of Ronald Reagan, a president who never carried Minnesota in an election.

· February 4, 2005 Bachmann proposes legislation to designate I-494 and I-694 as the "Ronald Reagan Beltway." It doesn't get a hearing.

· March 11, 2005 Bachmann reintroduces her gay marriage ban bill in the Senate.

· March 11, 2005 Bachmann introduces a bill called "Free Speech for Faculty and Students Bill of Rights." In it, she proposes that students be graded "according to reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge" of their studies, and "shall not be discriminated against on the basis of political, ideological, or religious beliefs." In a fit of political correctness, Bachmann also proposes that "faculty shall not be hired, fired, granted tenure, or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of political, ideological, or religious beliefs."

· March 30, 2005 Bachmann, as a co-author, gets her gay marriage ban proposal to the House. H.F. No. 6 proposes an amendment to the state constitution "recognizing as marriage only a union between a man and a woman."

Courtesy of eleventh-avenue-south.com


· April 7, 2005 Bachmann is caught on film crouching behind the bushes during a pro-gay rights rally at the Capitol. The implication is that she's spying on people who march in favor of same-sex marriage. After much publicity on the internet, Bachmann tells the Strib: "I had high heels on and I just couldn't stand anymore. I was not in the bushes."

· April 9, 2005 Two days later, at a public forum on the gay marriage ban, Bachmann leaves early after an incident in a bathroom at the Scandia City Hall. She files a police report claiming she was held against her will by two members of a "gay and lesbian activist group." "I don't think there's a crime for us to investigate," Sheriff Jim Frank tells the Star Tribune at the time, even though the police report suggests that Bachmann was briefly blocked from leaving the restroom.

An account of the episode posted on an anti-Bachmann website reports that people outside heard her "piercing screams" of "Help!!!!" and that when she emerged "in a crouching run" she cried, "I was being held against my will!" The Washington County Sheriff's Department investigates Bachmann's complaint and forwards the results to the county attorney's office. The case is dropped.

· November 12, 2005 Bachmann shares her views on cultural diversity at a GOP forum at the Mermaid entertainment center in Moundsview. She calls the 2005 riots in France the "fruits of leftism," according to the St. Paul Legal Ledger. And, according to the Stillwater Gazette and other news accounts, she adds: "There's a movement afoot that's occurring, and part of that is this whole philosophical idea of multicultural diversity. Which on the face sounds wonderful. Let's appreciate everyone's cultures. Guess what? Not all cultures are equal. Not all values are equal."

· May 3, 2006 Bachmann tells Minnesota Public Radio that the United States has to be "very aggressive" dealing with Iran, adding that "We can't remove any option off the table and we should not remove the nuclear response."

· August 30, 2006 The congressional candidate weighs in on the visit from President Bush with Jason Lewis on KTLK-FM (100.3). First she notes that Dubya is an "awesome date," before adding, "He's so buff. He's like you, Jason, he has 1 percent body fat."

Karl Bremer, Eva Young, and dumpbachmann.blogspot.com contributed source materials to this timeline.

On the August day when George W. Bush came to town to keynote her congressional fundraiser, Michele Bachmann showed up in a prim, conservative-correct, proud-to-be-a-lady pink suit with matching gloves and pearl accessories. She had her Dorian Gray thing going on, big time: The preternaturally youthful Bachmann, who is 50, could have passed for 35, maybe even 30, from more than a few yards away. She looked as radiant as a schoolgirl prepping for her confirmation—or a princess awaiting coronation.

 

And why not? Bachmann's joint appearance with the president represented her coming-out party on the national stage, the brightest moment yet in a whirlwind seven-year electoral career that has made her Minnesota's most famous Christian conservative, and perhaps the most polarizing figure in state politics.

"I couldn't be more thrilled," she beamed to reporters outside a hotel ballroom where Bush appeared that afternoon. "If I can take the endorsement of the leader of the Republican Party and the leader of this nation, I will welcome it gladly," she said. (Through campaign aides, Bachmann declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The Bush visit, which followed local appearances by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney on Bachmann's behalf, reportedly raised $500,000 for her Sixth District campaign. It underscored how badly the Iraq-torn, defector-ridden Bush GOP wants to put more lockstep soldiers like Bachmann in Congress. It also said something about the composition of Bachmann's district: In a campaign season when many Republican candidates are discreetly avoiding any association with Bush—or, like onetime White House marionette Mark Kennedy, running full-tilt away from him—most pundits concur that the Sixth is one of those rare blue-state districts where his blessing may still be an asset. Small wonder the Bush administration reportedly counts it among the five most important House races in the country.

So far, however, Bachmann has apparently failed to build a secure lead in her race against DFLer Patty Wetterling and little-known Independent John Binkowski. Political tip sheets are mixed in their assessments: The Rothenberg Political Report lists the district as "toss-up, tilt Republican," while the Cook Political Report has it "leaning Republican." But Congressional Quarterly has the race listed with "no clear favorite," and ElectionProjection.com declares the Sixth a "weak GOP hold." The first publicly released poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for KSTP-TV, showed Bachmann holding a 50-41 lead over Wetterling in mid-September, with Binkowski taking 5 percent. But considering the poll's 3.9 percent margin of error, that could spell a relatively comfortable lead or a perilously thin one.

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In either case, the GOP is taking nothing for granted: A week later, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee had injected $500,000 into the race since mid-August, all for electronic and direct-mail ads designed to attack Wetterling. And the candidate is sure to do her part as well. "Michele is a fascinating combination of charm and sheer grit," says longtime Republican pundit Sarah Janecek. "She's one of the toughest campaigners I've seen in a long time, especially if there's a tight race. I know that right now she's hitting the phones harder than ever, and she's hauling herself to events across the district that are 45 minutes apart. What I'm hearing is that Michele is everywhere and that Patty isn't out there as much.

"Even when she was just running for state races, she was notorious for having teams of people at every parade. It was like she was running for Congress even when she was just running for a state office. Her determination is galling to anyone who opposes her."

Technically, Bachmann's political odyssey began in 1999, when she was part of a controversial slate of GOP-endorsed candidates for the traditionally nonpartisan Stillwater School Board. She and her compatriots lost that battle, collectively finishing at the bottom of the heap on Election Day. To date, it's the only election Bachmann has lost. She came back the very next year, mounting a stealthy and deadly-effective campaign to unseat incumbent GOP State Senator Gary Laidig, a Vietnam veteran and old-school Republican moderate who had represented the area in a state House or Senate seat since 1972.

But in a broader sense Bachmann had been honing her political chops and pursuing the role of uber-Christian public activist for years by that time. Back in 1993, she helped to start a Stillwater charter school that ran afoul of many parents and the local school board when it became apparent that the school—which received public money and therefore was bound to observe the legal separation of church and state—was injecting Christain elements into the curriculum. After Bachmann and company were driven out of that venture, she became a prolific speaker and writer on the evils of public education in the years leading up to her failed school board run.

By all accounts, she made herself into a formidable presence. "She's articulate, attractive, and speaks passionately," says Mary Cecconi, who spent eight years on the Stillwater School Board. "Actually, she is ferocious."

On the stump in 2006, Bachmann still calls education reform one of her "number one priority" issues, along with tax reform and homeland security. Her critics, in turn—who include a number of non-evangelical Republicans—point a wary finger at her ties to a religious conservative think tank called EdWatch, and contend that none of her five children has attended public school.

The most surprising omission from Bachmann's campaign, meanwhile, is any talk of the proposed gay marriage ban that made her a household name. Though one page on the Bachmann for Congress website does note that she was the "chief author of a constitutional amendment in the Minnesota Senate defining marriage as between one man and one woman," she has mostly stayed mum about religious themes and the pet social issues of evangelicals.

"She's not afraid to wear her social issues on her sleeve, and that's what most people in the district relate to," claims Bill Pulkrabek, a Washington County commissioner who was instrumental in Bachmann's 1999 school board run. He rationalizes her relative silence this way: "The media has branded her as a social conservative, so she doesn't need to go out there and be rah-rah on social causes."

Or maybe she and her strategists think that advertising the extent of her Christian political vision would prove divisive even in the conservative Sixth. "She is absolutely a cold, calculating person," says Gary Laidig, the Republican she unseated en route to the state Senate in 2000. "It's always the same with her on campaigns: Nobody really knows who she is, and she just comes across as this petite, attractive soccer mom. And that's it. But the fact is, she's part of a group that is absolutely determined to take over the Republican Party. It's that wing of the party that's very much in step with people like Norm Coleman and the Taxpayers League. And the fact is that they know how to run races. Good races, too. From getting delegates to hitting phone banks, they cover it, and Michele's part of that.

"At the end of the day, her politics are like this: Everyone will have a gun, nobody will have an abortion, no one will pay taxes, everyone will go to church, and there won't be any more pinko liberal teachers in school."


Photo by Darin Back

 

ONE of Michael LaFave's first memories of Michele Bachmann is the two of them cruising around Anoka in his 1961 Chevy as she showed him teen hangouts and points of interest around town. It was 1973, and LaFave's father had just married Michele Amble's mother. He was a senior in high school then, soon to leave the newly blended household on Washington Street, and she was a year younger. "To say we were close would be overstating it," he says of the Ambles and LaFaves, who now counted nine children among them. "But we were a family unit."

By his own admission, LaFave, 51 years old and a union representative who lives in Forest Lake, did not get to know his new stepsister all that well. "I remember that she was book-smart, and did pretty well in school," he recalls. "And she was in a couple of beauty pageants.... She was not overtly political." She was not particularly religious, either, as far as he could see; LaFave calls her born-again identity "a later event in her life," dating to the years after she had gone away to college.

After graduating from Anoka High School in 1974, Michele Amble enrolled at what is now Winona State University. There she became interested in politics, she told the Star Tribune in a January 1, 2005 story, when she wandered into an American government class.

She also met Marcus Bachmann, who was majoring in social work. According to news and blog accounts, the two connected because they were both born-again Christians. Soon after she graduated with a degree in political science and English, the couple married, in 1978. As she has told the story more than once, the two were staunch Democrats who worked on Jimmy Carter's first presidential campaign. Eventually, she became disillusioned with the Democratic Party. The couple soon moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Bachmann enrolled in the Coburn Law School, a Bible-based institution affiliated with Oral Roberts University. According to one version of her résumé, she earned a Juris Doctorate at Coburn in 1986, and post-doctorate degree from William and Mary Law School in Virginia in 1988.

According to Bachmann's CV, she landed a job with "the federal U.S. Tax Court" in St. Paul in 1988. One church bio lists her title there as a "federal litigation tax attorney"—the only job besides being state senator that Bachmann notes on the campaign trail. Some of her critics have called the designation misleading. Setting the record straight in early 2005, Bachmann admitted to City Pages that she in fact worked for the IRS going after tax cheats, a fact she never mentions when she is rallying anti-tax sentiments on the stump.

In 1992, Bachmann quit her job working for the Internal Revenue Service to become a stay-at-home mom. By that time, Marcus Bachmann had launched a career as a counselor/therapist. The couple eventually had five kids of their own (who now range in age from 11 to 23), and candidate Bachmann proudly notes that the couple has taken in 23 foster children over the years.

She didn't always stay at home, though. Increasingly, Bachmann was hitting the church and school circuit as a speaker, railing against what she deemed to be unreasonable federal and state mandates for education. She was a prized pupil in something called the Maple River Education Coalition, which later became EdWatch. (Former Governor Jesse Ventura once said of them, "The Maple River group, they think UFOs are landing next month. They think it's some big government federal conspiracy!") According to the mission statement on its website, EdWatch is concerned about the "undermining" of "constitutional freedoms" due in part to the country's "entire educational system." In the words of one editorial column reposted at the site, "Public education is not among the enumerated powers of the federal government."

Anytime there was a school issue in the east metro, Bachmann was there. "In 1993 or '94, Michele was stumping anti-standards rhetoric," longtime Stillwater School Board member Mary Cecconi recalls. "I went to a church in Lake Elmo, because I wanted to hear her. Everything she said was met with catcalls and 'hallelujah' and 'amen sister.'"

By this time, Bachmann had become one of the founders of the New Heights Charter School, one of the first charter schools in the country. By law, charter schools have to be overseen by a public school district because they are funded, at least in part, by public money as tax-exempt nonprofits. In the fall of 1993, Denise Stephens had one daughter teaching at the school, and one daughter enrolled in the ninth grade. It was the first year that school at New Heights was in session as part of the Stillwater school district.

According to Stephens, it became clear that the charter school's board of directors was populated with right-wing Christians, all of them seeming acolytes of Bachmann. "I started raising questions about whether we were using public money to fund a religious school," Stephens recalls. Among the proposals coming from Bachmann and company was to expand the curriculum to teach creationism. The directors of the charter school, she recalls, were also advocating that "something called '12 Christian principles' be taught, very much like the 10 Commandments." One of the final straws for Stephens, who notes that she's been "a Republican since 1978," was that school officials would not allow the Disney movie Aladdin to be shown because it involved magic and supposedly taught paganism.

Stephens and other parents soon had confrontational meetings with Bachmann and the rest of the charter school group. "One member of Michele's entourage talked about how he had visions, and that God spoke to him directly," Stephens says. "He told us that as Christians we had to lay our lives down for it. I remember getting in the car with my husband afterward and telling him, 'This is a cult.'"

(This closely echoes something former state Senator Laidig says about Bachmann: "She's kind of a spooky person. She's one of those people who feels that God is speaking directly to her, and that justifies her actions.")

Eventually, the Bachmann and Stephens forces met in front of the Stillwater School Board. When confronted, according to Stephens, Bachmann grew angry: Are you going to question my integrity? she demanded. According to Stephens and others, Bachmann and four others resigned on the spot that night, offering what could be described as religious trash-talk on the way out. Bachmann still cites the charter school as a major accomplishment, but makes no mention of her leaving.

 

BACHMANN was hardly cowed by the setback. She channeled her passions into an increasing number of pamphlets and essays on the ills of public schools. By 1996, Mary Cecconi was sitting on the school board, which made her part of an ongoing sparring match between the board and Bachmann over curriculum. "She wanted to introduce Intelligent Design," Cecconi recalls. "And when you hear her talk about Intelligent Design, it makes sense. I believe in giving children all the information out there, too, so they can make their own decisions. But Intelligent Design wasn't even a school of thought, it wasn't even a viable theory."

Bachmann decided to run for the Stillwater School Board herself in 1999. In a move that still irks many locals, the state's Republican Party lined up a slate of candidates, for what was supposed to be a nonpartisan race. There were five open seats that year, and 19 candidates. The GOP-endorsed candidates became known locally as the "Slate of Five." Cecconi, who was running for re-election, says, "There was this overwhelming sentiment that we didn't want our school system politicized."

Bill Pulkrabek, the Washington County commissioner, had put together the group of GOP-endorsed candidates, and admits now that there was "a little bit of a backlash about the endorsement. It put up some red flags." Collectively, the five endorsed candidates finished dead last in the field.

But it was hardly a losing proposition for Bachmann. The school board run is widely credited with raising her political profile for the first time, giving her campaign experience, and endearing her to party kingmakers. Pulkrabek, who was also the GOP's chair for the Stillwater district at the time, notes that the '99 school board race inspired three times the usual turnout. He also says that was the year he met Bachmann, who told him she wanted to run for Laidig's seat. He, instead, encouraged her to run for school board first: "We talked about knocking off Gary later."

Gary Laidig was running for re-election to be District 56's state senator in 2000. Laidig, then a 28-year incumbent of state House and Senate seats representing the area, recalls being surprised to encounter Bachmann (who by this point had added the title "Dr." to her name) and a number of people from her church at a Woodbury School Board meeting in the late 1990s. She stood up and started denouncing the school's academic standards, and took exception to the national and local school-to-work programs.

Still, Laidig didn't think much of it: "It dawned on me that this [education activism] was her new gig, but I never thought she was going to run for my seat."

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