By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
If there's any Mark Dayton "legacy" worth talking about, it probably lies in the way his early political demise (and never mind his formal announcement--the buzzards had been circling since last fall, when Dayton made the instantly infamous decision to close his Washington office) shook up the state's GOP landscape and kicked 2006 campaigns into high gear some 20 months before Election Day.
The clamor to join the race for Dayton's seat has created a ripple effect on congressional and state races. Main case in point: the race brewing for the Sixth District congressional seat of Republican Mark Kennedy, who wasted no time announcing his Senate bid. Last Monday, in turn, two GOP state legislators, Rep. Jim Knoblauch and Sen. Michele Bachmann, announced their candidacies for Kennedy's seat. Knoblauch's bid was markedly low-key; he merely passed the word around the Capitol, admitting that it was a little early for his taste to start campaigning.
Bachmann, on the other hand, displayed the profound ambition that has marked her four years in office. She was joined at a press conference by supporters, fellow senators, and her husband and five children. Bachmann sounded the warning bell on Social Security, talked of "radical terrorists," and bemoaned the tyranny of taxes. And she trumpeted her two pet issues: moving away from federal funding of the education system and forcing government to embrace "the traditional definition of marriage." The Stillwater resident concluded, "I want to be a voice for the average Minnesotans who do everything right when they wake up in the morning."
A year ago, the senator from District 52--which runs from Mahtomedi to Stillwater, up to Linwood in the north--was waging a culture war on the front steps of the Capitol. She made national headlines for spearheading a proposed state ban on same-sex marriages. Nearly everyone agrees that the issue helped to derail the last session, one that was most notable for the things--the budget, the bonding bill--that didn't get done. The marriage bill itself never got a hearing on the senate floor.
"Bills were deliberately not taken up because of the marriage issue," Bachmann noted in a letter to supporters posted on a local website. "We had lost the battle, but encouraged one another that our God would be victorious in the end."
There's no reason to believe Bachmann is cowed. In fact, she's a rising star in the growing archconservative wing of the state's Republican Party. Her conservative Christian values underscore an agenda that is "pro-family," antiabortion, skeptical of public education, and decidedly jingoistic. A decade ago, Bachmann would have been marginalized within her own party. (Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, for instance, has publicly chastised Bachmann in the past.) Now her affiliations with prominent conservatives like Alan Quist and David Strom, not to mention her ties to religious organizations, have put her in lockstep with a powerful faction of the state GOP.
Bachmann's track record in the legislature reads like a parody of right-wing talk radio. She has introduced or signed onto bills that would make English the official state language, halt grants to clinics that perform abortions, make proof of citizenship a requirement at voting booths, and allow stillbirths to be officially designated as births by the state. Bachmann is also the legislator behind the Reagan fetish at the Capitol this time around, proposing that Interstates 494 and 694 be renamed Ronald Reagan Beltway, and declaring February 6, the dead president's birthday, officially recognized.
The old guard within her own party is not impressed. "I wish she would get on with something meaningful," says one GOP insider. "She is definitely not out to unite people. She's throwing out these ideological bombs. She's an obstructionist."
One of Bachmann'sfirst political activities was as an abortion protestor in 1991. She was one of 30 or so who crashed a Ramsey County Board meeting where a $3 million appropriation was to go to St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center to build a morgue for the county. "I feel, in effect, I have been a landlord of an abortion clinic, and I don't like that distinction," she was quoted in the Pioneer Press as saying at the time.
Bachmann surfaced again in 1999, as one of five conservatives running for seats on the Stillwater school board. The candidacies sparked controversy, mostly because several of the candidates didn't have children attending school in the district--opting instead for charter schools or home schooling. More important, many locals were offended at what they considered to be overtly partisan and ideological campaigns. The Republican Party, for the first time in anyone's memory, endorsed the slate of candidates for what had been nonpartisan positions. (Critics also said that the GOP funded the campaigns, something Bachmann denies.) Bachmann also drew criticism for promoting a religious curriculum in an area charter school and for suggesting that creationism be taught in the Stillwater district.
Bachmann, who is 48 and grew up in Anoka, denies that she spoke of creationism in the campaign. She also denies that the charter school she helped start, New Heights Charter School, involved any religious curriculum. "My original hope was that it would be a good academically grounded school," says Bachmann, who often claims to be a proud product of Minnesota public schools. "There was a disagreement in philosophy about how much we should be taking on at-risk kids."