By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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By Michelle LeBow
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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.