Somebody Say Oh Lord!

Livin' on a prayer: Michele Bachmann sets her sights on D.C.
Richard Fleischman

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's first 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."

Further, in addition to her five biological children, Bachmann claims to have taken in 23 foster children. It was through the foster children that she grew exasperated with federal standards for students, which led to the school board candidacy. (Her own children, for the most part, were taught at the charter school or home schooled.) "School board members had some autonomy to reject some standards," Bachmann says.

All five candidates lost, but there was a benefit for Bachmann. For starters, the Stillwater school board race coincided with a statewide trend toward moderate Republicans getting forced out by social conservatives at the grassroots level. It also gave Bachmann a fledgling political base to seek another office.

In 2000, she turned her sights to the state Senate, running against Gary Laidig, a 28-year incumbent Republican, in the party's primary. Laidig was viewed as a centrist, and Bachmann's hard-right platform divided longtime GOP diehards. But Bachmann, with a war chest of $43,000 to Laidig's $23,000, won the party's endorsement. (Norm Coleman, then still mayor of St. Paul, stumped for her.) She went on to defeat DFLer Ted Thompson in the general election. "A lot of political types didn't think she could win," Thompson recalls now. "But she had name recognition because of that school board run."

It was around this time that questions regarding Bachmann's résumé surfaced. She had a law degree, she said, and claimed to be a tax litigation attorney. But opponents said they could find no evidence that she had practiced law. Bachmann sets the record straight by saying she worked in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, representing the IRS against people who underpaid or didn't pay their taxes. She did this from 1988 to 1993.

Her law degree, it emerged, is from Coburn School of Law in Tulsa, which is affiliated with Oral Roberts University. "She's part of the Jerry Falwell moral majority," says one political observer. "That's a legitimate issue if she's running for Congress." When asked about her religous beliefs mixing with her politics, Bachmann responds, "I believe in God. But that is not really relevant."

Two years later, because of redistricting, Bachmann was facing a 10-year incumbent DFLer for the seat in District 52. By ratcheting up her antiabortion rhetoric, vowing to bring more local control to classrooms, and signing a no-new-taxes pledge, Bachmann defeated Jane Krentz.

Some politics-watchers in the district, however, aren't sure that issues are driving Bachmann's success. "Voters aren't looking beneath the surface," claims Renee Murray, a Lake Elmo resident who has done some work for the DFL in District 56. "She's bright, attractive, and presents well. I'm not knocking anyone, but we've got a lot of wealthy, affluent people who are busy, and they just see an 'R' next to her name and vote for her."


Correct or not, that assessment doesn't change the fact that Bachmann's worldview has become increasingly common around the halls of Minnesota government. Bachmann has been involved with the Maple River Education Coalition, a conservative group that started in 1998 as, according to its website, "a handful of parents committed to preserving educational freedom for their children." The group, renamed EdWatch in 2003, repeatedly railed against the state's Profile of Learning standards, as did Bachmann in her original state Senate campaign. And last year, Bachmann proposed a bill that would have opted the state out of federal No Child Left Behind standards--not necessarily because compliance was both unfunded and expensive, but because, in her opinion, the federal government has no place in local schools.

And then there is her apparent relationship with Olive Tree Ministries, a Maple Grove-based outfit that believes we are living in end times. The two main issues the ministry is concerned with: gay marriage and Israel. "True Bible scholars have always said that 'Israel is God's timepiece for the end of the age,'" Olive Tree's website proclaims. "Many Bible translations of Psalm 102:16 read, 'When the Lord builds up Zion (Israel), He shall appear in His glory.'"

The Olive Tree website has a testimonial from Bachmann, and claims that she attended one of the organization's conferences. And last spring, she appeared on a radio show hosted by one Jan Markell to discuss "what's in the news from a biblical perspective." (Bachmann claims to not know about Olive Tree. Nor does she recall doing the program with Markell, saying she grants interviews to several media outlets.)  

Markell is the founder of Olive Tree, what she calls a "Messianic" and "Jew for Jesus" ministry. On KKMS-AM (980) last March, Bachmann called 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."

She went on: "Gay marriage is a very real threat to the states. We need people to be in prayer so that we can get it voted on in the Senate floor." She urged people to attend a rally at the Capitol, because "we will be beseeching the Lord." Bachmann slipped easily into the role of right-wing evangelist, entreating listeners that "our state will change forever if gay marriage goes through.

"Little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and perhaps they should try it," she continued, 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." Bachmann then claimed taxpayers and businesses would be forced to pay for same-sex benefits, and the rights of churches and religious organizations would be taken away.

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

Markell responded: "We need to pray for Michele. Pray for Michele, please."

Bachmann says she plans to bring up the gay marriage issue again this session. But mostly, she's eager spout conservative rhetoric on what she plans to do in Congress: look at privatizing Social Security, cutting taxes, and funding homeland security.

Aside from Knoblauch, the other GOP names being bandied about as Sixth Congressional District candidates are Cheri Pierson Yecke, the former education commissioner whose appointment was ultimately rejected by the legislature, and Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. Both of those candidates have expressed political and religious beliefs similar to Bachmann's.

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