Long before she entered national politics, Michele Bachmann knew how to steal the show.
Two days after Bachmann’s 1999 defeat in a Stillwater, Minnesota, school board race, the mother of five attended a meeting of hundreds of socially conservative activists opposed to a law setting a statewide education curriculum.
She was only one of several speakers set to condemn the law as a threat to local control of schools. Yet shortly after she took the podium, cries of “Amen” echoed throughout the church hall as Bachmann -- a former IRS lawyer who was billed on the event flyer as “Dr. Bachmann” -- pulled out a copy of the U.S. Constitution to show how, in her view, the law violated the document, recalled Mary Cecconi, who had defeated her in the school board race.
“She has never wavered from who she is,” said Cecconi, the only person to beat Bachmann in an election. “And that’s part of the appeal to her constituency.”
Since that first school board race, Bachmann -- who owns a Christian therapy clinic and has been a foster parent for 23 children -- has shown a knack for grabbing the spotlight. That talent has catapulted the once-obscure Republican congresswoman, who arrived in Washington just four years ago, into a cable-television regular, fundraising dynamo and Tea Party heroine.
Bachmann, 55, now is trying to leverage her status as an uncompromising spokeswoman for Republican Party values such as opposition to abortion and higher taxes into a presidential bid.
The jolt of energy she gives to party activists makes her a threat on the campaign trail, an insurgent who has won the devotion of social conservatives and drawn the wary attention of the Republican establishment.
“Michele is a serious candidate for president,” said Vin Weber, a onetime Republican congressman from Minnesota who is an adviser to former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential exploratory committee. “She has an ability to connect with the grassroots conservative base in the country in a way that very few do.”
In the 2010 midterm campaign, she raised $13.5 million, more than any other U.S. House candidate, including Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. Among her donors were Citizens United, a group that won a landmark Supreme Court case lifting restrictions on corporate campaign spending, and other anti-tax organizations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
‘Willing to Fight’
Sitting in a New Hampshire hotel lobby late last month, Bachmann appeared eager to take on a bigger challenge.
“I am willing to fight for what I believe in, and that’s one thing that people see,” she said in an interview, shortly before addressing the state’s Republicans. “I’m not just there to go along and get along.”
She’ll announce her presidential intentions in June, she said, and is already working to establish campaign teams in states with early nominating contests. She could have her greatest impact in Iowa, where 60 percent of those who attended the state’s Republican caucuses in 2008 described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, in entrance polls.
Bachmann has asked supporters to pray for her as she considers whether to make a White House bid. “I am asking your listeners now to please pray for me and my husband and my team,” she said in a May 4 radio interview with Dan Celia of the Financial Issues Stewardship Ministries, a Christian group that encourages people to “think biblically” about their finances.
“Ask that the Lord will give us a special anointing of how to put our team together, who those team people should be, that he would bring those people to us,” Bachmann said.
“She would be a formidable candidate in Iowa and in other places, if she got in the race,” Pawlenty told reporters in South Carolina on May 6.
Bachmann said her strategy is to marry support from those voters in Iowa and South Carolina with Tea Party backers in New Hampshire. If that means challenging the Republican power structure, she’s ready to do that.
“I have fought the political establishment and the ruling class, whether that political establishment and ruling class was in Minnesota or Washington,” she said, “whether they are in my own party or the other party.”
Still, she’d have to overcome challenges. Her unbroken stare into the wrong camera while giving a televised Tea Party response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January was widely panned. The blog gawker.com said it was the speech of a “Tea Party zombie” with “crazy eyes.”
Her inflammatory comments -- she suggested during the 2008 presidential campaign that Obama may have “anti-American views” and recently compared the national debt to the Holocaust -- have raised questions about her credibility. In March, after she placed the first battle of the Revolutionary War in New Hampshire instead of Massachusetts, columnist George Will dismissed her as “not among the serious contenders” for the White House.
And even as she condemns federal spending in Washington, in her district she wants to build a bridge to somewhere: a $633 million span over the St. Croix River that would connect Stillwater with Wisconsin’s fastest-growing county.
The project would require federal and state money at a time when Bachmann promotes the Tea-Party push to slash government spending.
“She’s not worried about the money, I guess,” said U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat who backs building a smaller bridge.
Lack of Legislation
Bachmann wields more power outside the U.S. Capitol than within. She hasn’t shepherded any major legislation through the House. And a search of congressional records turns up just three resolutions in which she was the major sponsor that passed the chamber -- honoring organizations that provide services for foster children, the State of Minnesota’s 150th anniversary, and “National Hydrocephalus Awareness Month.”
If Bachmann moves forward with a national campaign, the scrutiny she faces will only grow.
Her loyalties rest with a tight-knit group of advisers, including her husband, Marcus, political consultant Ed Brookover and Andy Parrish, a long-time aide who currently is her congressional chief of staff. On Capitol Hill, she’s known for shedding aides like the sneakers she wears to speed walk on the National Mall for exercise. She has had five chiefs of staff in four years.
She depends on a network of Republican-leaning media hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who once praised her “unapologetic conservatism,” and Glenn Beck to push her message and build her brand.
Her firebrand style, often compared with that of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, comes as no surprise to those who have watched her rise from anti-abortion activist to possible presidential candidate.
Bachmann grew up in a family of Democrats, who moved from Iowa to Minnesota, where she was later named Miss Congeniality in the Miss Anoka competition.
Her conversion to Republicanism, she’s said, happened during her senior year at Winona State University in Minnesota. While she and Marcus had worked on President Jimmy Carter’s campaign, Bachmann found herself increasingly disillusioned by him in office and enthralled with Ronald Reagan.
Her early political engagement began with protests at clinics that performed abortions. She later received her law degree from Oral Roberts University and worked as an attorney representing the Internal Revenue Service, the tax authority that she now warns “may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing” Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Today, she lives in a congressional district that wraps around the northern and eastern fringes of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Her stone-exterior home is set amid a secluded, wooded area that overlooks a golf course. The four-bedroom, four-bathroom property was purchased for $760,000 in 2008, property records show. An American flag sits atop her mailbox.
Bachmann & Associates, the clinic she owns with her husband, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, employs 25 therapists in two offices to provide “quality Christian counseling,” which combines psychology with Christian teachings and uses the Bible.
While Bachmann’s five biological children attended religious schools in the area, the 23 foster children she has taken in -- never more than five at a time and all girls -- attended public schools.
Bachmann said she was “troubled” by the material the foster kids were bringing home because it lacked an “academic foundation.”
In 1993, she helped start the New Heights School, one of the first public charter schools in Minnesota.
Almost immediately, reports that the publicly funded school was dabbling in religion began trickling home to parents. Denise Stephens, the mother of a student, said a teacher banned the Disney movie “Aladdin” because it depicted magic. An American Indian-themed art project was nixed. And there was talk that the special board created to help guide the school, which included Bachmann, wanted to mandate prayer and a religious curriculum.
The school district started a fact-finding inquiry that confirmed evidence the curriculum involved religion, according to Stephens. At a packed public meeting, just three months after the school opened, Bachmann and four other board members resigned when presented with the parents’ concerns, Stephens said.
“She is still very much on the same path,” said Stephens, a former Republican aide at the Minnesota statehouse.
Bachmann said she never tried to introduce a religious curriculum, and that the board stepped down over an academic disagreement. The school, she said, aimed to pair high-achieving students with at-risk kids they could mentor. Her model, she said, became quickly inverted with more high-risk students.
“We were trying to bring kids up, and instead it ended up being a school focused on minimum level of achievement,” she said.
She then joined with the Maple River Educational Coalition, a homeschooling group interested in expanding school choice. That’s when she became involved in the campaign to repeal Profile of Learning, the statewide curriculum.
In 1999, Bachmann made her first bid for public office, running for the school board overseeing the entire district on a slate endorsed by the Republican Party, politicizing what had typically been a nonpartisan race.
“A lot of people didn’t react well because of the partisan nature,” said Washington County Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek, who worked on her early campaigns.
Cecconi, the winner in the multicandidate race, recalled that during one debate Bachmann falsely accused her of being endorsed by Planned Parenthood.
“It was just lobbed out there to divert attention,” said Cecconi, now executive director of St. Paul-based advocacy group Parents United for Public Schools.
The following year, Bachmann ran for the state Senate, when she challenged Gary Laidig, a Republican who had been in the legislature for 28 years. Some Republicans didn’t appreciate Bachmann taking on a fellow party member.
“You had this weird dynamic of Republicans fighting Republicans,” he said. “I’ve been in politics in Minnesota maybe 20 years and I’ve only seen it a handful of times.”
The activists packed the party convention, getting Bachmann on the ballot. When she won the nomination, she acted surprised, recalled Stephens. “It clearly wasn’t a surprise,” she said.
Once in the state Senate, Bachmann became one of that chamber’s most active lawmakers on social issues. Her first success: the repeal of Profile of Learning.
From 2003 through 2005, she unsuccessfully pushed for a constitutional amendment that would bar the state from legally recognizing same-sex marriage.
“She was out front on education and marriage,” said state Senator Sean Nienow, a former Bachmann district director who also served in the legislature with her. Her focus broadened her support among conservatives, even as she gained new enemies.
Dean Johnson, a Lutheran pastor and a former Republican leader of the state Senate, said he prayed before returning a reporter’s phone call to find strength to say something nice about his former colleague. He found no such inspiration.
No ‘Team Player’
“I don’t think I ever served with anybody who I mistrusted more, from either side of the aisle,” said Johnson, now a member of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents. “She would tell you one thing and do another. She’s not a team player.”
Johnson, who eventually became a Democrat, recalled how he told Bachmann one day in 2004 that he needed to leave the capitol in St. Paul early because his wife, who later died of cancer, was in a hospital intensive care unit and he needed to be with her. He said Bachmann never mentioned she would be traveling that night to an event in his district to back a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that he opposed.
“It seemed kind of backhanded in one of my dark days,” he said. Bachmann said she didn’t remember the incident.
She acknowledged her flaws during her first run for Congress in 2006, a campaign she described as a mission from God and which she won with 50 percent of the vote.
“I am a very flawed, imperfect person,” she told one audience, according to the St. Cloud Times newspaper. “It isn’t about imposing my values on other people. It’s that I feel God has given me the opportunity to help other people. That’s why I’m running.”