Monday, December 25, 2006

Bachmann is the Chosen One, Part II

Part II of the City Pages Bachmann story.

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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