Monday, December 25, 2006

Bachmann is the Chosen One, Part IV

The final piece from the City Pages

WHEN Bachmann won the GOP endorsement for the Sixth CD, she used a familiar strategy: Overturn the old-school delegates with new ones from the church. With that, she defeated two longtime and well-known Republicans—State Rep. Jim Knoblauch and State Sen. Phil Krinkie—to run as the Republican candidate for the U.S. House. But this time no one was particularly surprised. The political landscape has shifted in Bachmann's favor.

The Sixth, which runs northwest from Stillwater past St. Cloud, is odd political terrain. Little more than a decade ago, much of it was rural, but now it's full of bedroom communities, new highway interchanges, and McMansions. The Sixth is the whitest district in the state (95 percent) and the median household income is $60,893, some $16,000 above the national average, according to 2004 census numbers. In the last presidential election, George W. Bush received 57 percent of the Sixth District vote, even though he lost the state of Minnesota. All of this would seem to favor Bachmann.

But the Sixth District is also home to some folks with strong libertarian leanings. Many working-class and first-time voters turned out there in 1998 to help propel Jesse Ventura to the governor's mansion. And Paul Wellstone twice captured significant votes in some enclaves of the district. It's unlikely that Bachmann's past on social issues and school reform would attract these people. (Just last week, polls released by Emily's List regarding "five competitive House districts" showed a narrow gap in the Sixth, with Bachmann at 44 percent to Wetterling's 41 percent.)

And it's clear, on the stump, that she knows this. One weekday evening in early August, there was a debate at the VFW in Forest Lake between Bachmann and the Independence Party's John Binkowski. (Wetterling did not participate.) Bachmann talked of a permanent repeal of the "death tax," and mentioned that she was a tax attorney no fewer than five times. "I am a federal tax attorney," she said at one point, calling for an overhaul of the U.S. tax code. "That's my background and my profession."

She then called for more "local control" in the public schools. But if you get Bachmann off those two issues, she's on less certain footing. Take this answer to a question about raising the minimum wage: "In Minnesota, we have only 3.6 percent unemployment. We are the workingest state in the nation. We have more two-income families than any state in the nation. We have more women in the work force than any state in the nation. We have more people working two or three jobs than anywhere else." She concluded that "minimum wage in this state is not a big issue." The book on Bachmann, and it's at times very apparent, is that when she's off-message, she's doomed.

A few days earlier, Bachmann was on a congressional candidate panel at Farm Fest 2006, in Redwood Falls, far out of her district. There were displays of farm equipment everywhere, and about 300 people had gathered under a white tent to hear the candidates field questions. Bachmann immediately made a point of saying she "married a dairy farmer" and spoke of the days when she and Marcus would milk the cows on his father's farm.

"That's something that certainly doesn't fit with my image of Michele," chuckles Michael LaFave when told of this. Bachmann is petite to the point of looking frail. She often is surrounded by people—supporters, staffers, fellow politicians, Marcus—who seem intent on sheltering her from any outside forces. From a distance, she looks youthful and composed. Up close, she appears at once older and less self-assured. In short, she's made for television. At Farm Fest, she looked completely out of her element.

There were complicated questions about farm policy—What's your stance on crop insurance? Should the current farm bill be extended?—that, in fairness, made sense to only four or five of the nine candidates on the panel. But while some candidates simply admitted as much, Bachmann repeatedly referred to "marrying into a farm family" in weaving answers that never quite got around to the questions.

In response to a complex question about setting up a permanent disaster fund for farmers and ranchers who raise beef cattle, Wetterling balked and admitted she didn't really understand the question or have an answer. Bachmann, by contrast, dove right in. "I appreciate the question, because on our dairy farm, we raise beef cattle as well," she began. "One thing we can never, ever, ever get away from is that we are not two separate entities: Commodities. Livestock. If there's anything that can interact, it's commodities and livestock. Without commodities, you don't have livestock. It's just that simple."

She concluded by noting that, as a mother of the sum of 28 children, she has learned that when families don't get fed, "they get cranky."

This drew a small chuckle from the crowd, but it was an uncomfortable one. One farmer turned to the one sitting next to him, shaking his head. "What the fuck is she talking about?" he wanted to know.

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