When Rep. Michele Bachmann arrived in the Minnesota state Senate a decade ago, some of her colleagues quickly labeled her a conspiracy theorist. When she spoke on the Senate floor or in committee meetings, they mockingly rolled their pointer fingers in the air to symbolize black helicopters.
It’s hard to believe those colleagues still tease Bachmann. During the past four months, she has emerged from long shot to viable contender in the Republican presidential primary. This weekend at the Ames straw poll, Republicans expect her to top a crowded field that includes a more politically experienced fellow Minnesotan, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Rewind 10 years, when the mother of five began her legislative career in the state Senate. Bachmann’s political persona was a more extreme, less polished version of what Iowa voters see today, according to interviews with her supporters, adversaries and state Senate colleagues who knew her then. They described her as a legislative loner and party antagonist with a keen ability to summon crowds to her cause.
A staunch critic of Minnesota’s education-to-work program, Bachmann began her political career with an unsuccessful run for school board in 1999. She ran as part of a five-member slate that came in dead last in an unusually partisan race.
One year later, she found her first political success in ousting state Sen. Gary Laidig, a 28-year Republican incumbent. She still holds up the intraparty victory as proof she can take on the GOP establishment.
Bachmann, whose campaign did not respond to a request to participate in this story, has said she had no intention of challenging Laidig at the local party nominating convention in April 2000. She’s often portrayed her upset as a spontaneous campaign, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune that year she merely “put my name in thinking nothing would come of it.”
Her most steadfast supporters, such as Washington County Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek, believe her. They say she would have had to make hundreds of calls to recruit and prime delegates if she were planning to be a candidate.
“She didn’t have any of that,” said Pulkrabek, who was chairman of that convention. “I have no reason but to believe that she actually just showed up and was inspired to run.”
But Bachmann’s detractors, including Laidig, don’t buy it.
“Michele Bachmann is the most dishonest, most deceitful person I’ve ever met in my life,” Laidig told Roll Call. “She truly is a girl scout with a switchblade knife.”
What’s more, the St. Paul Pioneer Press quoted Bachmann in April 2001 saying she decided to challenge Laidig one year before the nominating convention.
Either way, Laidig didn’t know what hit him on that spring Saturday. Bachmann won the state Republican Party’s endorsement on the first round of ballots.