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.
“I survived a year in Vietnam, and then I get ambushed on the streets of my own town,” he said. “If this is my reward for 28 years of serving, working with people I hated privately but were Republicans anyway, I couldn’t believe it.”
Laidig ran in the primary with the support of state Senate Republican leaders, but he failed. Bachmann won the GOP nomination by a 20-point margin and went on to defeat Ted Thompson, a former top aide to then-Rep. Bill Luther (D), in the November 2000 election.
For the next two years she and Pawlenty served together in the Legislature, although they had little relationship since by that point he had risen to become House Majority Leader and was running for governor in 2002.
When Bachmann arrived in the state Senate in early 2001, she presented herself as a maternal type, focusing on education and abortion. She called herself a “full-time legislator” and a “full-time mom” in a January 2001 interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She told the newspaper she relished giving her 70-year-old mother a tour of the state Capitol.
One night early in her term, a colleague overheard Bachmann pointing out the desks of the four moderate Republican Senators to activists, indicating they would be soon targeted for defeat.
The freshman Senator didn’t spend much time making nice with her new colleagues, some of her fellow legislators recalled. Bachmann didn’t want help learning the ropes either.
Former state Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, then a Republican, remembered setting up an orientation in her office for Bachmann and the several other newly elected freshmen Republican Senators.
“Michele came once and said she didn’t need it. She didn’t want to be part of it,” said Kiscaden, who later switched parties. “I wouldn’t say I worked with her, because she already made a decision in her mind that I was too moderate for her.”
Activists frequently filled Bachmann’s office late at night in the state Capitol, her former colleagues recalled.
“Our impression of her was that she didn’t really do the policy work of being a state Senator, she did the bare minimum,” Kiscaden said. “She used the office for organizing.”
After courts redrew the state legislative lines in 2002, Bachmann was moved into the same district as Democratic state Sen. Jane Krentz. Bachmann won.
A Focus on Social Issues
After her re-election, Bachmann focused her legislative priorities on hot-button social issues, including her years-long quest to put a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on the ballot.
There were a few exceptions, such as Bachmann’s support for the stringent Taxpayer Bill of Rights and her push for a state exemption to the No Child Left Behind Act. She signed on to legislation promoting cell phone consumer rights. She also supported the development of personal rapid transit, balloon-shaped “pod” cars that move people on monorail tracks through congested areas.
But Bachmann focused most of her time in the Legislature on the same-sex marriage amendment. Minnesota had outlawed same-sex marriage already, but after the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned a similar law in November 2003, Bachmann wanted to ensure the state Constitution included the ban too.
By March of 2004, Bachmann “tried every which way but loose” to bring the constitutional amendment to a floor vote, according to former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R). The House voted to put the amendment on the ballot, but the state Senate Judiciary Committee opted against sending it to the floor for a full vote.
Even though the legislation was effectively dead for that session, the issue lived on. Gay rights groups boycotted Bachmann’s hometown of Stillwater. She responded by inviting everyone who supported the amendment to shop in the town for a weekend.
Meanwhile, the canon of Bachmann lore is filled with well-documented antics of her crusade against same-sex marriage during this time.
For example, it’s been widely reported that Bachmann crouched behind some bushes on the grounds of the state Capitol to observe a protest of her amendment in 2005. When the Minneapolis Star Tribune confronted her about it, she blamed her uncomfortable shoes.
“I had high heels on and I just couldn’t stand anymore. I was not in the bushes,” she told the newspaper.
At a town hall meeting that same year, Bachmann emerged screaming from the women’s restroom, accusing two women of holding her there against her will. Bachmann filed a police report documenting the incident, but the couple claim they followed her to ask her a question.
And Bachmann’s earlier efforts on the same-sex marriage ban were not in vain. Earlier this year, the GOP-controlled state House and Senate voted to put the constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot.
“It’s ironic that finally Michele gets her way the year she runs for president,” said one Minneapolis-based journalist who covered Bachmann extensively.
Thriving in the Minority
Bachmann and Pawlenty moved within the same political circles for the past decade but forged different paths to the same destination: the Republican presidential primary.
Pawlenty served as governor from 2003 through 2010, while Bachmann served in the state Senate until 2006, when she successfully ran for Congress. Minnesotans describe their relationship as “cordial” but remember that she was the lone Senate Republican holdout on Pawlenty’s signature “JOBZ” legislation in 2003, which gave tax breaks to businesses willing to set up shop in northern Minnesota.
As they compete for GOP primary voters, Pawlenty has taken jabs at what he says is Bachmann’s lack of experience.
Pawlenty attended the April 2000 nominating convention where Bachmann got her political start, Laidig said. Then the House Majority Leader, Pawlenty was there to support one of his endangered state House colleagues seeking the party’s endorsement at the same venue. Republicans who worked with them described relations between the two as lukewarm.
“Were they bosom buddies? No. Did they dislike each other? No, I don’t think so,” former Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner said. “Sometimes, as governor, when you have a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, you have to compromise a bit. And Michele is uncompromising, and she can be, because she’s a state Senator.”
For example, Pawlenty supported Bachmann’s amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He reportedly even spoke at one of her rallies in March 2004. But when he pushed for a special session to resolve spending issues later that year, he wanted Democrats to take that issue off the table.
Bachmann supported a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but the Pawlenty administration appeared to have concerns about such spending restrictions. The JOBZ issue stung the most, Seifert said.
“It gave Pawlenty a little bit of angst that she questioned one of his top initiatives that year,” the former House Minority Leader said. “She thought it was horrible policy, I remember the discussion well. She was the only Republican in the entire [Senate] caucus to vote no.”
But longtime Republican legislator Warren Limmer, a Bachmann ally in the state Senate, said he never sensed tension between Bachmann and Pawlenty.
“Tim would be focused more on the leadership of caucuses rather than the rank and file,” Limmer said.
After all, Bachmann and Pawlenty had very different roles in the Republican Party and in state government. Bachmann could afford to be an adversarial legislator, especially while her party was in the minority.
“The first time she’s really been in the majority is the last seven months,” Seifert said. “I think legislators like Michele Bachmann thrive in the minority.”