Nov. 17, 2006: Taking her place

  • Article by: BY KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2007 - 11:31 AM

The first Republican congresswoman from Minnesota says she'll be there as a conservative, not a lightning rod for controversy.

Michele Bachmann's first act as a congresswoman-elect was to don jeans and a sweatshirt and join the tourists going to see the Constitution.

"When I come here on January third to take my oath, I'll be pledging to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution, and I've never seen it," said the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Minnesota.

So there she was in line with her husband, Marcus, brimming with optimism about taking her place in Congress, albeit under a Democratic majority largely opposed to her conservative positions on tax cuts, abortion and same-sex marriage.

"It isn't what I had hoped," she said of being one of only 13 Republican freshmen. "But, hey, I'll take it. I'm thrilled to be here. I'm not whining."

Her children like to tease her: "Wherever Bachmann goes, controversy follows." And Bachmann, 50, an evangelical Christian and mother of five, vows to use the national platform she's gained to make her views known. But she added: "I'm coming here as a conservative. I'm not coming here for the purpose of controversy."

It remains to be seen whether she becomes the lightning rod she was in the Minnesota Senate, where she tried for three years to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Either way, Bachmann will play a very different role than her predecessor, Mark Kennedy, who enjoyed six years in a Republican majority before making an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate.

"She won't have the gavel," Kennedy said as he cleaned out his office this week.

'We can hardly wait' In her first week in Washington, Bachmann has talked more about tax cuts and education than her social conservative positions.

Her religious allies say they don't mind.

"That's what she needs to do, but we know where she'll come down on these other issues," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which is gearing up for a fight with Democrats over what he calls anti-Christian hate-crime legislation protecting gays and lesbians. "We can hardly wait to talk to her as `Madame Congresswoman.'-"

For now, she has much else to think about, calls to return, and congratulations to acknowledge for making history not just as the state's first Republican woman in Congress, but only the third woman ever.

The guards pulling the busy Sunday afternoon shift at the National Archives didn't know any of that, and she wasn't telling.

"It was funny," she said, "because the security guard standing right by the Constitution was making jokes and trashing congressmen ... in a humorous way. Not personalities, but congressmen in general."

Having survived the most expensive House race in Minnesota history, and possibly one of the most negative, Bachmann heard nothing new.

Instead, she's arrived in Washington as a ray of sunshine in a gloomy GOP establishment stunned by a storm of voter discontent that gave both houses of Congress to Democrats.

'It was like a fairy tale' "Hey, Michele, it's good to see you."

That's how Bachmann remembers President Bush greeting her at a White House reception Monday night for new members of Congress.

"I'm so happy that you won. You really ran a great race. One of the north gates of the White House had been opened, and a busload of new lawmakers and their spouses walked up the driveway to the front portico."

"It was like a fairy tale," Bachmann said. "We felt like we just got off the farm and arrived in the big city."

Vice President Dick Cheney was holding a drink and talking to someone. The First Lady was there, as well as other assorted dignitaries and White House press secretary Tony Snow.

Then suddenly the president came walking down a hall. Bachmann caught his eye.

"I was blown away," she said. "Here was the leader of the free world who knew this nobody from nowhere. He knew my name."

It might have seemed less surprising to others, recalling that Bush was in Minnesota raising money for Bachmann in August.

But for Bachmann, the immensity of it all was still sinking in. When would it seem real?

"Probably when we come back January third and get sworn in," she said. "We haven't really stopped going since the election. We've been going non-stop making phone calls, making arrangements, so we really haven't had a day off."

'You're never lonely here'

First came the calls from friends and family, and then there were the congratulatory phone calls from Reps. John Boehner and Mike Pence, both vying for votes for House Republican leader.

"I don't think there's anybody who hasn't asked for support yet," she said, remaining uncommitted until today's vote.

Then there were the travel arrangements to Washington. She left with her husband on Saturday, instead of Sunday, to get half-price tickets.

"I wanted my first act as a congresswoman-elect to be to save money for the people back home," she said.

This week, most of her time has been taken up in "congressman school," learning how to put together a staff, vote and how to keep out of ethics controversies.

Her interim chief of staff, Steve Sutton, borrowed from Minnesota Rep. John Kline's office, said her legislative experience has made her a quick study. Given the dwindling pool of Republican slots, however, he said he doubts she'll get the spots she wants on the Transportation and Financial Services committees.

A few other teachable moments: House members sit on benches, not at desks, and "you debate to the camera, you don't debate each other," she said.

That is fine with Bachmann's Republican colleagues, who see her as telegenic and articulate, with a deft touch talking to the national news media.

"The House Republicans' long-term goal is to regain a majority in the House of Representatives," said Sutton, a veteran of four House office start-ups. "She'll play a very important role in that. She won a swing district in a very difficult year."

Until then, she's not worried about getting lonely in a House full of Democrats. "I understand you're never lonely here," she said. "There's always somebody knocking on your door."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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