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Continued: Michele Bachmann: Watching her step

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 22, 2007 - 1:03 PM

Overnight, she had advanced from being a state senator representing 85,000 suburban residents, mainly in Stillwater and northern Washington County, to representing more than 600,000 Minnesotans in the Sixth District.

The chamber visitors are a friendly crowd, but the reality of a broadened constituency grows clear in a discussion about the proposed Northstar commuter rail line. During the campaign, Bachmann was cool to the idea, so distant from Stillwater. She advocated more roads and more bridges. But this group wants her support.

Bachmann says the line should meet the test of a cost-benefit analysis. If the actual cost of a trip is, say, $75, what commuter would pay that? she asks, eyes wide. Who ends up subsidizing the difference?

There is a beat of silence. Then the business leaders begin making their points. One mentions that downtown Minneapolis simply cannot handle additional bus traffic to serve commuters. Another points out that road construction is subsidized, and besides, "there only are so many more lanes you can lay down." Such alternatives to commuter rail lines may cost far more than, say, $75 a trip.

Bachmann listens, sizing up the situation, but giving nothing away. Then: "I'm not against light rail and never have been," she says and deftly moves on.

 

• • •

Bachmann's political career began almost by chance.

Sen. Warren Limmer remembers meeting her in 2000 at the State Capitol as she passionately argued against the high school graduation standards called the Profile of Learning. To her, it smacked of federal meddling.

"At the end of our discussion, I told her, if you're ever interested in getting into politics, let me know," said Limmer, a Republican from Maple Grove. "The next thing I know, she's running against Gary Laidig," a GOP legislator for 28 years.

Accounts differ as to whether Bachmann arrived at the convention ready to run (as the defeated say) or whether her speech against government interference was spontaneous (as she says). In any case, the speech swayed the crowd and she gained the state Senate nomination on the first ballot.

Her success took many by surprise, including her family. Marcus came home that night to an answering-machine message of congratulations to Michele. It being April Fools Day, he thought he'd been had. But there was another message, and another.

"By the third message, I realized this was real," he said, turning to Michele as he told the tale. "I went upstairs and you were in bed -- I think you were about to pull the sheet over your head. ..."I should have been hiding in my closet," she said, laughing.

"And I said, 'Michele, is there something you want to share with me?' "

Once in the Legislature, Bachmann established herself as one of the Senate's most conservative members. Her energy seemed limitless. And no issue galvanized her foes like her efforts against same-sex marriage.

In 2005, she claimed to have been held against her will in a restaurant bathroom by two critics of an amendment banning same-sex marriage; they said they'd merely buttonholed her to talk. Then foes claimed that Bachmann hid behind some bushes to spy on a gay-rights rally; she said she was merely checking the turnout.

The fight came to a head in 2006 when Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson accused her of practicing "the politics of distraction" despite pressing budget matters. Her stepsister, Helen LaFave, came out publicly as a lesbian, testifying against the amendment. (LaFave has since declined to comment.)

The amendment never came to a vote, and the topic receded during her congressional campaign, which focused on taxes and spending issues.

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