Bachmann, Ellison personify wide political divide

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ
  • Star Tribune
  • December 15, 2010 - 11:02 PM

WASHINGTON - A search for the ideological center of American politics might land on Laddie Lake, between Blaine and Spring Lake Park.

There, along 85th Av. NE, touch the congressional districts of Republican Michele Bachmann, founder of the right-leaning House Tea Party Caucus, and Democrat Keith Ellison, co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, the liberal wing of the party.

On the most divisive issues, Bachmann and Ellison -- both lawyers -- symbolize the opposing forces that will shape debate in the 112th Congress, articulating the concerns of voting blocs that could either embolden, or create headaches for, their party leaders. Elected in 2006, Ellison and Bachmann have risen in prominence and now are leaders on the partisan edges of a Congress that must cooperate at some level to achieve much of anything in the next two years of divided government.

For different reasons, the two oppose the pending tax-cut compromise between President Obama and Republican leaders.

Bachmann objects to increasing government debt to extend jobless benefits; Ellison objects to the added debt incurred by extending tax cuts to the rich. Both have signaled that they will vote against the $858 billion package despite its likely bipartisan passage.

"They are two of the most passionate members of Congress on different issues, and they both think they're representing their constituents," said former Minnesota congressional staffer Corey Davison, recently of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition. "What do they agree on? Not much."

That Ellison and Bachmann both hail from Minnesota surprises nobody in a state with a history of outspoken iconoclasts, from Gov. Jesse Ventura to Sen. Paul Wellstone and his political protégé, U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

"Some of it's just the back and forth of Minnesota politics, and some of it is just Minnesota following trends," said Carleton Crawford, the Republican Party chairman in Ellison's overwhelmingly DFL congressional district.

The trend, despite frequent appeals for bipartisanship, is toward an increasingly divided Congress. Ellison and Bachmann, both safe in their districts, have ascended at a time when moderates on both sides are being culled from the political herd.

"The Republican moderates were cleared out in 2006 and the Democratic moderates in 2010," said former Republican Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, now a Brookings Institution scholar. "So it doesn't look like there's a lot of room to maneuver."

While Obama said that the nation needs "common ground in order to make progress," some of the veteran dealmakers who might have helped lost their seats in the mid-term elections, replaced in some instances by fired-up conservatives inspired by the Tea Party.

Among the defeated veterans: Iron Range Democrat Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He lost to Republican neophyte Chip Cravaack, a popular figure among some Minnesota Tea Party activists.

Centrist Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson easily won reelection, but nearly two dozen of his fellow "Blue Dog" Democrats lost. At the same time, just as many Tea Party-backed Republicans were elected.

The result: a Democratic caucus that tilts harder left and a Republican caucus skewed more to the right.

"The polarization is going to get even worse," predicted former Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, considered one of the leading GOP moderates during his years in Congress.

Dueling caucuses

While Bachmann and Ellison can both lay claim to leadership roles in the next Congress, their influence may be limited by events, particularly if the White House succeeds in forging other partnerships of convenience with Republican leaders on taxes, spending and budget cuts.

Bachmann, though titular leader of the 52-member Tea Party Caucus, got no support from GOP leaders in her bid to chair the House Republican Conference. At the same time, the Tea Party as a whole has grabbed the GOP's full attention.

"So far, the Republican leadership is not listening to Michele Bachmann," said Augsburg College political scientist John Shockley. "They may continue to do that, or they may get afraid."

Ellison, meanwhile, was recently elected co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, now composed of 78 House members. Influential in liberal circles, caucus leaders still are relegated to the minority.

"Keith Ellison is more powerful in the Democratic caucus, but the Democratic caucus will be less powerful as a whole," Shockley said.

While Ellison once threatened to vote against the Obama health care bill if it did not include a strong "public option," Bachmann has threatened an "insurrection" if the new GOP leadership does not repeal the scaled-back version that did pass.

No matter what their influence inside Congress, both Bachmann and Ellison have little to worry about back in their districts -- separated by a border that might as well be the International Date Line.

North of Laddie Lake, a largely suburban electorate morphs into a semi-rural voter base, ever more conservative, distrustful of government and wild about Bachmann. South of the lake, toward Minneapolis, voters seem to become unabashedly liberal, urban, hopeful about government and proud to have elected the first Muslim to Congress.

Jeanne Mason, a long-time, labor-backed council member along the border in Spring Lake Park, calls it just one of the oddities of suburban geography. "It's kind of crazy the way the borders are," Mason said of her town divided.

"People vote for a name," she said, "and that's about it."

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

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