Dozens of former mill workers rallied outside the shuttered Verso Paper Corp. mill in Sartell Tuesday to criticize U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann as out of touch with the people in her district who need her most.
More than 250 people lost their jobs after a devastating fire in May and Verso’s decision in August not to rebuild. The community disaster became a political football after Bachmann’s DFL challenger Jim Graves featured the laid-off millworkers in one of his campaign commercials.
Then, as now, the workers say they never heard from Bachmann personally after the disaster – unlike other political leaders, including the governor, both U.S. senators and state lawmakers from both parties.
Bachmann hit back, insisting that she sent staffers to the scene within an hour of the fire, sent letters of support to the workers and kept in close touch with company officials. Graves’ campaign ad, she told reporters, was “a lie.”
Rallying in a park across the river from the plant where many of them had worked for 20 or 30 years, Verso’s former workforce said Bachmann was out of touch with her district.
"These workers are her constituents, the ones she's supposed to represent," said LyleFleck, president of United Steelworkers local 274. "The fact that she sent someone else to the mill, instead of visiting herself, said a lot, in my eyes, about where her priorities lie. What could she have been doing for those two months that was so important she didn't have time to meet with the hundreds of workers in her district who lost their jobs?"
Bachmann did visit Sartell, Fleck said, but not until August, two months after the fire that claimed the life of a worker and sealed the fate of the century-old mill.
The Bachmann campaign has not yet responded to the Sartell event.
Graves, who attended the rally, said “I wanted to come and show the union workers, the members, that I support them. I was hurt that they were called liars. It hurt, and the facts, I think, speak for themselves.”
Graves also responded to recent questions from the state Republican party about his business practices – questions Graves insists are coming from the Bachmann campaign. Most of the charges – other than their correct point that he served on a United Way committee, not the board – are “in the realm of myth,” Graves said.
"Bachmann doesn’t understand the complexities of business,” Graves said. "In deference to her, she's not in business, so why would she understand business?"
Among other things, he said the press release references a company that "doesn't exist," when the business was simply a Minnesota company that does business in Wisconsin. "When you change a flag on a hotel, we do that all the time. It's like changing your cell provider."
The GOP press release also singled out a lawsuit with a contractor. Graves, a hospitality industry CEO, said he's done business with "thousands and thousands of subcontractors" over the years.
"You have a sub-contractor 25 or 30 years ago who didn't do the job, didn't pay the bills," Graves said. "If you build 100 projects from the ground up -- have you ever done a garage? Well I've done hundreds of projects. Each project has 00 contractors, plus. You're talking about tens of thousands of things. You have a dispute with somebody who doesn't do the job, that's what we do. That's what the courts are for."