WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of the GOP's leading anti-tax champions, scored political points in a recent ad accusing DFL challenger Tarryl Clark of voting to raise the state sales tax on corn dogs and just about anything else covered by Minnesota's 2008 conservation "legacy" amendment.
But the attack came as a surprise to a number of leading sportsmen's groups whose leaders had long counted Bachmann as a supporter of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a measure overwhelmingly approved by voters two years ago.
The so-called Legacy Amendment -- which raised the sales tax by 3/8 of 1 percent -- is now the subject of a bitter dispute between Bachmann's campaign, which says she opposes the measure, and a number of leading outdoorsmen, who say she publicly endorsed it in appearances before the Game Fair in Anoka, one as recently as last month.
Clark's campaign says it's either the "ultimate flip-flop," or Bachmann has turned her back on many of the same sportsmen who supported her in 2008.
Bachmann aides say there's been no change of heart.
"Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has made it clear that she did not support the Legacy Amendment," said spokesman Sergio Gor. "In fact, during her time in the state Legislature, she voted against a similar measure."
Bachmann aides say that as a member of the state Senate, she backed a measure to dedicate a portion of the existing sales tax to conservation.
But a number of outdoors writers and others who attended Game Fair in August 2008 say Bachmann told the annual gathering of hunting and fishing enthusiasts that she supported the constitutional amendment to raise the sales tax, later approved by 56 percent of voters, including a majority in Bachmann's district.
Ken Martin ran the Vote Yes Minnesota campaign in support of the Legacy Amendment and said he heard Bachmann's remarks at Game Fair. She "indicated her strong support" to enthusiastic applause from the group, he said. Martin's group then trumpeted her apparent support as evidence that, despite some Republican Party opposition, the measure had bipartisan support in the Minnesota delegation in Congress.
"It's bizarre that now that this whole thing has come up, she's trying to have her cake and eat it too," Martin said.
Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, which also backed the amendment, said Bachmann's expression of support was "widely discussed" among sportsmen's groups. "We thought, wow, that's great," he said. "If she was offended, she didn't say so."
The issue was raised indirectly in a Bachmann campaign ad during last month's State Fair featuring "Jim the Election guy," a fictional character who criticized Clark, a state senator, for raising taxes "on your corn dog, and your deep-fried bacon and your beer."
The charge was based in part on Clark's vote in the Legislature to put the Legacy Amendment on the ballot. But the ad appeared shortly after Bachmann returned to the Game Fair in Anoka last month and, say the sportsmen, backed the Legacy Amendment.
"She brought it up," said "Minnesota Bound" TV host Ron Schara, who interviewed her over a public intercom. While he could not recall her exact words, Schara, a retired Star Tribune outdoors columnist, said she "inferred again her support for what this has accomplished."
Game Fair organizer Chuck Delaney said that while he didn't hear Bachmann's remarks, her presence at one of the nation's largest sportsmen's events was taken as tacit endorsement of the amendment. "These people are asking for the votes of sportsmen," he said. "So I'm sure they wouldn't come out here if they're against anything that sportsmen are for."
Schara and others say Bachmann was more explicit in her support at the Game Fair in 2008, when the Legacy Amendment was going on the ballot.
"As clearly as I remember anything, I remember Michele speaking in favor of the constitutional amendment," said Schara, who was hosting a public candidate forum that year as well. "I don't remember her exact words, only that she supported the effort because of her family. They do hunt and fish and enjoy the outdoors."
Schara noted that Bachmann's booth at the 2008 event displayed a blaze orange "Sportsmen vote yes" placard, and that he "vividly" remembers the congresswoman wearing a "vote yes" button prepared by Sportsmen for Change, which led the campaign to pass the amendment.
Garry Leaf, the group's executive director, said he also recalls the placard and Bachmann's button. Until now, Leaf said, he had believed Bachmann supported the amendment, which he called "the Number 1 issue for hunters and anglers in the past decade."
'She had a sign in her booth'
"I don't understand why there would be a dispute about it," said Don McMillan, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance. "She had a sign in her booth supporting it."
But Gor said the placard was a misunderstanding. "A lot of times people just come up and throw stuff on our tables," he said. "If we don't take it off in time, someone can ... snap a picture or see it there."
Accounts of Bachmann's support for the Legacy Amendment were published before the 2008 election in Outdoor News and other Minnesota publications, including the Star Tribune. Outdoor News writer Ron Hustvedt Jr., who works for Game Fair, said his report was never challenged by Bachmann or anyone else.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.