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'Bachmann: outspoken, faith-driven'

Last modified: 8/7/2011 12:00:00 AM
On Oct. 17, 2008, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a freshman Republican from Minnesota in the middle of a tight race for her second term, appeared on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews. The discussion was Barack Obama - as most discussion was less than a month before he would be elected president - and Bachmann was drawing ties between the Illinois senator and Chicago activist Bill Ayers, a communist revolutionary who organized domestic bombings in response to the Vietnam War.

"So you believe that Barack Obama may have anti-American views?" Matthews asked.

"Absolutely," Bachmann said. "I'm very concerned that he may have anti-American views. That's what the American people are concerned about."

Later, Matthews asked: "How many people in the Congress of the United States do you think are anti- American?"

"What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look," Bachmann replied. "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?"

The performance quickly hit the blogosphere, bringing about comparisons to a McCarthy-like anticommunist witchhunt. The National Republican Congressional Committee pulled funding from Bachmann's campaign, and consultants from every corner called on her to apologize, said Rep. Steve King, Bachmann's closest congressional ally. Her opponent, Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg, received $440,000 in donations in the 24 hours after the comments aired.

"She could've crumbled like a lot of candidates would have crumbled," King said.

But if it was an apology they wanted, there was no satisfaction in what some had billed as an apology ad released by her campaign a week later.

"I may not always get my words right, but I know that my heart is right," Bachmann said.

That was it. And it was right on the money: Bachmann breezed past Tinklenberg, turning a three-point deficit into a three-point victory.

"She knows her own mind and has better instincts than anyone she's ever hired," King said last week. "She laid it back out on them again - that effort to crush her actually launched her."

Those instincts may be why a former IRS tax attorney who rose to prominence fighting gay marriage jumped in a Republican presidential race centered on jobs and the economy, positioned as an anti-tax Tea Party favorite with little interest in wavering from the topics du jour. Polling in Iowa shows her neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney in the early caucus state, where she is spending all of her campaign time ahead of the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday.

But "instincts," in Bachmann's case, may not be entirely accurate. God, it would appear, is her co-pilot.

"I'm a Christian and every big decision in my life we pray about - which we did," she said in an interview last week of her decision to run for the White House.

 Formative years

Bachmann was born Michele Marie Amble on April 6, 1956, in Waterloo, Iowa. When she was young, her family moved to Minnesota. Her parents divorced and Bachmann lived with her mother, Jean, an employee at First National Bank in Anoka, Minn., who remarried when Bachmann was a teenager, creating a family of nine children.

In 1974, Bachmann graduated from Anoka High School, located a half-hour north of Minneapolis. That summer, she went with a Twin Cities youth group to work and study on a kibbutz in Israel.

She had accepted Jesus Christ into her life at age 16 - "If I wasn't studying schoolwork, I was studying His word," she has said - and the Israel experience only strengthened her faith. She worked from 4 a.m. to noon pulling weeds in a cotton field, accompanied by soldiers with machine guns, and spent time studying the Old Testament. She has been back three times as a member of Congress and considers herself to be of Jewish heritage because it forms the roots of Christianity.

"We were able to just live among the Jewish people, appreciate the struggle that they were enduring as they were under attack while they were building their young nation," Bachmann said in an interview. "It really gave me a broader view of the world."

Bachmann went off to Winona State University in the southeastern part of the state, graduating cum laude in 1978 with a major in political science and a minor in English.

She was elected vice president of the student Senate, where she served alongside Jim Schumann, now a farmer who remembers a mile-a-minute talker with hair down to at least the middle of her back.

"The only thing I've ever told people is she was perky - she was pretty upbeat about everything," Schumann said.

She also spent time spreading God's message to students in her dormitory and attended a bible study where she met a girlfriend who would introduce her to Marcus Bachmann. One night she was praying with a friend when both girls had the same exact vision: Michele marrying Marcus in the valley where his parents own a farm in western Wisconsin.

"It wasn't a big romantic surge that led us to each other. It was His Word," she told the congregation at Living Word Church in Brooklyn Park, Minn. during her first campaign for Congress in 2006. At the same time Bachmann felt called to marry Marcus, she said the Lord was speaking to him as he repaired a fence on the farm where he worked, and "the Lord showed him in a vision that he was supposed to marry me."

Marcus wasn't quite ready. "I don't want to get married," Bachmann recalled him saying. "I want to wait until I'm 27, I want to see the world. I want to have a great time in life, I don't want to marry this girl."

But it was the Lord's plan, and over the next two years, God began "romantically to knit these two hearts together," Bachmann said, resulting in a marriage going on 34 years.

It was during her time at Winona State that Bachmann said the Lord "put in my heart that if I would be diligent, if I would be steadfast, that He would take me to law school," something in which she previously had no interest.

She enrolled in the short-lived O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University, which Bachmann said "taught the law from a biblical worldview" and, according to Virginia law school chronicler William Hamilton Bryson, had accreditation difficulties with the American Bar Association. The school was acquired by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1985 and turned into the Christian Broadcasting Network School of Law. It is now Regent University School of Law, from which more than 150 graduates were hired during George W. Bush's administration.

After Bachmann received her law degree, Marcus told her she should get a master's as well. It would be in tax law, Marcus said, though Bachmann said she had no desire to learn about the subject.

"Tax law? I hate taxes. Why should I go and do something like that?" Bachmann said in 2006. "But the Lord said, 'Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.' "

Bachmann enrolled in William & Mary School of Law for a one-year tax law master's program in 1987. Afterward, the couple moved to Stillwater, Minn., a town of 18,200 outside St. Paul, and Bachmann used her new degree to become an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, a position she held for about five years before becoming a full-time mother.

The Bachmanns' marriage gave the couple five biological children and, at God's direction, they have also taken in 23 foster children. They were licensed by the state from 1992 to 2000 to handle up to three foster children at a time, with the last child arriving in 1998, according to a New York Times report. They began by offering short-term care to girls with eating disorders through a program at the University of Minnesota, according to the report.

 School standards

Raising her foster girls during the 1990s, Bachmann said last week, she became concerned about the quality of assignments she saw in her children's backpacks. She had home-schooled and private-schooled her biological children, but the state required her foster children to attend public school. She began focusing her frustration on a new set of graduation standards known as the Profile of Learning, implemented in 1998 in order to set a baseline competency level for Minnesota high school graduates, which Bachmann found woefully inadequate.

Bachmann said last week she objected to "the dumbed down academics." But Larry Jacobs, Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said the opposition to the Profile of Learning wasn't necessarily about test scores but a perceived "social permissiveness" inherent to the standards.

"What you might call a kind of radical left political indoctrination was coming in that wasn't necessarily reflective of the attitudes, values, and beliefs of parents," Bachmann has said.

Bachmann got heavily involved in a group called the Maple River Education Coalition, later called EdWatch and now defunct, which was founded by a school board member in Maple River School District in south central Minnesota who was also perturbed by the Profile of Learning.

Dave Thompson, a state senator and former conservative radio host in the Twin Cities area, was a board member at EdWatch.

"I think the thing that struck me is something that carries through to her public persona, and that is a great deal of passion in the things she believes in," Thompson said.

 'Drafted on the spot'

In 2000, Bachmann was at a state Republican convention when she says she was "drafted on the spot," earning the party's endorsement instead of a longtime state senator. Once again, it was a calling from God as she had no prior interest in politics, she has said.

"It was a shock to me more than anyone," she said last week. "I showed up wearing jeans and a sweatshirt with a hole in it. My hair was a mess."

Jacobs said by that point he knew of Bachmann not because of her views on education but her unprecedented mobilization of evangelicals against gay marriage, calling her the "pied piper" of social conservatives in Minnesota.

"People in the Republican Party at that time were very uncomfortable because they feared this would alienate more moderate voters," he said.

After winning re-election in 2002, Bachmann's rise to prominence in Minnesota politics came after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in November 2003 that a law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. She responded by twice proposing a consitutional amendment in Minnesota banning gay marriage and became a leading voice on the issue.

In a November 2004 speech at an EdWatch National Education Conference, Bachmann, whose stepsister is gay, said the gay and lesbian lifestyle equates to "personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement."

"It's sad," she said. "Any of you who have members of your family that are in the lifestyle - we have a member of our family that is - this is not funny. It's a very sad life."

That same month, Bachmann was named to a leadership position within the Senate's Republican caucus. But in July 2005, Republican leader Dick Day threw her out of the leadership over a policy disagreement.

"You kind of look back on it with some of the battles she's had in Congress and in other areas and it fits," Jacobs said. "The main theme here is that Michele Bachmann has been at war with what she sees as moderate Republicans."

 Political ascent

The loss of a leadership post didn't stifle Bachmann's ascent. In 2006, Republican Mark Kennedy, who had held Bachmann's 6th District congressional seat for six years, decided to run for U.S. Senate. It was an opportune political moment, but Bachmann said it was God who called her to seek federal office.

"My husband said 'You need to do this.' And I wasn't so sure. And we took three days, and we fasted and we prayed," Bachmann said in 2006. "And we said "Lord, is this what you want? Is this Your will?" And after - along about the afternoon of day two - He made that calling sure."

In Congress, Bachmann has been a reliable social conservative vote, but Jacobs has noticed her showing an interest in a fuller range of issues over the last year, most recently speaking out against raising the debt ceiling.

"That kind of represents a new development for her in terms of her emphasis," he said. "I think that's strategic - she's trying to broaden her appeal."

Bachmann cut off an interview last week as she was being asked a question about gay marriage and emphasized that she is focused on rebuilding the economy and repealing federal health care reform.

"I'm not involved in light, frivolous matters," she said. "I'm not involved in fringe or side issues. I'm involved in serious issues."

But to those for whom faith drives politics, Bachmann is still a top choice.

Minutes after ending the interview Friday, she put out a press release announcing the endorsement of more than 100 Iowan pastors and faith leaders. Jan Markell, who hosts a national talk radio show that interprets current events from a biblical perspective, has interviewed Bachmann at different points in her political career.

"I don't think I've seen a politician motivated by her conservative beliefs like her," Markell said "She's not just speaking her political convictions, she's speaking her biblical conviction."

King, an Iowan with a similarly hardline social conservative outlook, has prayed with Bachmann on various pieces of legislation.

"She's completely authentic," he said. "There's nothing that is contrived or presented for looks. It's just how she is."

Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com


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