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As caucus approaches, Michele Bachmann looks to sell Iowans on faith, frugality
Before U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann was a politician, her oldest son, Lucas, remembered going to the Goodwill store with his mom to buy a pair of winter boots. They were in and out of the store only minutes after they arrived in their beat-up car nicknamed “The Bomb.”“I’ll never forget that,” Lucas said as he laughed. “My mom took one look at that price tag on the boots and said, ‘this is just too over priced’ and then we left.”
Lucas Bachmann, who is 28 and finishing his residency in forensic psychiatry, said he learned to be frugal from his mom, who pushed him and his four siblings to work for their money and be cautious and responsible in spending it.
Today, Michele Bachmann, leader of the congressional tea party caucus in the U.S. House, is turning frugality in government into a campaign theme as she gauges the support she might draw in Iowa and across the country for a possible run for the Republican presidential nomination.
While her family and supporters see a good-hearted but penny-wise Christian mother who worked with disabled kids and took in bulimic and anorexic foster children, her opponents see a bare-knuckles campaigner with far-right views and a penchant for hyperbole and misstating facts in attacking opponents.
An emphasis on faith, a propensity for hyperboleShe once called the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama a “gangster government” and told Chris Matthews on his “Hardball” talk show that the media should conduct an investigation into the patriotism of members of Congress.
While speaking at an Iowans for Tax Relief event last January, the congresswoman said President Obama had accumulated more debt in one year than all of the presidents combined. That assertion was inaccurate and “mathematically impossible,” according to The Fact Checker, a Washington Post column by Glenn Kessler, the former national business editor, who also has covered domestic economic policy and the tax cut policies of former President George W. Bush.
Recently, Bachmann traveled to Iowa to attend Rep. Steve King’s Conservative Principles Conference. Bachmann spoke at the event along with other possible presidential candidates like Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and Herman Cain. Bachmann told the crowd “social conservatism is fiscal conservatism.”
Bachmann’s faith has always been a crucial element in dealing with the demanding lifestyle of a politician and the negative consequences that come along with it, her husband, Marcus Bachmann, said in a recent interview.But she once demonstrated that faith in a peculiar way, said Sen. Scott Dibble (D-Minneapolis) who served with her in the Minnesota senate. Dibble, who is openly gay, said his colleagues and staff saw Bachmann praying over his desk in the senate chambers when he was not around.
He said she often pushed social issues onto the agenda – sometimes in a hostile manner – despite Minnesota’s fiscal crisis. In 2003 and 2005, Bachmann unsuccessfully fought for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
“She would argue that kids would be lured into the evils of homosexuality,” Dibble said.
Bachmann declined repeated requests for an interview and did not answer specific questions about Dibble’s comments or others’ allegations that she routinely misstates facts in attacking her opponents.
But her husband argued that people misunderstand his wife.
“Knowing that Michele is misunderstood, and that the portrait of her is being so far to the crazy right is frustrating,” Marcus said. “She is very intelligent and is in politics for the right reasons. Why else would she be elected over and over again?”
Working class roots
Long before she started mixing it up against Democrats, she was a Democrat as well as a stay-at-home mother and a tax attorney and an Iowan.
Bachmann grew up in Waterloo with her parents and three brothers. In her early teens, the family moved to Brooklyn Park, Minn. When Bachmann was 15, her parents divorced, and her father, David Amble, moved to California and remarried.
Bachmann’s mother, Jean Amble, initially worked as a clerk at Dayton’s department store barely making minimum wage. Amble eventually got a job at First National Bank, but her yearly salary of $4,800 was not enough to support four children and pay the bills.
So, the Ambles moved out of their Brooklyn Park house to a small three-bedroom apartment in Anoka.
Bachmann’s brother, Paul Amble, the chief forensic psychiatrist for Connecticut, said that sometimes it was difficult to pay for basic necessities like clothes and food.
Consequently, the kids were expected to pay for all additional expenses.
In high school, Bachmann drove a bus picking up and dropping off handicapped children from various events. Outside of her job as the bus driver, Amble said that Bachmann organized a trip for the kids to go to a Minnesota Vikings playoff game against the Saint Louis Cardinals.
Later, Bachmann continued to work with disabled individuals at a state mental hospital in Willmar, Minn.
One summer, Bachmann gutted and canned salmon at her uncle’s business in one of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
“She won Miss Congeniality in the Miss Anoka competition,” Amble said. “She didn’t do it to be a pageant girl. We didn’t have money for that. She just wanted to speak in public and be a part of student life.”
The Ambles regularly attended their Lutheran church on Sundays and on religious holidays.
“Michele was much more actively involved with her faith than the rest of us though,” Amble said.
As a participant in a Christian organization called Young Life, Bachmann learned of an opportunity to volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. To raise money for the trip, Bachmann rallied her brothers to help fill garbage bags full of popcorn to sell to people in the neighborhood.
Bachmann was a straight A student in school, and according to Amble, she was clever in tricking the siblings to do her share of Saturday chores.
“She developed a point system and attached points to various tasks like washing the dishes or weeding the garden,” Amble said laughing. “She had me and my brother so excited competing for points.”
Graduating early from Anoka High School, Bachmann went to a theater arts program in the Twin Cities where she performed in a few plays. She attended Anoka-Ramsey Community College to complete her general education credits.
Entering politics – as a Democrat
Bachmann’s passion for politics can be traced back to her college days at Winona State University in Minnesota.Marcus Bachmann, her husband of 32 years, met Michele at Winona when they volunteered at an elementary school supervising kids during recess.
Marcus said she loved politics. “She was the strong academic type. You know, not a big drinker. She loved to read, do bible studies and was very involved in the Christian fellowship program on campus,” Marcus said.
Marcus eventually became involved in Michele’s political endeavors. During their senior year of college, the two worked together on Jimmy Carter’s campaign stuffing envelopes and dropping literature in Minnesota neighborhoods.
After Carter won the election, Marcus and Michele, along with other campaign staff and former Congressman Tim Penny, rode a bus from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., to attend the presidential inaugural ball.
“It was one of the most exciting times we had together,” Marcus said. “At that time though, the Democratic Party was much more aligned with the moderate conservatives.”
After working on the campaign, Michele and Marcus developed a strong conviction against abortion after watching a Christian documentary series by Francis Schaeffer called “How Should We Then Live?”
Becoming a lawyer, no longer a Democrat
According to Marcus, this is when Bachmann began to drift away from the Democratic Party.
When they graduated, Marcus proposed to Michele the day after Valentine’s Day. In the fall, they were married at his parent’s dairy farm in Wisconsin.
“We took a year off before going back to school, because we just wanted to enjoy being married and try out different employment opportunities,” Marcus said.
Over the next ten years, Marcus earned his doctorate in clinical psychology while Bachmann earned a law degree from O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University in 1986. Later, Bachmann received her post-doctoral degree in tax law.
At one point, The American Bar Association questioned the credibility of O.W. Coburn School of Law, because it required students to sign a code that confirmed belief in Jesus Christ. This violated the association’s standard on religious discrimination. However, a court later found that the association could not deny accreditation based on religious grounds.
Bachmann worked full time as a federal tax litigation attorney until their first son, Lucas, was three years old. As their family began to grow, she was switching between full time and part time but eventually became a stay-at-home-mom when they were expecting their fifth child, Sophia Bachmann.
The Bachmanns home-schooled their children for a number of years before sending them to a private Christian school in their community. Recently, Michele Bachmann traveled to Iowa to speak at the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators conference at the capitol. At the event, Bachmann spoke against government regulations on families that chose to home-school their children.
During the course of raising their five biological children, Marcus and Michele also assumed the role of foster parents to 23 adolescent girls, many of whom suffered severe eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
To the foster agency, Marcus Bachmann’s occupation as a clinical therapist proved to be helpful when fostering such high-risk children.
According to Lucas Bachmann, his parents took in foster children from 1992 to 1998 and raised up to nine kids at one time.
“Michele and I knew that this was the last stop for them,” Marcus said. “We weren’t trying to be saviors of the world. We were just trying to give consistent care and love for them and show an example of a functional home.”
As for Bachmann’s future in politics, Marcus said that she is dedicated to serving the sixth district of Minnesota and is not interested in challenging Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar for her seat in the U.S. Senate.
However, Bachmann’s recent visits to Iowa have propelled her into the spotlight as a potential presidential candidate.
“We have not talked about her running for president,” Marcus said. “There is no pre-determined plan for her success, but it is something that we would pray to God about, and if we felt at peace with making a decision like that, well, God leads us and he opens doors for us.”
(Anja Sivertson is a journalism major at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Sivertson’s report was provided by IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit website run by The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.)