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The Freshman Class

Michele's Mojo

Does she still have it?

By Betty Wilson

Even though she's in the Republican minority and a mere first-termer among 435 House members, it should come as no surprise that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, 52, persuasive, passionate, tough, is intent on making her voice heard.

"I'm an eternal optimist. I feel like I've been able to make a difference," she says of her first 18 months in Congress.

She drew national attention speaking out against earmarks by Congress members. Saying the earmark system has been abused, she announced that she will not request money for any "pet project" for the 6th District this year, stunning local officials in Minnesota who rely on federal aid.

Her first year and a half in office has been marked by many such controversies. Bachmann is an unwavering fighter for her deep conservative beliefs, armed with a Michele mojo and the muscle of a loyal, mighty fortress-like conservative base, one not always in sync with her Republican Party.

"She is behaving as you would expect, voting with the president almost all the time, very conservative on social and economic issues," says Steve Frank, political science professor at St. Cloud State University. "That is what she campaigned on ... what she said she would do."

Bachmann faced a major crisis in mid-March when the 49-year-old DeSoto Bridge, which goes over the Mississippi River in St. Cloud, the largest city in her district, was closed because of warped gusset plates. Replacement would cost an estimated $30 million to $35 million and require federal funds; she was on the spot with her rejection of earmarks.

Under fire for not seeking quick earmark money for the DeSoto Bridge, Bachmann assigned an aide to obtain federal money for "deserving" projects, on a new "fast track" process based on merit. Bachmann said, "That is the highest-priority project ... St. Cloud is the largest city in my district, and it is the No. 1 most-used bridge. It qualifies as a meritorious project. So I want to make sure we actually get that bridge built and get the funding for it." She added, however, "I can't guarantee it. I'm in the minority. I'm a freshman. But we are going to make all efforts to make sure that we get that bridge, rather than relying on cronyism." It was a defining moment for the tenacious Bachmann. But Gov. Pawlenty stepped in, showing up in St. Cloud with much fanfare, looking like a rescuer and setting the stage for an announcement the next day of a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) expedited plan to replace the bridge. MnDOT will build a new $35.3 million bridge without federal funds, using state money from a bridge fund in a just-passed transportation/gas-tax increase bill, according to MnDOT assistant district engineer Jim Povich and St. Cloud mayor Dave Kleis.

At the same time, she was confronted with other brush fires. The West Sherburne Tribune quoted her telling county Republicans that any human connection to global warming is "voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." Bachmann detractors went into a feeding frenzy. Bachmann explained she made that remark "tongue in cheek," and said, "I am not disputing climate change, whether or not it is a threat. What I am not convinced of is whether or not human activity is the cause of global climate change." Her introduction of a "Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act" to repeal the phase-out of conventional incandescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs brought national headlines. Fluorescent bulbs contain mercury and are a health risk, Bachmann says. "I think the light bulb law is a symbol of going too far. Everybody should have freedom to choose what light bulb you want to buy," she says. "Bachmann is pro-choice on light bulbs" topped a page 1 Star Tribune story. Pundits joked.

The earmark brouhaha and the side issues had put Bachmann on the defensive, hurting her opportunity to show and get credit for leadership in resolving the bridge problem.

There have been other thorny times, such as when Bachmann held onto President Bush for an awkwardly lengthy amount of time in front of national TV cameras after his 2007 State of the Union address; a shakeup in staff; her claim, which she later said was misconstrued, of a secret plan to give Iran half of Iraq for a terrorist safe-haven zone.

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, a Bachmann friend and ally, says, "She's a wonderful woman. Very compassionate. Her [evangelical Lutheran] faith is important to her. She shares the values of a majority of people in her district." But she's been "demonized," he says, "because she's not afraid to stand up and say what needs to be said."

In her first year in Congress she raised $1.187 million for her re-election campaign, much of it from businesspeople in the Twin Cities area and outside the state, outpacing her Minnesota House colleagues, leaving DFL challengers trailing in the money race. That does not bode well for powerful, organized labor unions backing her current opponent, DFLer Elwyn Tinklenberg.

She has a well-organized, visible presence in the six-county, east-central Minnesota 6th District, with offices in Woodbury and Waite Park, and a mobile office. She named her close friend Julie Quist, a longtime social conservative leader in the state, as district manager, solidifying her conservative base.

In Washington she has a small apartment across the street from her office in the Cannon House Office Building. She goes on morning walks, changing her signature high-heeled slides (she found one pair for $5 at a Famous Footwear closeout) for sneakers to stride around the Mall. There's little time for socializing in her schedule. She flies home to Stillwater on Friday nights, meets with constituents around the district on weekends, returns on Monday mornings. She has a son in medical school, a son in college, three daughters of high school age-one just graduated, two still attending. As if that weren't enough, Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, are also foster parents to 23 children in addition to their own five. She testified before the Ways and Means Committee on a bill to provide tuition scholarships and other educational aids for children in foster care. "They were very, very favorable," she says. "I am hopeful it might be included in reform legislation that will be coming up with children. You never know until it's across the finish line." She also introduced a bill to require that family services funds be used for counseling to pregnant women to choose childbirth instead of abortion.

The biggest surprise so far of her life in Congress? "I thought members of Congress, naively, were boozing, skirt-chasing slackers. I got to Congress and found out members on both sides of the aisle are very dedicated, hard-working, intelligent, accomplished people, who work longer hours than anyone can imagine and care passionately about issues. We certainly disagree on issues, and we let those disagreements be known on the floor of the House, but we are friends."

Her mentors include Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, head of the Republican Study Committee, and Minnesota Republican congressman John Kline. She calls Democrat Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and fellow freshman Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, very good friends. Former Congressman Mark Kennedy, now with Accenture Limited in Minneapolis, a global business consulting firm, is a supporter and adviser, she says. "As a new member, so much is about relationships and people you know. I spend a lot of time trying to get to know people across the aisle. I grew up as a Democrat, became Republican when in college. So I am not afraid of people across the aisle."

In Congress, she keeps a low profile on her opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, and is out front on fiscal issues. The first measure she introduced, with bipartisan co-sponsors, was her Health Care Freedom of Choice Act, which would allow taxpayers full deductibility for medical expenses, whether employer-paid or self-paid. "I was grateful the president referred to that concept in his State of the Union speech. Secretary of Treasury [Henry] Paulson has been speaking about that quite a bit as well."

Although her bills have about as much chance in the Democrat-controlled Congress as Washington cherry trees blossoming in December, Bachmann has introduced or co-sponsored measures for reforming the income tax system, repealing the inheritance tax, making President Bush's tax cuts permanent and reducing capital gains taxes. The National Taxpayers Association praises her as "a true taxpayer's friend who will courageously fight for lower taxes."

She's specific about her goals for a second term if she is returned to Washington. "To make sure we can shore up Medicare and Social Security. We know this huge [deficit] bill is going to come due that could literally bankrupt the country. We have to keep a balance, so we are maintaining promises made to the country, but we can't bankrupt the children either." Bachmann has no desire to go outside the public sphere to make the systems solvent. "No, I don't favor privatization of Social Security." Nor does she like the idea of massive tax increases or massive spending cuts. "We need to have a full floor debate about a funding mechanism for Social Security and Medicare. At the same time, I want to simplify the tax code because it is so difficult that average Americans, certainly small businesses, have a very hard time even filing."

Her voting record is lengthy with "No" votes against Democrat bills she says are too expensive, notably the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction bill, co-sponsored by fellow Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, which requires equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses.

The political arm of the Children's Defense Fund named her, along with 2nd District Congressman Kline, as the "worst for children" in the Minnesota delegation, listing votes against increasing funding for early-childhood education and expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), vetoed by President Bush. Her vote against CHIP was "almost incomprehensible," says Rick Varco, political director at Health Care Minnesota, Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Minnesota SEIU, a 28,000-member union with 3,700 members in the 6th District, spent $150,000 on "issue advocacy" against her in the 2006 election, and is going after her again this year.

Kline often is with Bachmann on opposition votes. "She is casting principled votes," he says. "She is voting against huge tax increases. I would argue, and she will, that a ‘No' vote is the right vote for our constituents."

Bachmann made two trips to the Middle East and Iraq last year, and is a staunch defender of the president's stay-the-course stand on Iraq.

"We must stand strong in our resolve to fight and win the war on terror," she said during a House floor debate, saying that "victory in Iraq transcends politics."

Opponents are taking aim at her backing of the lame-duck, unpopular president. "Michele Bachmann has made it clear that her priorities are supporting the president, not delivering for working families in Minnesota," says Varco.

Bachmann denies she's a rubber stamp: "I have a great deal of respect for the president, but on policy issues we part ways strongly." She points to the Energy Act, which she voted against, although President Bush hailed it as a major step toward reducing U.S. dependence on oil; his No Child Left Behind law, which Bachmann, a strong supporter of local control of education, wants to overhaul; his immigration stand, which she says leans too much toward amnesty and not enough toward sealing borders.

She's a favorite target of cyberspace critics, who call her actions in the past year outrageous. But pro-Bachmann watchers warn not to underestimate her.

"I'm a reformer," she says. "I didn't go to Congress to continue the way that business is done. I'm trying to reform that system."

***

The Statesman

Keith Ellison gives off a Dick Gregory vibe. Only he wins elections

By Dwight Hobbes

Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison is the most intriguing political entity since Dick Gregory. Like Gregory, Ellison ran not so much as a politician, but as an activist. And, like Gregory, his being black has both everything and nothing to do with his significance. Society's trying but isn't yet colorblind; accordingly, the first thing anyone notices, on gazing at the good congressman, is that he's black. Ellison, though, did not ride the race card to Capitol Hill. He stumped on humanist issues that crossed color and class lines and went Gregory one better. Dick Gregory lost. Ellison, after winning Minnesota's 5th District congressional seat, shows signs of effecting social change from within the political system.

In his freshman term, Ellison got in front of what is now a national crisis over foreclosure scams, introducing the first predatory mortgage lending bill; put forth legislation on lead-based paint in toys; was part of the coalition to push an increase in minimum wages; and lobbied and organized forums to address issues from whether to stay in Iraq to rescuing the polluted environment.

Four times he visited the Middle East. During a trip paid for by the House Financial Services Committee (on which he sits), Ellison attended meetings at the International Peace Research Institute, the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The main lesson of Oslo is [Norway] is a nation dedicated to peace. They consistently have used government and nongovernmental organizations to promote peace around the world," he says. They did, after all, create the Nobel Peace Prize. Ellison continues, "We can have a culture of peace in America. And have the potential to be [even] more effective than Norway. We're bigger and have more money." He came back in a position to give informed support to Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-Ohio) bill to create a Cabinet-level Department of Peace.

Ellison looks forward to accomplishing still more. "I want to get us on the path to a high-wage economy. In the 1950s, one person could feed a family of four. We also had Jim Crow and gender discrimination. Gays were in the closet. Even being Catholic was some far-out thing to be. But if you worked 40 hours, you could make it. We had a vital, robust union movement. That's not true today. We think the problem in Detroit is too much crime. Not that the auto companies have picked up and left. We need a high-wage strategy that says people of color and women can fully participate in society. The sad fact of the present is that while we're seeing [discrimination] dissipate, we've seen our economic disparity worsen. It's harder for everybody, no matter what color or gender, to put food on the table. To put gas in the car. I see myself as part of a movement to get single-parent health care, to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed, so workers can unionize again and protect their pay and work conditions. A movement to say, ‘We're going to have a trade policy that does not depend upon foreign workers being exploited.'"

It was no hop, skip and a jump from his four-year tenure as state senator to Congress. At the outset of his campaign, the so-called smart money bet against him, rendering his task slightly less enviable than shoveling you-know-what uphill in a high wind. Despite receiving the Democratic nomination at the district convention, he saw his high-profile predecessor, Martin Sabo, backing his former chief of staff, Mike Erlandson. State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge and others jumped in the race. When Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten didn't drag his religion (Muslim) into things, she got on his wife, Kim Ellison, about parking tickets.

Still, what he said resonated with voters. "The issues," he recalls about his campaign platform, "peace, working-class prosperity, environmental stability and human rights, drew attention to critical issues affecting the country. Despite the conventional wisdom, people don't vote religion or race, block voting. [They] vote issues and interests. Their hopes, what they care about."

Concerning his religion, Ellison says that he's not a Muslim congressman but a congressman who happens to be Muslim. "I'm just trying to push a progressive agenda. [Things like instead of America] "essentially being a military power to building better relationships with [other] nations." Through concepts like "debt cancellation, fair trade, human rights-these are universal values. Not the province of any one faith. I don't live my life thinking how I'm different from everybody else.

"Supporting Israel and supporting the Muslim world are not mutually exclusive. I support peace, negotiations to settle conflicts. [That's] something good for Israelis and Palestinians. My nation, the U.S., hasn't been an active player in the struggle for peace."

This past Martin Luther King Day, Ellison put elbow grease where his mouth is, not just talking like a humanist, but literally rolling up his sleeves-in a jam-packed day of public appearances-to help the needy (even though, look it up, most poor people don't vote). He was at Second Harvest Heartland, arguably Minnesota's most vital food bank, helping prepare canned goods ready for distribution. Was it just a photo-op? "Symbols matter," he says. "[They] inspire, provoke. If a picture goes out with me [volunteering] to help homeless people, poor people get food, that could have the effect of inspiring [other] people to volunteer too."

Ellison's job in Congress has, of course, impacted his family life. For good and not so good. "The downside is being away from family," he says. "The upside: I have the chance to try and help America chart a new course ... to get out of the economy of oil and smokestacks and [stop] getting bogged down in war after war. To choose a new way forward. It's an opportunity to be part of the solution." His wife, Kim, adds, "The family has definitely been enriched. Our daughter and her friend were inspired to start a group, Children for Change, [which] they envision will engage youth to be actively involved in shaping their futures. I'm working with the district office to begin a youth board that shows the importance of community service. [And I] had the pleasure of introducing high school seniors to Michelle Obama and Maxine Waters when they came to town." She adds, "I [enjoy being] able to expose others to their government."

Of the job itself, Ellison says, "One of the joys is being able to learn from individuals like Barney Frank and John Conyers. They're my committee chairs, but they've also become mentors. I get to be around the most amazing people. Like Jim Oberstar from Minnesota. Nobody knows more about transportation and infrastructure. And Tim Walz from Minnesota. Nancy Pelosi, she's one of the finest leaders I've had the opportunity to know. She's putting a foundation together that will carry us into a progressive future. Being in Congress, every day is a seminar on something. You're sitting down, you learn from your colleagues, from your constituents. It's an unbridled joy. [And] I'm just getting started."

As Dick Gregory once said, "It's time for statesmen to enter the political arena instead of politicians." Ellison shows signs of having done just that. >>

Dwight Hobbes is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Law & Politics and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

***

Walz at Attention

The highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress takes on a new challenge: getting the public to trust politicians

By Betty Wilson

When Tim Walz went to Washington, he had a top priority: Restore public trust in government.

"Everybody said, ‘Well, good luck fighting with windmills,'" recalls the southern Minnesota congressman. But already he's being called "the new darling of the Democrats" and mentioned as a possible future candidate for governor.

Walz, 44, was elected president of the 40-member House Democratic freshman class. He and other first-termers in the new Democratic majority have vowed to clean up Washington and its "culture of corruption," pushing for sweeping ethics reforms. "It's kind of a crusade," he says, "to have people see that we are trying to do the right thing."

After a year and a half in office, Walz points to significant changes made in the House: banning gifts and lobbyist-paid travel for House members and staffs; creating an Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate misconduct by members; requiring members to disclose their earmarks on appropriations bills. Walz reported earmarks for 20 projects, which he and others in the Minnesota delegation obtained, including: Hwy. 14 expansion, $850,000; National Guard Field Maintenance Facility, Mankato, $1.366 million; Albert Lea bus transit system, $300,000; Hormel Institute Cancer Research, Austin, $414,000; Winona State University Child Protection Training Center, $1.222 million; and a sheriff's at-risk youth program, Rochester, $332,500.

On the Veterans Affairs Committee, he says, "I think I went [to Congress] with a very strong voice" on behalf of the 52,514 veterans in his 1st District. Walz, a retired, 24-year member of the National Guard and Command Sergeant Major, is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress. He had a hand in securing nearly $12 billion in increases in health care and benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and other related costs. "It's one of the areas where I think we did show people that we can get things done," he says.

On the House Agriculture Committee, he worked with Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, and Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, on what Paap says was a good House-passed farm bill. Walz, a former Mankato West High School geography teacher and football coach, "knows how to talk to people," Paap says, "not in the inside-D.C. lingo, but from his experience in teaching."

Walz helped land a $500,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant for a Minnesota State University, Mankato, study of energy sources including cattails and algae, an important issue for the more than 21,000 farmers in the district and related agricultural businesses.

Walz ran as an antiwar candidate in 2006 and voted for a defeated proposal to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq within 90 days. He visited Iraq and Afghanistan last year and voted for supplemental war funding, a tough vote, explaining, "I, in conscience, cannot leave soldiers in the field without funding." He has scathing criticism of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "She's been incredibly ineffective," he says.

Walz traveled to the U.S.-Mexican border early this year on a fact-finding tour. On immigration issues, Congress should provide a "path to citizenship" for undocumented workers, he says, require illegal immigrants to return home, pay a fine and apply for legal immigration.

His hardest vote? Last August, when he voted with Republicans, in support of the Bush administration, at odds with most House Democrats, for a 180-day extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and expanding government power to wiretap phone calls and e-mail without court oversight. "Some of my biggest supporters [including his wife] were the first to chastise me over that vote." A Rochester Post Bulletin editorial castigated Walz: "Apparently he feels he needs to trend more conservative to position himself for re-election." Walz defends himself: "With my [military] experience and things I saw, I absolutely had to go that way." He voted in February with the House majority against renewal of the Act, objecting to its legal immunity for telecom companies that gave customer data to the government without a warrant after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That vote triggered an administration-backed, intensive TV advertising campaign targeting Walz and other opponents considered vulnerable in the fall elections. The Defense of Democracies ads, with threatening images of Osama bin Laden, suggested that legislators who let the Act expire were crippling surveillance against terrorism. Walz calls the ads fear-mongering and false. In March he voted for a revised electronic eavesdropping bill without immunity and with civil liberties protection, which President Bush warned he would veto. (Bush favored a Senate-passed bill that provided for immunity and broadened government eavesdropping powers. As of press time, the House and Senate had not agreed on a compromise bill.)

In Washington he walks from his studio apartment across the street to the Longworth Office Building, where he has a small office as behooves a freshman, and is at his desk by 6:30 or 7 a.m. Between committee meetings, floor sessions and visitors, Walz tries to find time to work out in the House gym, and shed the 35 pounds he gained at fast-food stops during the grueling 2006 campaign. He flies home Thursday or Friday nights for meetings in the district. Sundays are family days, with his wife, Gwen, a teacher and assessment coordinator of testing and No Child Left Behind requirements for the Mankato-area school district, daughter, Hope, 7, and son, Gus, nearly 2. Monday afternoons he's on the plane back to Washington.

This is a huge district, stretching 280 miles across southern Minnesota; it includes all or parts of 22 of Minnesota's 87 counties, Rochester, Winona, Albert Lea, Mankato and Worthington. Walz holds veterans forums, Saturday stops at grocery stores, economic and education summits where he brings together community and business leaders, similar to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's grass-roots politics style. His chief of staff, Josh Syrjamaki, was veterans issues aide to Wellstone. Once a month he's on former congressman Tim Penny's KOWZ-AM radio show, "It's Your Call."

Walz lists as mentors Penny, Republican Jim Ramstad and Democrat Betty McCollum of Minnesota, Democrats Chet Edwards of Texas and David Obey of Wisconsin, and former Republican governor Al Quie. "He seems to me to be an ‘old shoe' [comfortable] kind of guy," Quie says.

Despite Walz's claims of important reforms and milestone legislation, the Democratic-controlled Congress gets low ratings in public opinion polls. Republicans view the freshman congressman as vulnerable, in a swing district, in this fall's election. Walz likes to hail himself as not hugely partisan, but an "independent leader for southern Minnesota." But State GOP Chairman Ron Carey says Walz's claim to be independent doesn't match his voting record, and says while the congressman talks conservative to 1st District voters, "the only thing conservative about Walz is his haircut." Walz has voted the Democratic position almost 100 percent of the time, says Carey. "You might as well have Nancy Pelosi be your congressperson."

The National Journal, in contrast, lists Walz as a centrist with a conservative-voting score of 35.7 and a liberal-voting score of 64.3.

It's been a tumultuous, hard-working first term for Walz, who remains sunny about the future. "We have made a difference. People are starting once again to believe in their government." L&P

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