Bachmann’s Mean Streak


Michele Bachmann has a mean streak.

On May 6, 2006, the day she was endorsed by the 6th District Republican Party for the nomination to become a U.S. Representative, she threatened to retaliate against a woman who had opposed her nomination.

Opinion: Bachmann’s mean streak

“You will pay, you will pay,” Bachmann said to the woman in front of a dozen or more witnesses. The woman grew increasingly upset at the non-specific threat and demanded to know how Bachmann was going to make her pay. She didn’t get an answer. But Bachmann, continued to repeat “you will pay” until the woman was led away from the incident, in tears, by her husband.

I witnessed the confrontation myself. It was in the lobby of Monticello High School, just outside the auditorium where the delegates were in the process of endorsing Bachmann. Later, I interviewed the woman, whom I have decided not to identify in this post, and talked to others who explained the background. As I’ll discuss below, I probably should have written about the incident at the time, in the Star Tribune.

The background

The woman whom Bachmann threatened is an active Republican, has held several minor party posts and was then an employee of the legislature and now of a state agency.

She was part of a small leadership committee within the 6th District GOP that meets before a convention to consider whether any of the candidates have problems that, for the sake of the party, should prevent the candidacy from proceeding to the convention floor. It’s usually a formality.

The woman was not a Bachmann supporter. At that meeting before the May 2006 Monticello convention, she raised some alleged misconduct regarding Bachmann’s expenses and campaign finance practices. The matters had been publicly disclosed and included some that had resulted in official findings against Bachmann. The incidents were minor, and the group agreed not to let them impede Bachmann’s candidacy.

Late on the night before the convention, the woman received phone calls from angry Bachmann supporters who had heard about the meeting (I think it was supposed to be confidential). They told her that she would pay a price for trying to block Bachmann.

At the convention

Bachmann led on every ballot. Despite being opposed by three other candidates including two well-known legislators, Bachmann dominated the first three ballots, then was endorsed unanimously.

It was in between two of the ballots, as Bachmann left the auditorium to take a break and prepare for the next, that she and woman met in the lobby.

The woman told Bachmann about the late-night phone calls and asked about the threat of consequences. Was her job in danger, her standing in the party, her own political ambitions, what?

I was covering the convention and was at a press table in the lobby. A crowd gathered around Bachmann, her entourage and the woman.

By the time I got there, the woman was verging on tears, but was continuing to ask what specific form of retaliation she had to fear.

Bachmann portrayed an eerie calm and maintained an expression with which I later became more familiar from covering her at other stressful moments. The smile never left her face and her gaze was steady, eyes open very wide. I heard her say, “you will pay, you will pay, you will pay” in answer to the woman’s insistent questioning, but as far I could hear, she never specified how.

I half-heartedly tried to talk to the woman as her husband led her away in tears, but he asked me to give her space to calm down, and I did. I didn’t see her again that day to follow up.

Cheri Pearson Yecke, the former Minnesota education commissioner who had also briefly sought the 6th District endorsement was a friend of the woman, saw the entire kerfuffle and helped me understand the background in the minutes after the crowd dissipated.

I called the woman two weeks later. It turned out that she had herself been a candidate for endorsement for an open seat in the Minnesota House. The day we spoke was, coincidentally, the day after her own convention. She lost an endorsement fight on the second ballot. Bachmann supported her opponent, who went on to win the seat.

The woman didn’t volunteer new information but confirmed the essentials of what I had already been told about the background. She said she would not like to be quoted, except to say that emotions run high in politics, that she is a loyal Republican and:

“Michele needs to run for Congress and I need to support Republican candidates.”

She placed me under no obligation not to use her name in anything I might write about the incident. I’ve chosen to leave it out for reasons of kindness.

more inside
Eric Black :: Bachmann’s Mean Streak
Some perspective

As far as I know, Bachmann didn’t do any more than threaten the woman with unspecified consequences. She did subsequently oppose the woman’s own political ambitions, which may have been the payback (or, for all I know, Bachmann may have long favored the other candidate), but she is fully entitled to support candidates within the party. Opposing someone whom you felt had opposed your own candidacy would certainly be normal political behavior.

Seeking public office is very demanding and stressful. I’m sure many candidates have showed their fangs to their opponents, although a reporter seldom witnesses such displays. Still, some of Bachmann’s constituents may consider the incident worth knowing as they continue to assess the freshman congresswoman. She is a politician who is very public about her embrace of Christian virtues. It’s for her constituents to decide whether her giving vent to her mean streak during her own moment of triumph that day represents hypocrisy.

By the way, I called and emailed Rep. Bachmann’s able spokester, Heidi Frederickson, on Saturday noon, alterting her to what I was planning to write about and soliciting any comment Bachmann might want to make. I haven’t heard back yet, and don’t know if I ever will but will offer space for any response the congresswoman might provide.

Why tell the story now, a year after it occurred?

The immediate excuse is the publication yesterday of a big Bachmann profile by my esteemed former Strib colleague Kim Ode, which put Bachmann’s personna back into the limelight. But I’ll confess that after witnessing the incident, and following up with interviews to find out what preceded it and what followed, it always bothered me that I had not published a story in the paper or even a post on the Big Question blog about it.

Why didn’t I? No one at the Star Tribune stopped me.

The day it occurred, Bachmann’s endorsement victory (Keith Ellison was endorsed the same day and space was tight for the combined stories) was the news. All of the space went for the ballot-by-ballot account of the convention, quotes from Bachmann’s speech, a couple of quotes from delegates about what they liked about her, and other predictable elements.

I hadn’t finished the reporting of the nasty incident and wasn’t sure of its significance. I’m still not, as I indicated above, but I’m content to let readers decide for themselves.

I continued to write about Bachmann all that campaign year, but concentrated on substantive policy matters as much as possible, and on truth-squadding the ads. I never did a personality profile into which such an incident might have fit.

But these all strike me as fairly lame excuses. In my post-newspaper writing, I hope to explore the norms that shape journalism in powerful ways that are often invisible even to the journalists. This one may be an example of how the effort to prop up the wobbly objectivity paradigm causes journalists to leave out what they should put in.

In a case like this, the coverage of the kerfuffle would have become a kerfuffle itself, cited as evidence of my bias (or the Strib’s). Maybe it would have been good evidence, I don’t know. Some Bachmann supporters would surely have claimed that the liberal Stribbers would ignore such a contretemps, if it had involved a Democrats showing his or her mean streak.

I can hear that tired back and forth in my head as I write this, but it pains me to think that I might have been cowed by the prospect of it.

Obviously, since I interviewed the woman two weeks later, I was still trying to find a way to write the story. But somehow, I fell onto the path of least resistance. For that timidity, I repent.