Roots of Bachmann’s Ambition Began at Home
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
STILLWATER, Minn.—Nearly two decades ago, a stay-at-home mother and onetime federal tax lawyer named Michele Bachmann felt a spiritual calling to open her clapboard home here to troubled teenage girls.
“We had our five biological children that God gave to us, and then he called us to take foster children into our home,” Mrs. Bachmann told a Christian audience in 2006. “We thought we were going to take unwed mothers in,” she continued, adding, “We took 23 foster children into our home, and raised them, and launched them off into the world.”
Today Mrs. Bachmann is Representative Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, first elected to the House in 2006, and now a candidate for her party’s nomination for president. In Washington, she has grabbed the spotlight as a staunch fiscal conservative and brash Tea Party leader. But a look at her life here shows that it was her role as a mother, both to her biological children and to her adolescent foster daughters, that spurred her to seek public office.
Mrs. Bachmann’s political awakening began with her deep disenchantment with the public school system. She helped found a charter school that briefly ran afoul of the state when some parents contended that its curriculum was infused with Christian teachings, and her first run for office was a failed bid for the local school board.
Her career has been deeply interwoven with her evangelical Christian beliefs—opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage were central to her agenda as a state legislator. Here in Stillwater, a historic riverfront city surrounded by the suburban sprawl of the Twin Cities, she arouses intense passions.
The Rev. Marcus Birkholz, the pastor at Salem Lutheran Church, which Mrs. Bachmann attended for years, calls her “a lady with energy and a heart” whose uncompromising “support for the unborn” extends beyond fighting abortion. “She sees the whole picture,” Pastor Birkholz said. “It’s not just bringing a child into the world; that child has to be nurtured and educated.”
Mrs. Bachmann has offered few details about her foster children, and for privacy reasons their names have never been made public. Both the congresswoman—who has said she was inspired by foster parents in her church—and her husband, Marcus, a psychologist who runs a Christian counseling center here, declined requests for interviews. But she did give her brother, Dr. Paul Amble, a forensic psychiatrist who teaches at Yale, permission to speak.
“These are kids that have a lot of challenges and have had some difficult home lives that they are coming from,” Dr. Amble said. “I think Michele and Marcus both had a real heart for that.”
Over time, Mrs. Bachmann’s husband has said, their home on Johnson Drive grew so full that they expanded their kitchen. They have since moved to a larger home and switched churches. Former neighbors and church members say they saw little of the foster children.
Susan Mosiman, who lives across the street from the Bachmanns’ former residence, remembers one girl in her 20s coming back to visit and another with “socialization issues” in the home.
“They’d be out in the yard, or we’d go over there and the kids would be at home,” she said, “just blending with their family.”
Mrs. Bachmann, whose biological children now range in age from 17 to 29, worked until her fourth child was born. (Her youngest, Sophia, is headed to college this fall, while the eldest, Lucas, is a medical resident at the University of Connecticut, pursuing a specialty in psychiatry.) Friends remember her planning neighborhood picnics and organizing bicycle parades.
“I had all these balls in the air that I was juggling,” she said in an interview with Minnesota Monthly last year. In choosing to leave work, she said, “I finally realized my dream, which was to be mom of a big, happy family.”
The Bachmanns were licensed by the state from 1992 to 2000 to handle up to three foster children at a time; the last child arrived in 1998. They began by offering short-term care for girls with eating disorders who were treated through a program at the University of Minnesota, said George Hendrickson, the chief executive of PATH Minnesota, the private agency that handled the placements.
While Mrs. Bachmann may have envisioned herself caring for unwed mothers, as she said in 2006, Mr. Hendrickson, who worked with the couple for four years, said that to his knowledge, none were pregnant.
He said the Bachmann home was “technically considered a treatment home,” which offered a higher level of reimbursement. (The current rate is $47 a day, Mr. Hendrickson said.) That designation required a higher standard of care from parents who had the educational and emotional capability to handle “serious mental health issues.” Dr. Bachmann’s training was an asset.
Minnesota law permits foster care records to be destroyed after seven years, and the Bachmanns’ files are gone, so Mr. Hendrickson could not say how many children they took in. Some stayed a few months, others more than a year.
Critics point out that the couple had not “raised” the children, as Mrs. Bachmann has said. But, Mr. Hendrickson said, “From our agency’s perspective, I thought they did a very nice job.”
On the campaign trail, Mrs. Bachmann, 55, has tended to emphasize her professional credentials as a Treasury Department lawyer. “Voters have typically known more about her policy positions than her family life,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota who has followed the congresswoman’s career.
But here in Stillwater, Mrs. Bachmann cut her political teeth on an issue that concerns nearly all mothers: education, beginning with her controversial work with the charter school, New Heights School, established in 1992 by Dennis Meyer, a local religious figure. Mr. Meyer envisioned it, school officials say, as a place for hands-on learning with a back-to-basics curriculum and heavy parent involvement. Mrs. Bachmann, whose own children had been home-schooled, enrolled one child and joined the board.
But soon after the school opened in September 1993, parents were “butting heads,” said Julie Kearney, the office manager. Minutes of the board meetings reflect intense debate: some parents wanted a school “based on godly principles,” while others contended that “the idea to be as close to a Christian school and be public while taking public money is deceit.”
In a vote over whether Mr. Meyer should resign, the minutes show, Mrs. Bachmann sided with Mr. Meyer. Denise Stephens, who led parents in challenging the religious emphasis, said teachers complained to her that they could not teach “Native American spirituality” or even yoga, and that one who wanted to show the Disney movie “Aladdin” was told she could not because it involved magic.
“Christian teaching was allowed,” Ms. Stephens said, “but any other faith was banned.”
The tensions came to a head when state and local school officials warned the school that it was at risk of losing its charter. In December 1993, after a tumultuous public meeting, Ms. Stephens said, Mr. Meyer and Mrs. Bachmann left the school.
By the late 1990s, with her own children enrolled in private Christian schools, Mrs. Bachman was upset by the education her foster children were getting in public school. Teachers gave them “little special attention,” and many were “placed in lower-level classes, as if they were not expected to succeed,” she told a House subcommittee in 2007.
One brought home “an 11th-grade math assignment that involved coloring a poster,” she testified. Another “spent an entire week watching movies.” A third “remarked to me once that she was in ‘stupid people math.’ “
So Mrs. Bachmann immersed herself in the minutiae of Minnesota’s graduation requirements. She worked with a conservative researcher and began giving talks in church basements. People who attended said they were mesmerizing—and packed. Mrs. Bachmann would wave a copy of the Constitution, said Mary Cecconi, then a school board member, blending her message with talk of the founding fathers and inalienable rights.
“It felt like we were in a tent, like a revival,” Ms. Cecconi said. “It was obvious Michele was the star.”
She drew the attention of Bill Pulkrabek, a Republican county commissioner, who said she “had kind of an aura.” He persuaded her to run for the school board on a Republican slate in 1999, even though such elections had always been nonpartisan. Ms. Cecconi said abortion, never before a school board issue, became one in that race, with Mrs. Bachmann charging that Ms. Cecconi and other board members had been “endorsed by Planned Parenthood.”
Mrs. Bachmann lost. But the next year, she knocked an incumbent Republican state senator out of his job. Her political career had begun.