Michele Bachmann’s political outreach hasn’t extended very far, critics say

September 4, 2011

Rep. Michele Bachmann’s staff had set up video equipment for six Muslim constituents who had come to her district office for a meeting. The plan was for them to have a teleconference with the congresswoman, who was in Washington.

But Bachmann did not turn up, said Ikram Ul Huq, the Republican activist who organized the 2009 meeting. It was the second time the group had been stood up by Bachmann, whose office blamed a scheduling conflict. Huq said Bachmann offered no apology and did not attempt to reschedule.

“We wanted to talk about jobs and the local issues that matter to us. She simply dodged the thing,” recalled Huq, who has set up similar meetings with other Republican lawmakers.

In her nearly five years in Congress, Bachmann has connected deeply with tea party activists and social conservatives, but some constituents outside those circles say that she is distant and unresponsive and that, at times, she has snubbed them outright.

As Bachmann struggles to maintain her top-tier status among GOP presidential contenders, she is trying to extend the reach of her campaign, meeting with a wider array of groups as well as with mainstream fundraisers. But that effort appears to be a departure for Bachmann, whose political career has not relied on appealing to a broad spectrum of voters.

A polarizing figure nationally and in her party, Bachmann has a similar profile in her central Minnesota district. Dozens of interviews yielded a picture of a passionate champion of the dedicated right: home-schooling parents, anti-tax suburbanites, Christian-values voters and like-minded people who feel ignored by their government officials.

But others in the state’s 6th Congressional District, including some Republicans, say she has shown little interest in engaging with their concerns.

“With Michele, I feel totally ignored,” said Sue Hedin, a Stillwater librarian who considers herself a Democratic-leaning independent. “With no other representative have I felt quite that way.”

Bachmann’s supporters contend that she has worked with a variety of constituents in leading bipartisan efforts. They cite her efforts to repeal controversial education standards as a state senator and her strong support as a congresswoman of a four-lane bridge connecting her home town of Stillwater with Wisconsin.

“Whenever she comes to town, she’s all over the place. And anybody can ask whatever they want, and she makes every attempt to answer whatever questions are thrown her way,” said James Rugg, a resident of St. Cloud, the largest city in her district.

Rugg and other supporters say they see her at virtually every tea party rally, at home-schooling conventions and veterans’ events. She marched in Stillwater’s annual Lumberjack Days parade this year.

Asked about the no-show meeting with the Muslim constituents in 2009, Becky Rogness, a spokeswoman for Bachmann’s congressional office, said cancellations were sometimes unavoidable. The office declined to comment about specific incidents but said Bachmann strives to respond to all of her constituents regardless of their points of view.

“Congresswoman Bachmann has always sought to hear directly from her constituents — whether that be through e-mails, faxes, letters, phone calls, social media, forums or meetings,” Rogness said. “The congresswoman keeps a schedule often filled with meetings, floor votes, committee hearings and conference meetings, but regrettably, official business does come up occasionally that forces a schedule change.”

The experiences of the Muslim constituents are not isolated.

Hedin, the Stillwater librarian, sent a letter to Bachmann and the state’s two senators in June about the bridge project, asking them to support a smaller structure than the one currently proposed. She said she received replies from the Democratic senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, but not from Bachmann.

The St. Cloud Area Somali Salvation Organization, which assists the region’s refu­gee population, had a good working relationship with Bachmann’s Republican predecessor, Mark Kennedy. So shortly after she took office, the group reached out to Bachmann for help on the case of someone who had been deported to Mexico.

Bachmann’s office did not respond to phone calls and letters, said the administrator, Farhad Mohamud.

“It seems that she never had an intention to have a relationship with our community,” said Mohamud, a social conservative who said he would consider voting for a Republican other than Bachmann for president.

Last year, a school district in Bachmann’s congressional district received national attention after a spate of suicides. Several of the children who took their own lives had been teased for being or appearing gay.

Tammy Aaberg, whose teenage son committed suicide, reached out to Bachmann’s office several times, hoping to meet with the congresswoman about anti-bullying legislation, according to activists who work with Aaberg. But staffers for Bachmann, a well-known opponent of gay rights and same-sex marriage, declined to arrange a meeting for Aaberg with Bachmann or her aides.

Former aides who have grown disenchanted with Bachmann say that she is inundated with requests for her time and that she bends over backward for constituent groups that come by her office in Washington. But one of their chief complaints was that she would skip meetings without warning, leaving them to explain her absence.

Sometimes it was because she did not want to hear from people who disagreed with her, they said, but often there was no explanation.

“If you could further her causes, she would make time for you,” said one former senior aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If she didn’t see any real benefit to her, you wouldn’t be on her schedule.”

Bachmann has a formula for winning elections in the shifting political landscape of her central Minnesota district, where vast tracts of farmland have been carved up into cul-de-sacs and where neighborhoods in and around the largest city, St. Cloud, are becoming more diverse. The changes have polarized the district, although it remains heavily Republican.

Bachmann has achieved solid victories over the years by pulling together the district’s disaffected conservatives, and she has suggested that she can win a presidential race by taking a similar tack, speaking directly to the grievances of the ignored and disenchanted on the right.

“Whether we are tea party or social conservatives or fiscal conservatives or national security conservatives, if we stick together . . . greatness will once again belong to the United States of America,” she said after winning the Iowa Straw Poll last month.

Ken Blackwell, who chairs a new “super PAC” created to support her campaign, said Bachmann’s attributes will draw support from beyond the most conservative quarters.

“The watchword here is authenticity,” he said. “Ronald Reagan was more conservative than a lot of folks who voted for him, but they appreciated his authenticity and fidelity to principle.”

Bachmann has not done as well as some more moderate Republicans in the 6th District, which hugs the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities and is one of the most conservative enclaves in the state. Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty did better among district voters in 2006. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party’s presidential candidate in 2008, won with 53 percent of the vote.

Bachmann’s relationship with local Muslims has been particularly strained. Muslim voters say it is not because she is a Republican. They point out that as governor, Pawlenty maintained a working relationship with Muslims and that his administration, for instance, created a home loan program to comply with Islamic law, which forbids the charging or paying of interest.

Some Muslims in Bachmann’s district say they know her primarily from what they see on television, and they point to a remark she made during a Republican debate in 2005. Asked about rioting Muslim youth in France, Bachmann responded, “Not all cultures are equal,” and she criticized the “tribalism” of Muslims immigrating to the country.

“Not all values are equal,” she continued. “Those who are coming into France, which had a beautiful culture, the French culture is actually diminished. It’s going away. And just with the population in France, they are losing Western Europeans, and it’s being taken over by a Muslim ethic. Not that Muslims are bad, but they are not assimilating.”

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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