STILLWATER, Minn. — The narrow bridge connecting this quaint river town with neighboring Wisconsin is decaying, one chunk of rusted steel at a time. For decades, Minnesota’s politicians have tried and failed to win permission to erect a new bridge across the scenic St. Croix River.
It now falls to Rep. Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman who calls Stillwater home, to finally get it done. The bridge will test whether one of the most recognizable elected officials in Washington can fulfill the most basic duty of members of Congress: delivering for the voters in their district.
The Minnesota Republican has excelled as a provocateur. Her frequent appearances on cable television, in which she harshly criticizes Democrats in general and President Obama in particular, have made her a household name. She is a sought-after speaker on the conservative lecture circuit and raises thousands of dollars with a simple tweet.
Bachmann has larger ambitions. The tea party heroine is preparing a long-shot bid for president in 2012 and is getting plenty of attention as she criss-crosses the early primary states. At campaign stops in New Hampshire this weekend, Bachmann called the new health-care law Obama’s “Frankenstein,” saying the overhaul was a practice in “fantasy economics,” and likened the nation’s growing debt crisis to the Holocaust.
Despite her fame and her skill at attracting controversial headlines, Bachmann has yet to leave her mark as a policymaker or legislator. On Capitol Hill, she holds little sway with her colleagues and has guided no substantial legislation into law.
A bill Bachmann introduced last year to clear the way for the new Stillwater bridge — her top local priority — attracted no co-sponsors and died in a subcommittee. One of her biggest legislative accomplishments to date was approval of a 2009 resolution supporting National Hydrocephalus Awareness Month, to bring attention to the brain disorder.
Bachmann says there is a reason for this: She is unwilling to adopt many of the skills traditionally associated with success in Congress — inside maneuvering, charming committee leaders and trading favors with colleagues.
Instead, she says, she measures her success as a congresswoman not only by what she is able to make happen, but by what she is able to keep from happening. Bachmann fashions herself as a savior of her vision of America, by putting herself between anyone or any idea that she thinks goes against the will of the people and by conforming to no party’s rules.
A fearless practitioner of pitchfork populism, Bachmann has been known to jab her prongs into establishment Republicans as well as Democrats.
She founded the House Tea Party Caucus last year, installing herself as leader. She saw herself as something of a den mother for the 87 Republican freshmen in the House, but only a dozen have joined her group.
When Republicans took control of the House in January, she tried to parlay her populist appeal into a party leadership spot. Her colleagues turned her down.
Bachmann thinks that was a mistake. Curled up in a leather chair during an interview in her Capitol Hill office, she said that she uniquely channels the tea party’s “new energy.”
Placing two fingers to her wrist as if to check her pulse, Bachmann said: “I think that I just had a real sense of the pulse of the people.”
A polarizing figure
Here in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, many of those people have strong opinions about Bachmann: They either revere her or revile her. In these conservative suburbs of the Twin Cities, enough voters fall in the former category for her to easily win election to a third term.
Even in her home town, Bachmann is a polarizing figure. Dorothy Leonard, 70, reflected on Bachmann’s speech in January, in which she misconstrued facts about the history of slavery.
“I was humiliated by her,” said Leonard, while organizing kitchen utensils on the shelves of a shop in Stillwater. “I know her staff can’t control her mouth, but she needs to learn the facts before she opens it again.”
Democrats have accused Bachmann of not being accessible enough.
Paul Ryberg, a Democrat from Lake Elmo, organizes “Yellow Ribbon” events honoring veterans in the district that regularly draw politicians. He said he could not recall Bachmann showing up at any of the past half-dozen events.
“I’m coming up blank,” Ryberg said. “She’s not to be found. I’m afraid that summarizes Michele Bachmann and Minnesota.”
Bachmann and her supporters flatly reject this charge.
“She bends over backwards to try to be accessible,” said James Rugg, co-chairman of the Central Minnesota Tea Party. “I think she’s accessible to anybody, whether they’re leaders in the tea party movement or not.”
Since winning reelection, Bachmann’s political travels have taken her across the country, from Hawaii to Montana, South Carolina and Iowa, where she raised money and test-drove campaign themes.