In 2006, on the day she defeated three other candidates to win the Republican endorsement to run for Congress for the first time, Michele Bachmann took time off between ballots at the endorsing convention to threaten a woman, repeatedly and publicly, even after a crowd gathered.
While the woman tried to stand her ground and asked repeatedly what Bachmann was going to do to her, Bachmann kept repeating the three words “you will pay” until the woman was led away in tears by her husband.
I witnessed it as a Strib reporter covering the convention. It was weird and creepy. It featured a dark side of Bachmann’s character that contrasts with her usual public persona of buoyant optimism and, I guess, her public aspirations to Christian virtue.
To my own shame and regret, I didn’t write about the kerfuffle for the next day’s paper. When I did write about it, a year later, I offered various explanations/excuses for my delay, which I don’t repeat here except to say that they were lame.
Anyway, this won’t be nearly as long as part one of this strange “Bachmann and Me” series. I was just a bystander. I don’t claim it is the biggest nor one of the 10 biggest things the nation needs to know about Bachmann as it sizes her up as a potential president. I don’t even believe the anecdote supports Newsweek’s effort to crown Bachmann as “The Queen of Rage.”
It’s no secret that political candidates adopt somewhat contrived likable outward personas based to some degree on themselves, which they play in public. Anger and pettiness are not popular character traits when the public version is created. Whole elections are sometimes changed when the public gets a glimpse — or what they believe is a glimpse — behind the façade. (Remember in 1992 when the first President Bush was caught on camera glancing at his watch during one of the debates? How idiotic that it became such a big deal that we still remember it.)
It was May 6, 2006. The convention was at Monticello High School. Bachmann, then still a state senator, had amassed a commanding lead in the precinct caucuses and county conventions.
At the big endorsing convention, she led comfortably on the first two ballots. On the third, she passed the 60 percent threshold necessary for endorsement and the convention then made it unanimous. Since all of the candidates had pledged to abide by the endorsement, this meant she had locked up the Repub nomination for the open U.S. House seat (which she would go on to win in November).
The balloting was in the school’s auditorium. My Strib colleague Dane Smith was inside the hall so, after the second ballot, I was out in the lobby where the Internet was accessible, beaming updates to the mothership. That, coincidentally, put me in position to witness the unexpected baring of the Bachmann fangs.
The background, which I learned later, was that the woman, a longtime Republican activist who held party positions, had backed one of Bachmann’s opponents. The day before the convention, the party’s Nominations Committee met and, as a matter of normal procedure, discussed whether anyone had information about any of the candidates that might bar them from being nominated.
The meetings are closed and supposedly confidential, but apparently the woman expressed some reservations about Bachmann’s fitness to be the Republican nominee. There had been questions raised publicly (including in a piece I wrote) about the propriety of some of Bachmann’s expenses for which she had been reimbursed by the state Senate, specifically for cable TV in her home. Those issues were dinky, but they apparently were raised before the Nominations Committee. The committee did not take them very seriously and all of the candidates, including Bachmann, were cleared to be nominated.
The confrontation at the convention started inside the auditorium, but as Bachmann left the hall, presumably for the usual between-ballots strategizing and vote-seeking, it spilled into the lobby. A crowd gathered.
“You will pay, you will pay,” Bachmann said to the woman in front of a dozen or more witnesses. She said it a lot of times and, as far as I witnessed, never said anything else. The woman grew increasingly upset at the nonspecific threat and began to weep while still demanding to know how Bachmann was going to make her pay.
Was Bachmann going to get her fired from her job with the Legislature? Pressure the party to strip her of her official posts? Work against the woman’s own political ambitions (turns out she was seeking the Repub endorsement herself, for a seat in the Legislature)? Something worse? What?
Bachmann didn’t specify. Just: “You will pay; you will pay.”
While the woman melted down, Bachmann portrayed an eerie calm and maintained an expression with which I later became more familiar from covering her at other stressful moments. Her gaze was steady. She was sort of smiling throughout.
If you watched the Fox-sponsored debate in Iowa last week, and you kept your eyes on Bachmann when Tim Pawlenty was using his time to describe Bachmann as a politician with a “nonexistent” record of achievement, the look on her face was quite similar. A little eerie but exuding a steely composure. In the Iowa case, she waited for her turn and gave as good as she got. It was T-Paw who would be gone from the race two days later, while her status as a top-tier contender was enhanced. In the Monticello High School, it was the same look but just the repetition of “you will pay.”
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. But I did get her name from a bystander and called later to follow up. Since I got her name on my own, I was not then and am not now under any journo-ethical obligation to withhold her identity but have decided to do so for her sake. She has thanked me for that and I’m at peace with it. This account relies mostly on what I witnessed, so her identity is less of an issue.
By the time I talked to the woman, she had lost the endorsement she was seeking for an open seat in the Minnesota House. Bachmann supported her opponent, who went on to win the seat. Since then, she did lose two jobs in politics or government. She has no evidence that Bachmann was behind her problems.
As far as I know, Bachmann didn’t do any more than threaten the woman and oppose her for that endorsement, which, of course, is perfectly reasonable, especially since the woman opposed Bachmann’s bid for endorsement for Congress.
Seeking public office is very demanding and actual culmination of an intraparty campaign at an endorsement convention is very stressful. I’m sure many candidates have shouted and threatened as well as cajoled and pleaded behind the scenes, although such displays usually occur out of public view.
I’m reluctant to place Bachmann’s cruelty toward the woman into the context of her religiosity. I view the religious beliefs and conduct of everyone as private, personal business, but that attitude can get in the way when covering Bachmann, who is more public about her religiosity than any candidate politician I’ve ever covered. I’m not a Christian and don’t claim to know what Jesus would do to someone who supported a different candidate for messiah, but I have a hunch it wouldn’t be threats of unspecified retaliation.
I emailed the Bachmann campaign that I would be writing about the incident at the 2006 convention and offered to include anything Bachmann wanted to add as to how she came to threaten the woman and how she feels about the incident in retrospect. I received no reply.