In 1993, after giving birth to the fourth of five children, Bachmann quit her job as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, where she'd worked since completing her legal education. But she continued to follow the path she believed God had chosen for her. She and her husband went to abortion clinics, where they ministered to women on the sidewalks outside, and began taking in foster kids—23 of them over a period of eight years. She also got involved with New Heights, a charter school that was just opening its doors in Stillwater, a quaint Minnesota town on the banks of the St. Croix River where the Bachmanns had settled. Bachmann enrolled one of her kids and joined the school's board.
The school's founder and CEO, an evangelical prison minister named Dennis Meyer, insisted on adhering to the "20 key principles of Christian management," according to minutes of the school's board meetings, and encouraged board members to choose their actions "not because we 'think' it should be done a certain way, but because God wants us to." This didn't sit well with everyone. The minutes reveal deep fissures over the role of faith in the school's mission.
If Meyer pushed the envelope, Bachmann took things further. According to Bob Beltrame, whose kids attended New Heights and who joined with other parents to oppose the efforts of the Meyer-Bachmann wing, Bachmann and an ally began attending classes and questioning the appropriateness of certain topics and materials. (Disney's Aladdin was banned for promoting the occult.)
Most bothersome to Beltrame, a geologist, was Bachmann's support for teaching creationism. "I told her, 'Everybody can have their own beliefs, but it doesn't belong in the classroom,'" he says.
With parents and board members clashing, a meeting was held to clear the air. Bachmann's critics alleged that she had circumvented the board by sending parents a survey she'd created, asking them to report back. Things reached a climax when a teacher seized the floor. "He said, 'There is evil in this room. We have to chase the evil out of this room,'" Beltrame recalls—at which point Bachmann and her allies joined in prayer to ward off the evil spirits. (It failed; Bachmann stepped down from her post shortly thereafter.)
Bachmann's first political battle had been a disaster, but she reemerged five years later as a full-fledged education activist. The impetus was a state curriculum standard, implemented under Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, called the Profile of Learning, which put Minnesota into compliance with federal legislation. Policy wonks and teachers' unions quibbled over certain aspects of the standards. But social conservatives reviled them for another reason: They saw the standards as an unconstitutional expansion of government control—an attempt, as Bachmann put it, at "politically correct indoctrination."
Working closely with a nonprofit called the Maple River Education Coalition, Bachmann argued that the federal government was using its pot of education funding as a billion-dollar carrot to turn public schools into assembly lines for a state-planned economy, akin to that of the Soviet Union. One theory floated by the coalition held that Washington bureaucrats wanted to eliminate national borders entirely. There was a thinly veiled religious subtext: Among many evangelical Christians, globalism is a tool of the devil—a view popularized by the best-selling Left Behind novels, in which the Antichrist comes to power via the United Nations.
To her audiences, she went by "Dr. Bachmann," although she had never received nor studied for a Ph.D.
Carlson's successor, Jesse Ventura, dismissed Profile opponents as conspiracy theorists, but Bachmann took the fight to a different audience. Armed with an overhead projector, Bachmann crisscrossed Minnesota to sound the alarm, speaking in church basements and pizza parlors. To her audiences, she went by "Dr. Bachmann," although she had never received nor studied for a Ph.D. A policy analyst named Michael Chapman was supposed to be the main attraction, but it was Bachmann who usually whipped the crowd into a camp-meeting frenzy and brought shouts of "amen!" from the back of the room.
She became a rock star within her circle of activists and in 1999 began to look for more ways to get involved. Until that point, Stillwater had been largely immune to the culture wars, but Bachmann's decision to run for school board changed that. It was a move directly out of the playbook of Christian Coalition wunderkind Ralph Reed, who once explained, "I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members." Bachmann and four allies secured the endorsement of the local Republican party—unheard of for a school board race—and ran on a single repeal-the-Profile slate. Things got ugly. At one debate, Bachmann falsely accused an opponent of being endorsed by Planned Parenthood.
Ultimately, the unified ticket flopped. But it was a start. The next year, Bachmann challenged the district's moderate state senator, Gary Laidig. She showed up at the district GOP convention and, with the floor packed with anti-Profile activists, knocked off the incumbent on the first ballot. Bachmann presented herself as an unlikely victor, dressed in moccasins and an old sweatshirt, but it had the hallmarks of an old-fashioned putsch. Bachmann the politician had arrived.
In St. Paul, Bachmann quickly carved out a reputation as a different kind of legislator, one largely uninterested in the legislative process. Rather than adjust to the incremental, often tedious process of policymaking, Bachmann had begun to play the role she'd eventually embrace in Washington—remaining for, of, and by the grassroots, while slowly reshaping the debate on her terms.
Bachmann's unwillingness to go through the motions became apparent in her first few weeks on the job. When fellow Republican state Sen. Sheila Kiscaden invited her and three other freshman legislators to participate in informal orientation sessions, Bachmann—who had used her unfamiliarity with St. Paul as a selling point on the campaign trail—wanted no part. She served on committees with conflicting meeting times and swung by just long enough to check her name off the attendance sheet, according to several former colleagues. This so frustrated fellow lawmakers that they considered switching to roll-call votes to highlight her truancy.
Her legislative record was bereft of any landmark achievements. "A lot of sizzle, no steak," Kiscaden says. Bachmann crafted a law to encourage the teaching of select founding documents like the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence in public schools; she promoted a Taxpayer Bill of Rights but turned down a chance to put it up for a vote; and in one session, she introduced nearly a tenth of the chamber's honorary resolutions (congratulating Stillwater Cub Scouts and calling for various statewide days of prayer, among other things).