U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann pumped gas for surprised Lino Lakes motorists and vowed to work hard to lower surging prices on Tuesday, while a short distance away, a new face in Democratic politics joined the battle to convince Sixth District voters that Bachmann abandoned them for the bright lights of presidential politics.
Bachmann, seeking a fourth term in the suburban and exurban district, said her presidential campaign experience will serve her well back home. Across the district in St. Cloud, hotel magnate Jim Graves announced his plans to challenge Bachmann, saying the district needs a full-time representative.
"I made a big difference in the presidential campaign," Bachmann said. "The difference that I made is by elevating the issue of Obamacare, the need for its repeal."
Said Graves: "If you don't show up for work at Graves Hospitality you get fired. Where's she been? She's been running a campaign in Iowa."
Graves, CEO of Graves World Hospitality, which owns and manages hotels, including the posh Graves 601 in Minneapolis, is a late arrival in a field that includes two lesser-known candidates. He is running in a Republican-friendly district but he would pose a different kind of test for Bachmann -- a successful Democratic business entrepreneur with roots in St. Cloud and who has labor support.
He joins businessman Brian McGoldrick of May Township and St. Cloud community activist Anne Nolan. Sixth District Democrats will meet Saturday to consider endorsing a candidate to challenge Bachmann.
The Sixth Congressional District connects St. Cloud and rural areas of Benton and Stearns County with the U.S. 10 corridor through Elk River and Anoka. It includes much of Washington County and extends as far east as Woodbury.
Bachmann, of Stillwater, who was first elected in 2006, no longer lives within the district boundaries drawn by a judicial panel in February. Graves is a St. Cloud native who now lives in Minneapolis. Both candidates dealt with the residency issue on Tuesday.
"Now I don't live in the district," Bachmann said. "But according to the Constitution, a person doesn't have to live in the district to represent the district. ... Just because the judges cut me out of the district doesn't mean that all of a sudden I lost my connection or my love or my knowledge of the people of the district."
In announcing his candidacy in St. Cloud, Graves said: "I lived here 48 years. We raised our family here, went to school here, and started our business here." And, he said, "We're going to have a residence back in the district -- very soon."
Bachmann ran long and hard in the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, always identifying herself as an Iowa native, and dropped out in January after winning only 5 percent support. Now back in her congressional race, she's emphasizing her connection to Minnesota and hitting President Obama on rising gas prices, arguing that the U.S. needs to use all of its energy resources to bring down costs.
'More oil than Saudi Arabia'
"America is the number one energy-resource-rich resource nation in the world," she contended. "We have more oil than even Saudi Arabia has. A lot of it is in the form of shale oil. ... If we legalize American energy production, we'll have the resources that we need, and at a price that people can afford." Other Republican candidates have made the same claim, but shale oil is very difficult and expensive to recover. By traditional measures -- the amount of proved reserves of crude oil -- Saudi Arabia has more than ten times the reserves of the United States, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Bachmann said she does not believe her embrace of Iowa politics separated her from her district. "What people are really grateful for is the advocacy I brought to that campaign, and the knowledge I brought," she said. She argued that she drove Mitt Romney, now the frontrunner, toward calling for full repeal of Obama's federal health care reform.
Graves emphasized the need for better-paying jobs and lifting up the fortunes of the middle class. Before he spoke, he was endorsed by UNITE HERE, a union that represents workers at some of Graves' hotels.
'His roots are there'
"Jim knows working people because his roots are there," said union official Wade Luneburg.
Graves said he employs about 500 people through Graves Hospitality. "We believe in a livable wage," he said. "We walk the talk. We're going to bring back jobs to the Sixth District."
Asked his position on abortion, which has tripped up many Democrats in the Sixth, Graves said, "I believe it's a woman's issue. It's a health issue. At the end of the day, it's going to be between a woman, her doctor and her god." He said he supports attempts to reduce unwanted pregnancies, adding, "Abortion is always a tragedy."
Graves said he is concerned about the future of the middle class. "We're going to work on the economy, and on helping the middle class find their footing," he said. "We're not going to be looking at this job as a steppingstone."
Across the street from Graves' announcement venue, St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis was giving his "State of the City" address. Kleis said St. Cloud has lower unemployment than the state as a whole, but that residents continue to rank the economy among their top concerns. The housing sector was hit particularly hard, he said.
At a downtown sandwich shop, Travis Byberg of St. Cloud, who is self-employed and originally from North Dakota, said he notices a distinct difference between the Minnesota economy and that of his home state and its oil boom. "Downtown St. Cloud businesses are empty," he said. "In Fargo, nothing is empty." But, he added, full recovery in Minnesota will take time.
"It's not something one person is going to fix in one term," he said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042