After she was elected to the U.S. House in 2006 as a very conservative in 2006, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann -- who had already stirred more than her share of controversy -- compared herself to another Minnesotan who sometimes stepped outside the typical boundaries of the American political process.
"You have to remember I'm from a state where Paul Wellstone was elected during a Republican tide," explained Bachmann, in an interview where she frequently referenced the liberal senator who served Minnesota from his election in 1990 until his death in a plane crash just days before the 2002 election. "There's a great deal of authenticity that came from Paul Wellstone."
It was an easy comparison to make, as Wellstone was not around to defend himself.
And Bachmann continues to abuse the privilege by suggesting that she serves and speaks as a Minnesota "outsider" in the Wellstone tradition
The embattled congresswoman, whose reelection campaign stumbled after she made the Joe McCarthy-on-steroids suggestion on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" that it was time to start investigating "anti-American" members of Congress, is defending herself by claiming that she's a populist "independent reformer" who is under attack by "the elites."
That may sound like Wellstone.
But Michele Bachmann's visceral partisanship, rigidity and McCarthyism mark her as a polar opposite of the former senator. While Wellstone delighted in forging bipartisan alliances with his conservative colleagues -- whose ideological stances he treated not just with respect but the genuine interest of a political scientist -- Bachmann rants about the need to ask members of Congress who disagree with her: "Are they pro-America or anti-America?"
The truth is that, when she got her start in state politics, as a state Senate candidate in 2000 and 2002, Bachmann was among the most outspoken critics of Wellstone in Minnesota.
Bachmann opposed everything Wellstone stood for when he was alive, and she has maintained that opposition.
In September of this year, the House approved the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 -- a bipartisan initiative begun by Wellstone more than a decade ago in conjunction with New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici to require insurance companies to provide adequate coverage for Americans who struggle with mental health challenges, alcoholism and drug abuse.
In this fall's critical vote, a solid House majority rejected the pressure of the insurance industry that for years had stalled progress on the legislation. (As Wellstone Action noted before the vote was taken: "or years, Paul Wellstone championed legislation that would end discrimination against people suffering from mental illness. After his death, a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives named the legislation, which would treat mental illness the same as physical illness, after Wellstone. Since then, despite overwhelming bipartisan support, this common sense bill has languished in Congress.")
It was actually as a result of the determined efforts of a Minnesota Republican, retiring Congressman Jim Ramstad, that the Wellstone Act finally got its long-delayed House vote. Every member of the Minnesota delegation backed the bill, which eventually became law after being included in the final version of the financial bailout bill that Congress passed a few days later.
Every Minnesota member, that is, except Michele Bachmann.
Bachmann's suddenly viable opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, a one-time United Methodist Minister with a long history of activism at the local and state levels in Minnesota, is by any and every measure the more Wellstonian of the contenders for the seat representing the state's 6th congressional district.
Tinklenberg had this to say about the congressman's vote against the Wellstone Act:
Bachmann's vote is a moral failure to look out for some of our most vulnerable citizens," Tinklenberg said. "It is this kind of extremism that is preventing real healthcare reform in our country. We need to start prioritizing people's health and wellness over the profits of the insurance companies. That's the approach I will take in Congress.
Michele Bachmann can try to compare herself with Paul Wellstone if she wants.
But Elwyn Tinklenberg sounds and acts a lot more like the senator I knew and worked with for more than a decade.
At the risk of stating what should be the obvious: Voting with the insurance industry to block a health care reform and calling those who disagree with you "anti-American" is about as far from Paul Wellstone as any Minnesotan, or American, can get.
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: Congresswoman Bachmann, I worked with Paul Wellstone; I knew Paul Wellstone; Paul Wellstone was a friend of mine. Congresswoman, you're no Paul Wellstone.