When then-Minnesota state Senator Michelle Fischbach—now representing Minnesota’s 7th congressional district in the 117th Congress—pulled into the drive of her Paynesville home after a busy legislative session in St. Paul, the mother-of-two-turned-political-powerhouse knew she had to take action.
“I came home that day,” Fischbach says, laughing, “and my daughter’s clothes didn’t match. And I said to my husband, ‘Oh my goodness Scott. You know her clothes don’t match?’ And he says, ‘Well, she has on a clean pair of pants and a clean shirt. Doesn’t that count?’ And I said, ‘It counts, and I really appreciate it,’ but from then on, I laid out a week’s worth of clothes for every kid, matching clothes, socks, underwear, the whole bit so that nobody would go to school without matching clothes.”
That’s Michelle Fischbach—a perfectionist, who reads “Robert’s Rules of Order” the way most people read novels, but nevertheless manages to be engaging and personable. Scott is Michelle’s husband, Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Michelle is generally described in the media as the former lieutenant governor of Minnesota—but few outside Minnesota know about the drama behind that title.
Fischbach’s political career began when she became angry about a local issue affecting Paynesville.
It began in 2018 when Senator and “Saturday Night Live” alumni Al Franken was forced into early retirement by “Me Too” allegations. Fischbach was then serving as President of the state Senate, the first woman to hold that position. The state constitution decreed that, should the lieutenant governorship fall vacant, the President of the Senate would fill the position.
As fate would have it, Minnesota’s then-Governor Mark Dayton tapped then-Lieutenant Governor (now U.S. Senator) Tina Smith to fill Franken’s old seat. That meant Fischbach’s ascent to the lieutenant governorship was automatic. It also meant that the Republicans would lose their narrow majority in the state Senate.
Since the lieutenant governor position is largely ceremonial, Fischbach believed that she could retain her Senate seat. The state constitution was mum on the matter, she argued. The Democrats were not mum. They insisted Fischbach step down from the Senate. Minnesota Democrats, by the way, are known as DFLers on home turf. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party, is affiliated with the national Democratic Party. At home, Senator Amy Klobuchar is referred to as a member of the DFL Party. This is just one political anomaly in a politics-obsessed state that traditionally has high voter turnout and from which numerous progressive luminaries hail.
Fischbach was prepared to fight to hang onto her Senate seat. “I kind of ascended to this; I never asked for it, never aspired to the office,” she told a newspaper. “I feel a commitment and a real kinship with the people in my district.”
At the time, Fischbach was an eight-term state senator who simply wanted to stay in the Senate. She was effective and popular, and loved the job. A colleague described her as: “stern but also funny…She is very professional and business-like—and a bit of a perfectionist—but she comes to all of that with a pretty wry and interesting sense of humor,” Republican Secretary of the state senate observed to a reporter. “That enables her to be very cordial with all of the senators while being firm in her position as the presiding officer of the chamber.”
“She navigates well with the good old boys and the feminists,” a Democratic state senator told a reporter.
But she certainly wasn’t all business. She was known also as a shoe aficionado, the senator added. “We have to pay attention to the mat [behind the podium] she stands on every day so she doesn’t poke too many holes in it.”
She was one of the Senate’s most conservative members, yet she had friends on both sides of the aisle. “She navigates well with the good old boys and the feminists,” a DLF senator explained to a reporter, adding that, though he wished she was less conservative, “As you can tell, I’m kind of a fan.”
Fischbach and DFL Governor Dayton had an amicable chat over walleye and hot fudge sundaes about the question of whether she could stay in the senate while assuming the lieutenant governor role. They showed each other pictures of their grandchildren and enthusiastically swapped anecdotes about the kids. “He seemed like a very nice man,” she said afterwards. “Obviously … we have political differences, and we both agreed on that.” They also agreed to work together on issues such as improving care facilities for older citizens, but Dayton declined to get involved in the lieutenant governor mess. A court battle was inevitable.
While Fischbach called herself “acting lieutenant governor” and declined the extra salary, the state Senate’s DFL minority leader filed suit. This lawsuit was filed by a resident wonderfully named Destiny Dusosky who claimed that Fischbach’s dual role deprived her of senatorial representation. The judge dismissed the suit as premature.
The governor threatened to call a special session of the legislature to resolve the matter, and Fischbach continued to be the target of increasingly nasty attacks. After the Minnesota legislature adjourned for the remainder of the year and there was no threat of a special session, she resigned her, she resigned her Senate seat in May of 2018, capping 22 years in that body, and was sworn in as lieutenant governor.
Fischbach has deep roots in the right to life movement. Not only is her husband executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, she is the daughter of Darla St. Martin, a legend in the right-to-life movement, who has served as co-executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Scott’s family was also active in the pro-life movement. “We were both raised in pro-life homes,” Michelle says, “and we were taught respect for human life and, when you respect human life so many other things fall in place.” Michelle was born and raised in Minnesota. She attended the College of St. Benedict, a Catholic college in St. Joseph, Minn. She transferred to St. Cloud State University, where she earned a B.A. in economics and political science. She later earned a law degree from the William Mitchell School of Law in St. Paul.
Michelle and Scott, also a St. Cloud State grad, met in 1984, when both were working on the campaign of the U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Rudy Boschwitz. It was the senator who set them up on a first date. It was a lunch date. At some point, Scott realized to his horror that he had left his wallet behind. “Scott tells the story better than I do,” says Michelle, laughing. “It’s gotten better over the years.” Michelle paid for lunch but liked Scott anyway.
The Fischbachs married in 1987 and settled in Scott’s hometown of Paynesville, a small town (population: 2,503 in 2019) near the center of the state. They have two grown children and several grandchildren.
Michelle’s political career began when she became angry about a local issue affecting Paynesville. Scott suggested that she run for the City Council. Taking him to heart, she announced her candidacy and won. She’d always been interested in politics, but had not expected to enter elected office. When a special election was called in her state senate district, Fischbach threw her hat in the ring and won. She remained in the Senate until her appointment as lieutenant governor.
When looking at prospects for 2020, Republicans, both in Minnesota and nationally, believed they had a good chance to flip Minnesota’s 7th district last year and needed a strong candidate to accomplish that. The incumbent was Collin Peterson, who was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990. One of the last of the Blue Dog Democrats, the 15-term Congressman had a history of tacking more conservative than his party. He was Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, which counts for a lot in a rural district such as Minnesota’s 7th.
Even though the district was growing increasingly red, picking off a popular incumbent was no sure thing. Peterson stressed his Washington clout, while Fischbach talked about law and order and “firing” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Minnesota has been a cornerstone in the Democratic Party’s Blue Wall, but none other than FiveThirtyEight, suggested that Minnesota might be the next state to go red. It didn’t happen last year, but troubling signs for Democrats may be on the horizon, according to the FiveThirtyEight item.
Candidates love to talk about small donors, and Michelle has a very favorite small donor: her granddaughter Ava sent her a dollar for her campaign.
Indeed, in the end, Peterson’s party affiliation (coupled with Fischbach’s political skills) may have been what did him in. “This is a conservative district,” comments Fischbach. “This is a red district that Trump won by 30 points in 2016, and 29 points in 2020. “And I think that the voters of the 7th district saw what the Democrats were doing on the national level and wanted to see a change. And they were willing to vote to make that change happen.”
Candidates love to talk about small donors, and Michelle has a very favorite small donor: her granddaughter Ava sent her a dollar for her campaign. “My daughter told me later that the dollar was a very big deal because Ava does not part with money very easily. So it was a very generous donation that she sent me.” The self-proclaimed “rules geek” adds: “Of course we actually can’t accept it because she’s under 18, but I asked her if I could keep it so I could have the letter and the dollar framed. So that’s what we’re doing with it.” Ava agreed and it will adorn Fischbach’s congressional office.
Rep. Michelle Fischbach may be just what the doctor ordered for the U.S. Congress—a “Roberts Rules of Order”-toting grandmother who is never afraid to stand up for what she believes.