Meet the Woman Who’s Poised to Become America’s First Openly Gay Senator

By Cassie Murdoch

With all the War on Women madness that’s been going on in politics lately, we’ve been banging our heads against hard surfaces with an alarming regularity. But every once in a while, it’s nice to take a break from self-inflicted concussions and instead focus on the good people in the world.

One of those people is Tammy Baldwin, longtime Democratic Congresswoman from Wisconsin and now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. I spoke to Baldwin about her experiences on the frontlines of the War on Women and about where we go from here, and let me tell you, if everyone in Congress could be like Tammy, we’d be in far better shape. But before we go cloning her, let’s get to know her a little bit first.

I grew up in Madison, which is in the center of Baldwin’s congressional district, and I’ve watched her at work since she first ran for Congress in 1998, but I’d never talked to her before our recent chat. The first thing I noticed on the phone was how serene her voice sounded. It reminded me of the same kind of reasoned, unflappable tone that many teachers have, and it was oddly soothing to listen to her. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was saying all of the rational things about women’s issues you long to hear from politicians but they so rarely say.

To me, there is something quintessentially Midwestern about her: She’s polite, she’s reasonable, she’s serious, and she’s incredibly hardworking. And that’s exactly what you want in someone who’s being sent to Washington to look after all of the things that are important to you and your family. Since coming to the House in 1999, she’s become known as a dedicated advocate for women, for progressive values, and for the people in her district. What’s more, she earned a reputation for being civil and fair. Even if you don’t always agree with her, you respect her. Politically, she’s one of the most liberal members in the entire House, and yet she’s able to get along with all kinds of people and—shock of shocks!—to get things done amidst the bitter partisan divide that seems to dominate Congress these days. For instance, did you know she worked together with Michele Bachmann to build a bridge, literally, between Wisconsin and Minnesota? It can be done, people.

Good thing too, since she’s running to fill the senate seat left open by Democratic Senator Herb Kohl’s retirement. If she’s elected she’ll become, at the tender age of 50, the first female senator from Wisconsin and also the country’s first openly gay senator. No pressure! She’ll also be a very powerful ally in the fight to protect the rights of women from being hacked to death by axe-wielding Republicans. So you’ll want to get onboard the Tammy train now, that way if and when she hits the Senate you can say you knew her way back when.

Speaking of bitter divides, I was particularly interested to get Baldwin’s take on what the so-called War on Women has looked like from the inside. The short answer is that it looks even more terrifying up close. But the good news is that every time she spoke about her own views it was like a breath of fresh air. But before we get to the refreshing breeze part, let’s let Baldwin recount a terrifying tale from the belly of the beast (aka the House of Representatives).

Cast yourselves back to this past fall, when most of us weren’t yet focused on the so-called conscience exemptions that later came to be an issue with the Blunt amendment. She explained that the Republican majority looked like they were going to try to push through a very broad conscience exemption to the Affordable Care Act, which essentially said that anybody in the health care arena could refuse to provide services if they had a religious or moral objection to providing it. (Eek!) Baldwin is on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, and she explains what happened when the issue came up for discussion:

We had a couple of hearings on this where I just had a chance to say, “So, would somebody be able to refuse to provide fertility services to a single woman who wanted to become pregnant and have a family because they morally objected to single people having children? Yes or no. Would somebody be able to refuse HIV/AIDS services to somebody who they believed to be gay because they had some sort of moral objection to homosexuality and prejudice against people because of the sexual orientation? […] You know, all of these things. And, of course, that comes down to what about the people who refuse to fill a prescription for birth control? What about folks who can basically object to anything they want for almost any reason. And that’s how broad this has gotten, that’s how out of the mainstream this debate is.

Aren’t you glad there was somebody there who was willing to ask those “what if” questions before the rest of us were even paying attention? But, obviously, it’s going to take more than just paying attention. As Baldwin explained,

Really for the last year and a half before a lot of it was being discussed on nightly television, we’ve been preparing for this battle, and I’ve been on the front lines of it and that’s sort of the perspective from the inside is they’re serious, they really want to push this stuff. And we have to wake up to be prepared.

Of course, this stuff has now landed on nightly television, and we’re awake—WIDE awake. I asked her about how it all devolved so quickly, with things like Rush Limbaugh’s comments on Sandra Fluke, the backlash against Planned Parenthood, and the general backwards thinking of the Republicans, and what it all means. She answered,

It’s so many distinct issues that come together in a way that’s just beyond the pale. […] You start to look at all of these things in the aggregate, and it is just a complete disregard and disrespect for women and women’s ability to make important life choices in consultation with the people they most trust: their families, their clergy, their doctors, whomever they want to consult in those important life decisions.

Yes, thank you—and Baldwin should know. While many people in Congress are dealing with these issues on a national level, she’s had the unfortunate experience of having to watch it all unfold on the state level too. Why? Because of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is now facing a recall election because he’s pissed so many people off. I asked her why she thought Walker and his Republican friends had targeted so many issues that were anti-woman, and her answer was simple: It’s a divide and conquer strategy. He started with labor, pitting union families against non-union families, when he stripped union members of their rights to bargain collectively—a move that resulted in massive protests at the state capitol that lasted for weeks, and where Tammy herself turned up to lend her voice. And, she says, he’s continued from there, picking issues that will divide people and peel them off, which she calls, “A cynical agenda and very disappointing.”

The fight to protect women’s rights against this onslaught has entered into Baldwin’s own race, where she’s currently squaring off against a number of Republican candidates. (The Republican primary will take place in August.) As she puts it,

In the case of my senate race, we have these four guys who are basically embracing all of these ludicrous proposals and attacking me for having trust in American women and Wisconsin women to make important life decisions on their own.

While their approach might not play well with women voters in November, this will by no means be an easy election for Baldwin. She comes from a liberal Congressional district, but now she’s got to appeal to the whole state, which is very politically diverse. Wisconsin is a swing state, and this election will help determine control of the Senate; so it’s of great national importance, and a lot of people are watching what happens. Again, no pressure.

To give you an idea of what Wisconsin is capable of electing, the other senator from Wisconsin is Ron Johnson, the fine gentleman who suggested women use Google to find affordable birth control for themselves. So, the thought of balancing him out with someone like Baldwin, who decidedly does not advocate replacing health care providers with search engines, is very enticing.

When I asked Baldwin what she was hearing from people as she campaigned around the state, you won’t be surprised to hear that most people care a lot more about things like jobs and whether they’ll be able to pay their mortgage than they do about things like whether Planned Parenthood is getting government money. She told me that the two most common things she hears are that people want someone to fight for them in Washington, and they want to know what’s up with her colleagues—why is the government almost shutting down? Why are they coming within days of letting the payroll tax cut for the middle class expire? That kind of thing. Totally fair questions. She also says people have had enough of the political games. They want people who are serious and can get the job done. (Yes, please!) And, so this is the pitch she makes for why she’s the woman for the job:

That’s why I’m running, because I’m that person. I have been unafraid to take on powerful interests when I believe that’s right for the people, and I’m getting a great response from that. … I stood up to Wall Street and voted against the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. I stood up to George W. Bush and voted no on going into war in Iraq. In the health care debate, I fought for the amendment—I offered the amendment in committee—that allows young people to stay on their parent’s health insurance until they’re 26 years old. The big health insurance companies didn’t like me for that fight. Wall Street didn’t like me for the Glass-Steagall fight. But that’s not what it’s about. There are sometimes things that are just a matter of right or wrong, and you’ve got to stand up even if the opposition is powerful.

Boom! She sounds badass but in the most reasonable sounding way. And, as much as it is a campaign sound bite, it’s not just talk—it’s the truth, which is more than a lot of people running for office these days, even Democrats, can say.

While she may not back down from a worthy fight, she’s certainly not out there trying to gin up controversy—because she’s too busy actually getting things done. And what exactly is she doing? Well, so much that it makes you feel like a real slouch if you really dig into it. For starters, providing access to healthcare for everyone is one of her biggest missions, and she’s pushed again and again for what she calls “common-sense health care solutions.” Ah, common sense. Why does that sound like such a revolutionary concept? She’s all for reducing our dependence on foreign oil and investing in renewable fuels and clean energy technology. Oh, and she’s sponsoring the Paying a Fair Share Act in the House, better known as the “Buffet Rule,” which would ensure that the wealthiest taxpayers would share the same tax burden as the middle-class. Take that, gajillionaires.

One of the most admirable things about Tammy is that she’s not just busy defending the rights that Republicans are trying to take away, she’s focused on ensuring that women’s protections under the law are expanded and that we gain full equality. To that end, she’s a member of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues. She’s a ardent defender of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). She supported the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And she also recently introduced legislation to speed the ratification of Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Not too shabby.

When it comes to advancing equality, Tammy is a living example. She’s a big believer that, as she puts it, “Where one sits is where one stands.” In other words, she knows that women having seats at the table matters. And she’s worked her ass off to get a seat at any number of important tables, from the State Assembly to the House of Representatives.

To understand how far Baldwin has come, it helps to know that she was raised in Madison by her grandparents, after her mother, who was just 19 when Tammy was born, could not care for her. Baldwin graduated from Smith College, and took an internship in then Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl’s administration. While there, she worked on an initiative to secure equal pay for women, and she told me that experience really stuck with her and taught her how important it was to legislate on behalf of women. She went on to law school, and then was elected to State Assembly in 1993. In 1998, she won her seat in the House of Representatives. At the time, she was a trailblazer because she was both the first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to the House. But since then she’s become much more than just a pioneer.

Now she’s fighting to get one of the 100 seats in the United States Senate, and she knows having a voice in that elite room matters, both as a woman and as a lesbian. Being the first openly gay senator, especially, is a big deal, and she recognizes the impact it will have:

I do think it will make a very big difference to shatter that glass ceiling in the U.S. Senate. A friend of mine comments that whether you have allies there or not—and clearly the LGBT community has lots of allies in the U.S. Senate—if you are not in the room, people are talking about you, not with you, and that changes the conversation.

She’s also aware that her presence has a symbolic impact for young gay people, giving them hope that coming out won’t limit their aspirations, that they too could run for office or do whatever it was they wanted to do. She says,

From that perspective, it’s powerfully important, but you know […] Wisconsinites aren’t going to be thinking about that particular aspect when they go to the polls in November. They’re going to say, “Who is fighting for us? Who’s going to help our state grow again and our economy get back on track?

She’s right, and she’s so well known around Wisconsin for being good at her job that her sexual orientation and her being a woman, which could be controversial, are really non-issues. So, in that sense, she is a thoroughly modern candidate—even if her rational approach and civility seem old-fashioned when compared with some of her more egregious colleagues.

Yet, as much as her gender and her sexual orientation don’t really factor into getting her elected, they certainly do inform the job she does once she’s there. And that’s the reason she thinks it’s important not just for her to be there but for lots of other women to join her. For instance, Tammy remarked on the issue of pay equity, “If we had more than 17 women in the Senate, maybe we wouldn’t be a making 77 cents for every dollar [earned by a man].” Wouldn’t that be something.

Still, things have changed a great deal for women in Congress since Tammy first entered the House in 1999. She told me about how it’s looked from her vantage point. When she arrived the Republicans were in charge and there weren’t any women close to being chairs of any committees, but things changed quickly and, as it turned out, Tammy was in an excellent position to watch history being made:

Nancy Pelosi was preparing for her first run for leadership in my second term. When it became clear that the Whip’s position would become open, and she started in that leadership race, I was one of her early supporters. I felt like I learned both vote counting and organizing from the pro. So I was part of her, what we call the whip team, to help her be elected Whip of the Democratic party, and then Minority Leader, and then, ultimately, Speaker of the House of Representatives. […] So during the time that I’ve been here, I’ve seen remarkable changes. I’ve seen a situation where there was no woman eligible to be a chairwoman of a committee to seeing several serving that role, and then a woman Speaker of the House of Representative, third in line for the presidency. It’s just been remarkable.

Excuse me, let me just wipe these goosebumps off my arms…. So, part of the reason women have been able to make so much progress in Congress is that they make a point of working together. The Daily Beast recently wrote about the regular bipartisan dinners the women in the Senate hold, and I asked Tammy if she’s had any similar experiences in her career. She told me that lady camaraderie abounds, much to the chagrin of male legislators:

When I was in the state legislature, there was a bipartisan, bicameral women’s dinner. It was usually once a month, and it was Republican and Democratic woman who would organize these, and they were fabulous. It was always so funny because […] every time the guys heard we were going for dinner together and that was both senators and representatives, and it was both Republicans and Democrats, it was like, “Well, what do you guys talk about?” and we would just look at them and say, “Well, you, of course…. Come on!” And they were like, if you’re going to have a women’s caucus, we might have to form a men’s caucus. And we would always respond, “Come on, it’s called the Assembly and the Senate. You don’t need a caucus, you have one already.”

As for her experience with what could be her future colleagues in the Senate, she says,

I’m getting to know all of the women senators as I’ve been launching this campaign, at least the Democrats, and they talk about that group and they say many of the same things. First of all, the guys kind of say, “What do you guys talk about?” And I think, they have a similar retort. […] It’s also a bonding experience for them, and it allows them to do things across party aisles and get things done for the people, and it’s valuable for each of their state’s constituencies too.

The idea of male senators getting all nosy about what a bunch of women senators are saying about them is certainly an interesting (and amusing) thought. But you know what’s even more interesting? A bunch of women quietly working together to make things happen—and that is the opposite of what we mostly associate with the gridlocked, partisan U.S. Senate these days. The idea that we could have a woman like Baldwin added into the mix is exciting. And not just because she’s a woman, because she’s smart and she works hard to do what she believes in.

Speaking of working hard, that’s pretty much what Tammy spends all of her time doing. Such is the life of a busy Senate candidate. But when she does have a few free moments, I asked her how she likes to relax. She said she watches news shows on PBS, The Good Wife, and she’s a huge fan of Saturday Night Live. When she’s at home in Madison, she likes to cook big dinners for friends. She’s also a sucker for a good scone recipe. As any Wisconsinite can tell you, a person’s favorite local food and drink can reveal a lot. So, in an effort to test Tammy’s Wisconsin credibility, I asked her what her Wisconsin delicacies of choice were. Fortunately, she gave what I consider to be some of the best possible answers: Chocolate truffles from Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier in Madison and Spotted Cow beer from New Glarus Brewing Co. (She gets bonus points for choosing two women-owned businesses.) She also, thank God, is a big fan of cheese. If she wasn’t, she’d probably stand no chance of being elected. She told me she’s been able to visit some of the state’s cheesemakers while she’s been campaigning, so don’t go feeling too sorry for her that she’s having to work all the time—because it comes with a side of delicious dairy.

While we were chit-chatting about her hobbies, she made an offhand joke about how boring she was, and after we hung up, it got me thinking. On one level, Baldwin is boring, but in the best possible way: She’s a normal person, who behaves like a sane human being, and she is good at her job. There’s no drama, no trouble being stirred up at every turn. But then when you consider everything she’s accomplished and where she sits now, the power she could soon be holding, she is anything but boring. She’s exciting, she’s inspiring, she’s promising, but definitely not boring. We’ll have to wait and see if the voters of Wisconsin are smart enough to elect her to the Senate, but for now when the esteemed gentlemen of the Republican party are getting you down, remind yourself that there are people like Tammy Baldwin in Washington doing their best to fight a War for Women instead of one against us.

Tammy Baldwin for U.S. Senate [Official Campaign]
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin [House Site]

Originally published on Jezebel. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

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