Senate Star

As America's first gay senator, Tammy Baldwin lights the way

Interview by Justin Snow
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on April 11, 2013, 5:08am | Comments

(Page 3 of 3)

MW: You were in the House not very long ago. What's your forecast for ENDA if it does get out of committee? How do you think it would fare in the House?

BALDWIN: I have to say, given the current leadership composition of the House, I don't think it goes anywhere. We've seen some victories I'm really excited about, like a [Violence Against Women Act] that is for the first time inclusive of programs that will help people in the LGBT community and Native Americans, etc. And how did that get through a House that's so resistant? Well, that was, I fear, an exception to the general rule, which is if they don't have a majority of the majority caucus supporting something they're not going to let it to the floor. And I don't see that changing in the near future.

But I do know from my time in the House there was significant Republican support for ENDA. Not anywhere close to a majority of the majority, but enough that I think if the House were to flip control there'd be no problem in passing it. And you could get to a different composition of Republicans in the House in later years where I think it could move even under their leadership. But not with the current leadership composition.

The other thing I would say that gives me hope that you could pass it even with a Republican held House, but again with not as much tea party-inspired leadership there, is the analysis that the Republican Party did of itself after the 2012 election, questioning the areas in which it was relevant and seemingly irrelevant. And the fact that they sort of said, ''We're losing big on this issue,'' may give some rise to change their views for political reasons.

And, frankly, we talked about the different motivations. You're asking about changing one's mind because a family member came out. Frankly, as someone who counts votes and wants to have a majority, if they come to the right decision for political consideration, that's okay with me too. We'll welcome them. We'll take their vote.

MW: You also mentioned the executive order. What's your take on why the president hasn't signed that?

BALDWIN: I don't have any sense on what his advisors are saying or their timeline. I just know that I've added my voice to those who would like to see him sign it and want to continue expressing that sentiment to the administration

MW: Have you gotten any signals from them that this is something they are reconsidering?

BALDWIN: I'm not aware of having received a response to the letter where I signed on with 37 senators urging him to do that. And I haven't had a direct opportunity to speak with the president since that time.

He's used questions about the executive order as a way of using his bully pulpit to say, ''Congress must act on this,'' because, obviously, executive orders are, to a certain degree, tenuous. A future occupant of the White House with the stroke of the pen can reverse those. Now, that doesn't tend to happen.

I was in the House when President [George W.] Bush took office and there had been a Clinton-signed executive order extending workplace protections to federal employees on the basis of sexual orientation and I remember a hearing in the Judiciary Committee where we said, ''Do you plan on upholding that?'' And they said, ''Yeah.'' It wasn't a long back and forth. They just said, ''Yeah.'' So it doesn't necessarily mean you would go back or have a future executive make another decision, but that risk exists.

MW: You came to Congress in 1999. Have you noticed a change in the partisan tone and the tone on gay rights?

BALDWIN: I would say a positive trajectory on one and a negative trajectory on another. Prior to my time in Congress, I served in the state Legislature and local government. I think there's a lot of agreement that things have become a lot more partisan over that course of years and even rooted in the decades before and they point to a lot of reasons for that unfortunate trend.

In Washington and in the state legislature I think a lot of it had to do with expectations that elected representatives come home every time they're not in session, come home to their districts and spend time with the people who sent them there, which means friendships aren't developing among members who serve together. Their only time together is when they're at loggerheads, when they're in the heat of debate. And I think the same is true of state legislatures.

In a previous era that didn't happen. I think friendships helped divide between the colorful debate and the ability to work together in other contexts. I certainly think that 24/7 news cycle has contributed to that. People who served in the days before 24-hour television coverage really talk about a different time there, too. And there's all sorts of other contributing factors. Things like the tea party movement have all contributed to a breakdown of comity. I find that unfortunate.

With regard to the views of members of Congress and in the previous bodies that I've served on LGBT equality, civil rights, I've seen things go in a positive trajectory. I think that, in part, has to do with what we were talking about earlier, increasing visibility of individuals and families in the LGBT community helping change the hearts and minds of people who then enter elective office. It's small acts of leadership, not necessarily big acts of leadership.

MW: You sort of have rock-star status among the LGBT community.

BALDWIN: [Laughs.]

MW: On election night there were people who seemed more excited you were elected to the Senate than the president was re-elected. Do you think you fully realize or appreciate this role that you have in the history of the movement?

BALDWIN: You can't fully. There's no way. I get these reminders. I describe it as a ripple effect, and you don't know the shores where all those ripples end up. But every so often one becomes very apparent.

I think about in the days after the election, just being around Wisconsin, and supporters coming up and just bursting into tears when they see me. [Laughs.] And it wasn't a bad bursting into tears, it was a good bursting into tears. But I never thought I'd live to see this day. Letters people wrote me, three pages, handwritten, saying, ''I was born before Stonewall.'' Youth who are in hostile communities who think they have a more limited future because they're coming out as gay and who read about it, maybe from a great distance and write and say, ''Wow. All the possibilities are open.''

And there's countless other times, even just being the first woman from the state to go to the U.S. Senate. I ran into dads with two young daughters who said, ''I am so excited for them that you were elected.'' They might not have even voted for me, but there's that impact also. So you get those glimmers of the impact. But I haven't changed.

I'm still the same gal who ran for the Dane County Board of Supervisors in my 20s because I wanted to work on health care and all sorts of things.

The Whitman-Walker Health spring fundraiser, ''Be the Care,'' honoring Sen. Tammy Baldwin as Partner for Life, is Thursday, April 18, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. Tickets, $150, may be purchased online at

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