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

Shattering glass ceilings is becoming routine for Tammy Baldwin. The first out person to serve in the U.S. Senate, Baldwin's résumé consists of a long list of ''firsts.'' In 1993, she became the first out lesbian member of the Wisconsin State Assembly. In 1998, she became the first out gay person elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin. And last November, aside from becoming the Senate's first out member, she also became the first woman to represent Wisconsin in the upper chamber.

''I didn't run to make history,'' Baldwin told a crowded room of supporters on election night after her Senate victory in November. ''I ran to make a difference."

Tammy Baldwin

Tammy Baldwin

(Photo by Todd Franson)

Five months later, Baldwin is making a difference. She has become an icon for the LGBT movement, but has not forgotten those she has been elected to represent. As the highest-profile gay elected official in the country, she is also positioned in a unique place – from which she watches new colleagues rush to endorse equality as the Supreme Court considers two landmark same-sex marriage cases.

Speaking to Metro Weekly in her Capitol Hill office a few hours after she sat inside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in the case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, the 51-year-old Baldwin says she hasn't lost sight of the goals she had when she first ran for the Dane County Board of Supervisors in 1986. While Congress was on recess, the DOMA arguments brought her back to D.C., Baldwin said.

''When given the opportunity, it was something that I thought I can't pass up.''

Indeed, Baldwin's career has proven that the senator knows how to seize an opportunity – and run with it.

METRO WEEKLY: What did you think about some of the questions and comments that were made in the Supreme Court today?

TAMMY BALDWIN: I haven't seen all the coverage on yesterday's [Proposition 8] arguments, because I was back in the state in meetings all day. I sort of go into it with three perspectives: an openly gay person who has been fighting for marriage equality for decades; an attorney – and probably that was what was the most fascinating aspect for me, having once in my practice done oral arguments before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which was the highest I ever got; and then as a House member, listening to all the aspects about the fact that it was the [House's Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group] that is defending DOMA when both parties to the case actually want the same outcome.

So it was fascinating on all those levels. And I'd never gone to a Supreme Court case oral arguments before, so it was a first in that regard. It was great.

I've learned from listening to analysis of previous oral arguments you don't take the questions to get necessarily a sense of where the justices are going. I heard conservative justices ask questions that would've made me think they were going in a different direction than I would predict otherwise, and the same with more liberal members of the court. There were moments of levity that I wasn't necessarily expecting. It was watching a piece of history.

MW: What do you think it says that we're at a point where the Supreme Court is weighing this issue of whether or not two people who are of the same sex can get married?

BALDWIN: Certainly the court takes up cases that are unique and rare and not widely discussed, but it is interesting how quickly in recent years public opinion has changed. I just think of how much has happened in the last few years. It wasn't so many years ago that no state recognized marriage equality and now we're at nine and the District of Columbia, and others on the verge. The change has been really rapid and perhaps it's a really good point that the Supreme Court is weighing in.

MW: Also happening now is Whitman-Walker Health honoring you as a ''Partner for Life.''

BALDWIN: I am so humbled by that. First of all, I'm just a huge fan of the work that they do. They've been so pioneering and helped policy makers throughout the years develop sane policies and think about issues that they wouldn't necessarily think about because they're not there on the front lines serving people who have lots of barriers to access, and disparities in their access and outcomes that wouldn't necessarily be known if there aren't people out there fighting and advocating for them.

One of the personal things, [in 1986 when I ran for the Dane County Board of Supervisors,] that was the year that the first HIV/AIDS cases were reported in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin it was literally a story of people coming home to die because that was the progression. And I was in my first year of public office and thinking about, ''What can we do to do this right, because we've seen so many communities get it wrong?'' The epidemic of fear that accompanies a medical epidemic, getting a chance to educate our community to offer early education to folks in county government -- the public health department, the social work staff that's going to be visiting families….

That's sort of right when I came into public life and got a chance to play a leadership role in my home community. It's where a lot of my passions come together -- health care, civil rights, education -- all of that kind of came together, so this is really special because it brings me back to where everything started.

MW: You were in the House for quite a while and you've been in the Senate for a few months now. How are you adjusting to the new chamber?

BALDWIN: I love my job. I feel very honored to get a chance to do what I get to do. The differences are many. The first starts at home: the idea of representing the whole state of Wisconsin rather than a district whose boundaries change every 10 years and are somewhat arbitrary. It's amazing and I love my state. I like that undertaking of being there for all the people of Wisconsin, not just this piece that's been cut out of it by mapmakers.

Here, the most notable difference that I think most people point to is just it's a much smaller body, so there's capacity for those willing to really get to know one's colleagues and, across ideological lines, get to find and search for common ground. That opportunity is abundant here. And it's the way in which I think I work best and so it's something I'm really excited about moving forward. Already that process has started, but there's a long way still to go.

MW: You mentioned that the Senate's a smaller chamber and it's more tight-knit. I was wondering if you had had an opportunity to speak with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) since he announced his support for marriage equality after learning that his son is gay.

BALDWIN: Yeah, I did. I was glad to get an opportunity to share with him my gratitude that he chose to speak publicly about this. That's something he could have changed his mind and his heart about and kept it private until some moment when he had to vote on it. And he didn't. I very much respect that and wanted to let him know that I believe that act has a ripple effect. And it's a very important ripple effect.

MW: In the few days up to these Supreme Court arguments --

BALDWIN: Even this morning.

Tammy Baldwin

Tammy Baldwin

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: There have been so many moderate Democrats in the Senate who are just putting it out there and saying this is where they are on this issue.

BALDWIN: It's quite remarkable.

MW: What do you think it says that this is something elected officials can now go out there and say this is something they now believe in?

BALDWIN: It says a lot of things, among them that sometimes when you're a leader and in the public light, you do things and take positions because they're right, not because they're going to win an election or win you political favor. And I think this is such a moment and I'm really proud of them.

MW: Some of the senators who have come out for marriage equality in the past week or so have faced criticism that they're being opportunistic. Some criticized Sen. Portman because they said that he only cares about this issue now because it directly affects his family. What do you make of those criticisms?

BALDWIN: I believe that gay family members, gay neighbors, coworkers, distant cousins, fellow congregants at church — I think Harvey Milk was right: Come out, come out wherever you are, and that's how you're going to change the world.

In many ways, I think Sen. Portman's journey is very similar to how President Obama articulated his journey on the issue of marriage equality and how most Americans have dealt with this issue. So I think it's very reflective and I hope more people get the chance to take that journey.

MW: For Wisconsin, is marriage equality something that will get there one day?

BALDWIN: One day. I don't think it'll be tomorrow. Wisconsin is such an interesting state with regard to civil rights generally, and LGBT rights in particular. You may or may not know that Wisconsin was the first state to pass a nondiscrimination statute on the basis of sexual orientation, banning discrimination in employment, public accommodations and education in – guess the year.

MW: 1980-something?

BALDWIN: '82. Signed into law by a Republican governor. It took seven years for the next state to pass one, and that was Massachusetts in 1989.

So, you know, wow. Remarkable. Wisconsin. And there wasn't really at the time any sort of statewide activist group. It was a remarkable chain of events that led to that. And then in 2006 it was one of the states to pass a referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. I've seen Wisconsin citizens grapple with these things over the years. I don't think it's easy to typecast our state.

In the year following the constitutional amendment, the state passed a domestic-partnership registry with a very limited set of rights and responsibilities associated with it. But our constitutional amendment was one of the ones that said marriage is between a man and a woman and the state can't pass any substantially similar laws affording rights to same-sex couples. And so we just had reviews of the domestic-partnership registry and basically they've come to the conclusion that it bears no substantial similarity to the institution of marriage, so it's fine. So we're a state with a domestic-partnership registry and a constitutional amendment.

I think Wisconsin will be a state where we see progress in future years, but it will be slow. And the undertaking of repealing a constitutional amendment is a big undertaking. Every state has a different process for amending their constitution. In our state it requires two successive legislatures to act on the same identical language, then it goes on the ballot and it's put to a popular vote, which requires a majority. But two successive legislatures, that means you have to have the legislative leadership. Today we don't. So it's not happening tomorrow.

MW: You've been involved in some other key issues. You're a co-sponsor of a bill that recently passed committee on organ donations for people who are HIV-positive. With a slew of LGBT issues out there, do you think marriage has gotten too much focus?

BALDWIN: It's so interesting. I think that to the degree that there's a movement it's for full equality in every dimension, and yet one focuses strongly where there's opportunities. It wasn't so long ago that the biggest focus around was repeal of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'' because there was promise and opportunity that that could happen, that it could happen legislatively, that the folks who would be charged with implementing that were committed to doing so, because certainly you can pass something and have it fail in the implementation.

So there was an array of things, and I think you're seeing that moment in the fight for marriage equality. At the same time, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the legislative focus at the national level quickly moves to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and [nondiscrimination] executive order that we hope the president will undertake on federal contractors.

And when you look at the states, what opportunities exist there, for different states, different localities that answer is different. I think it's a convergence of obvious areas in which we lack full equality and full civil rights, and the opportunity to actually make progress on them.

I would point to another one that I suspect will also capture a lot of our attention and effort, and that is safer schools and communities for LGBT youth, whether that's student nondiscrimination statements or policies or anti-bullying and harassment programs. Even in a Congress where one house is controlled by tea party-animated folks, something like that could move.

MW: You mentioned ENDA. You sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, which oversees ENDA. What's your read of the prospects for that bill?

BALDWIN: I'm heartened by, first of all, Chairman [Tom] Harkin's (D-Iowa) saying he intends to have a hearing, he intends to have a markup of the bill and report it out of committee. That's very exciting. I know there's still work to be done before that process starts in terms of getting the bill into final form before introduction, but I think that's great. To be on the committee that works on it is very exciting.

In the House I was on the Judiciary Committee for many years, not the whole time I was there. So, I got to be on the committee as we were going through the process of marking up the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes [Prevention Act], it was kind of like being in the oral arguments this morning. I felt like, ''This is history unfolding right in this room,'' and it was really fascinating.

MW: When there is a person in the room who is gay, who's talking about something that affects other gay people, does that change the game?

BALDWIN: There's no question. You know, I always said during the campaign, when you're not in the room the conversation's about you and when you're in the room the conversation is with you.

Some of what happens is much more subtle, as where my new colleagues are getting to know me and they feel comfortable enough asking questions about my own life experiences -- Have I faced discrimination? Have I faced this that or the other things? -- that they have their ''Aha'' moments. But it doesn't necessarily happen immediately around the debate on [ENDA]. It might happen in other ways, which I think is great. I certainly think it makes a difference.

You probably remember my history in the House as one of the co-chairs of the LGBT Equality Caucus. We took on the responsibility of counting the votes as things were maybe headed to the floor, so we could tell the leadership if we had the votes. Unlike most whipping operations, it was bipartisan. We were talking to any Republican we thought we could get on board.

For some of them the thing that's moving to them is those stories from their constituents. It matters when it comes from their constituents. But, interestingly on ENDA, a lot of the persuasive arguments for some – especially folks who are more fiscal conservatives – is hearing from their business community about how, ''We've had a [nondiscrimination] policy for 15 years and we have it because we want to be able to attract the best talent for our organization. We want to be globally competitive and we want a happy and productive workforce,'' and whatever it is. And they're kind of going, ''Aha, well I guess we should want that for the federal government and we should want that for America.'' It really varies what the persuasion point is for various officeholders and policymakers.

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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