Metro Weekly

Senate Star

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

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.

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.