A Seat at the Table

State Representative Mark Pocan examines the pivotal moments in his life and how they’ve shaped his commitment to using his elected positions to effect change.

While you might not realize it at the time, there are moments in your life that are pivotal. Upon reflection, those key moments in our lives shape us into the people we are today. For me, it started when I came to UW–Madison as a freshman. I hadn’t really come out yet, at least not to myself. I knew something was different, but didn’t fully understand what. But it didn’t take long that freshman year to find myself working with the Young Democrats on campus to collect petitions for the non-discrimination bill circulating that session.

That was the bill that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, which was authored by then-State Rep. David Clarenbach. The bill passed and was the first in the nation to place non-discrimination language into state statutes for gays and lesbians. Since then, it has been replicated in states across the country. Who would have known at the time that it would have national implications?

I collected signatures on petitions back home in Kenosha on the weekends because our local legislators were undecided on the issue. My father was a longtime member of the City Council there, and I had worked on political campaigns with him and others, but I never did issue advocacy like that.

I didn’t really know it then, but I was quickly becoming an activist, even though I didn’t exactly know all the reasons why.

It was that beginning in advocacy that started a lot for me. It pushed me to eventually come out—most importantly to myself—and it nudged me into a life of politics. It was one of those pivotal moments in my life.

Gay Bashed

After I graduated from college, I started a business (Budget Signs & Specialties) at age 23, which I still own today. I started it in a couple of small offices in the basement of a building on the Capitol Square. At that time, real estate downtown was about as cheap and empty as you could get. I worked really long hours putting a lot of sweat equity into my business, and wasn’t quite active yet in the LGBTQ community.

However, that all changed one night when I was followed by two men as I left a gay bar and was beaten by them with a baseball bat. They called me a “faggot” and other names and left me unconscious and bloody on the street. I was embarrassed. Not because I was beaten, but because I felt so unable to defend myself and express my outrage over the inhumanity of the hate crime.

That was a second pivotal moment. From then on, I would do everything I could so that something like that would never happen again to anyone. I started getting active with OutReach’s predecessor, The United. I joined the board of the Madison Gay/Lesbian Resource Center. I was one of the main organizers of the “You Make a Difference” day business fundraiser for the AIDS Network (formerly MASN). I also helped form the first LGBTQ business group in the area.

Having a Seat at the Table

One of the things I learned early in my activism was the importance of getting involved. While I was active in political campaigns growing up, it was more important than ever to me as an adult to get involved and fight for my values. But to fight for those values often required being in a position of being heard.

There is a famous quote that says, “If you are not at the table, you are likely on the menu.” What that means is that no matter how much someone who agrees with you might try to represent you, having the unique experience of being you and being where decisions are made means volumes more. All too often, if you aren’t part of the decision making, you will likely get left out, or worse yet, get served on the menu.

My Life in Politics

Soon I learned to combine my activism and my political beliefs, and I ran for the Dane County Board of Supervisors, a local office I held for three terms. I had the privilege of serving with then-County Board Member Tammy Baldwin. We’ve been friends ever since. Former County Board Chairman Dick Wagner was a mentor to both Tammy and me—a reasonable voice who advocated for working with others and achieving results. In many ways, this was the final catalyst for me to start a life in government service.

After Rep. Scott Klug announced he wouldn’t run for Congress, State Rep. Tammy Baldwin quickly got in the race. I was excited for her, but also realized we would be losing one of the few national LGBTQ political voices in state legislatures across the nation.

I quickly called a few people and asked them to run for the legislature. I was turned down. Instead, each encouraged me to run. Eventually, I decided that was the path I should take and ran for her legislative seat, while helping try to make history—getting Tammy elected to Congress.

And history we made. Tammy won. I won. And I started my career in the legislature.

Since 1998, I have run and been reelected a total of seven times. I’m proud of what I have gotten done over the years: the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims bill, the Wisconsin American Jobs Act (banned outsourcing with taxpayer dollars), and a bill requiring all electronic voting machines to have paper ballots that were the official ballot of record, to name a few.

I also helped expand healthcare to every child in Wisconsin and extend health benefits to childless adults who received state assistance, moves that made Wisconsin a state with one of the greatest percent of health care coverage in the nation. I fought for working families and supported organized labor. And I was always a strong advocate for the environment.

However, Wisconsin for way too long had abandoned its progressive tradition toward the LGBTQ population. We may have paved the path for the original non-discrimination law, but since then it had been all downhill. I watched the constitutional amendment process unfold, where despite growing support from Democrats, unions, communities of faith, and others, Wisconsin wrote hate into our constitution.

That’s why I resolved to make a difference where I could when I was in a position of power. Last session, when I became the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, I was determined to pass pro-equality legislation. And we did. With the strong support of Governor Jim Doyle and the hard work of Fair Wisconsin, I helped to shepherd our Domestic Partnership law and health benefits for state and university employees. And, for the first time, we were able to get funds for LGBTQ youth in Wisconsin.

It was a long time coming; the first real positive acts since 1983. But by being in a position to make important decisions, along with the support of so many others, I was able to make a difference.

That’s why it is so important to have a seat at the table, the table of decision making, to make sure we aren’t on the menu.

Losing Leadership in Congress

I am one of the many of fans of Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and I’ve been proud to help her get elected to the State Legislature and Congress. Now, I couldn’t be more excited to help elect her to the U.S. Senate. Tammy truly is what being a good public servant is all about.

But that also means Tammy is leaving Congress to go to the Senate. That means of the four openly gay or lesbian elected members of Congress, we will lose one of those few outstanding voices of equality.

Then a couple of months ago, Congressman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) announced he’d be retiring from Congress. That cut our representation in the House of Representatives in half, a place where so many decisions affecting our lives happen. But two members out of 435 is hardly representative of the population as a whole.

I love the work I’ve done in the legislature for the last 13-plus years. It has been a dream job, one in which I have had a lot of positive impact for our community and the entire state. But in politics, as in life, sometimes you have to earn a seat at a bigger table to do even more. And that’s why I decided to run for Congress.

Running for Congress

Running for Congress is a big change from my current life. I work hours that would be illegal if I worked for someone, often clocking 72–80 hours a week running for office. But I know that it is worth it. To be elected to Congress to represent the people of the Second District of Wisconsin, to fight for the middle class, those in poverty, and others who all too often are not heard, and to be one of those very few true voices for equality, is a rare honor in life.

And with that honor often comes some consequences. As I look back at my life—so much of it in politics—I hope I haven’t shortchanged those I love the most.

My husband, Phil, is an amazing person. He has compassion and values that I’ve so rarely seen in anyone I’ve met before. He runs our business, he takes care of our dog, and he is always there for me no matter what kind of day I’ve had. In 2006, right after the battle over the constitutional amendment defining marriage, Phil and I got married in Toronto. I hope a byproduct of that is to show that a few misguided words in our constitution don’t tell us whom we can love. I am so happy that he has been in my life for the last 9.5 years.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to my friends who have been shortchanged because of my time in the legislature and now my campaign for Congress. But they understand what the stakes are and the time it will take to make change. I can never thank them enough.

I am so grateful that I have in place all the elements to go to Washington, fight the dysfunction and ultimately survive, and—I hope—make progressive change.

The seat at the table I’m fighting for isn’t just mine; it is all of ours. It’s one more place that our voices can be heard and acted on. Until we have a society that respects everyone, regardless of race, religion, economic status, gender, or sexual orientation, we do not represent the real America.

And that’s what I want to do. Fight for equality and justice. Fight for the little guy, the person not represented by a lobbyist. And fight to make this country that I love a more fair and just place for everyone to live.

It’s a tall order, but it sure beats being on someone else’s menu.