Our Senator

As Republicans pour record amounts of money into the state for the November senate election, incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin faces perhaps her toughest reelection bid ever. The longtime Wisconsin public servant talked with Our Lives Editor Emily Mills about the race and the issues that are shaping it and why she believes it’s more important than ever to stand up and be counted.

I want to start with the overall climate of the race because there’s so much outside money coming in, and Republicans are very focused on Wisconsin. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’d say it’s a couple of things. First of all, Wisconsin has been a battleground state for a number of years. Usually even though the state has gone blue in presidential years to the presidential candidate, it’s often been really narrow. I remember Gore winning by about 5,000 votes, and Kerry by 11,000. And then in 2016 we saw Trump win by 22,000. These are very narrow margins. But I think elsewhere in Wisconsin, folks have seen Republicans make headway in statewide races. So number one, Wisconsin is truly a swing state. 

We are seeing outside money just pouring in—primarily from the Koch Brothers network and from a fellow by the name of Richard Uihlein. And I think this is because they’ve figured out that I am fighting for Wisconsinites and not for their interests. I stand up to these people from out of state, and they would rather that Wisconsin have a senator that they influence, a sort of bought-and-paid-for person. 

Do you think the election of Trump here made a difference in terms of them sort of going, “Oh, maybe there’s a shot?”

It’s hard to say. I don’t think I could hazard a guess because even without Trump’s narrow victory, the other things I said about previous years are still true. Democrats had usually won the presidential elections in Wisconsin, but often narrowly. So they could be emboldened by how close they’d gotten. And in the rest of the statewide races they’ve just kept on picking up seats, whether it’s governor, attorney general, state treasurer. So I think this could have happened without Trump, but we can’t measure that because Trump was elected. 

You’re a co-sponsor of The Equality Act. I’m curious what the status of the bill is, and what you can say about how it would help not just the LGBTQ community, but all of us in general, and what the obstacles to passage are?  

We reintroduced the bill in 2017. The lead office in the Senate, Jeff Merkley, myself, and Cory Booker, we tried to grow our support between the House and Senate sponsors. We hoped to grow it every year. I think we have a record number of cosponsors between the two houses. And in the House it is bipartisan. So there’s progress in terms of support of members of Congress, and members of the Senate. In terms of obstacles to its passage, both houses and the administration are controlled by Republicans who appear to have no appetite for allowing the bill to be debated or voted on. It hasn’t even gotten any sort of committee review or hearing. All of those things have to happen before a bill can become law. There is a lot of power in the leadership in each house. Mitch McConnell decides what comes to the floor, and Paul Ryan decides what comes to the floor. So, sadly, I think the obstacles are the Republicans in leadership who don’t want see this advance at this time. 

Since it is a fairly new measure in historical terms, meaning that we’ve introduced it two sessions in a row, I think people are still educating themselves about it. It’s a really important new approach to equality in that it basically looks back at our civil rights laws of the 1960s and says, “These also apply on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” And what it really means is that they’ll provide the full array of protection. Employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit. I can give you all sorts of other examples, but it’s so important for those who live in states, or localities, where there are no protections, or only patchwork quilt protections. It’s a really important new approach. 

The census is such an important tool for legislation and rights. Is there a connection between the push-back on The Equality Act and the lack of LGBTQ-related questions on the upcoming census?  

They were proposing to add some questions to the census that would help us get a better understanding of the LGBTQ community across America and ended up not doing so. The additional questions could have helped the census do a better job getting information about where we are, what our challenges are, etc., which could be used to inform public policy. It’s a tragedy that we haven’t made more progress in gathering data. 

I have a couple of things to say about this. During my time in the House of Representatives, it became very clear to me that there were many, many government-funded surveys and studies, and none of them asked about sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, the only way we were getting data, if you look several decades back, was by privately funded surveys or studies. It was so important to me, especially on health related studies, that we gather data so that we know what challenges our community has, what disparities exist, and what we need to do to advocate for our wellness and health.

I, at first, got complete resistance, and then during the Obama years we made real progress. Some of that progress is being walked back under this administration, so we’ve got to be diligent about collecting data.

The other thing I want to say about this is more of just a broad statement of why it matters. Because people are like, “Data, numbers, data, numbers. Who cares?” I came of age during the AIDS epidemic, and there was an expression, “Silence equals death.” I would argue that invisibility equals death—that not being counted equals death. It’s a very powerful statement, but when you don’t need to acknowledge that someone exists there doesn’t have to be a debate or a policy. That’s happened to our community for too long in America’s history. I really think it’s important to be counted as a threshold to having informed public policy.

The last time we talked to you, you were still in the House, and it was when Obama was first running for president. One of the things you mentioned in that interview that really stood out to me was the idea that you’d finally been able to pivot to proactive work and passing positive legislation. And now we’re back on the defensive again.  

I’m thinking in particular now that we face the real possibility of a Supreme Court appointee, Brett Kavanaugh, who will probably be unfriendly to LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, Roe v. Wade, etc. One of the bigger things that you’ve worked on is healthcare, which applies to a lot of that. Is there a proactive way to approach that at this point, or is it all defense? And what is the defense? What is the proactive stuff that we can do either to stop the appointment, or if that does inevitably happen, what do we do then? What do you do then? 

Well, first, one never gives up, and you remind yourself that of the bigger picture, like the expression from an abolitionist preacher that Martin Luther King, Jr. always quoted, which is, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We’ve got to keep it up because ultimately it’s going to bend towards justice, even if there are disappointments, or short-term steps backward. I will say that I’m very concerned about the ramifications of the Supreme Court opening. Thus far, we’ve never seen a major civil right be repealed. It’s always been a matter of advancing, and we don’t want that to stop now. 

Having said all that, partly how I confront others and try to inspire others to keep on fighting, to keep on making progress wherever we can, is to sometimes work around the obstacles. We’re at a moment right now where the Congress can’t pass something because Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan won’t let it happen, so obviously we’re focusing on elections and trying to change that majority. But let’s look at states and localities where there are equality minded people, who will do the right thing.

Let’s have some of those battles at the local level. You can’t do everything you can do at the federal level at the local level. They can’t pass The Equality Act, but they certainly can make progress. How about in corporate policies with regard to their workforce? Are they perfect yet? If not, let’s try to change it at our own workplace. What about schools? It’s so important that children have protections and not get bullied. We’d love to see that passed at the federal level, but let’s do it school board by school board, in our backyards. It’s another way. 

I’d tell you the same thing about climate change. To see this president pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, and to see this president say we’re going to renege on the Clean Power Plan? It’s like, okay, so California’s going to comply with all of those goals. And we have a couple cities in Wisconsin that are going to do that. How about a few elementary schools, or middle schools saying, “Our school’s going to do this too.”

It’s just a great opportunity to promote activism and to be hopeful in a time when things are so disappointing. 

That leads me to one of the things I wanted to ask you. There is a record number of out LGBTQ people running for offices across the country. I’m curious to hear your thoughts, and why you think that’s still important, and maybe more important than ever for out people of various stripes to run for office, serve in government, and maybe what changes you’ve seen over your time as well? 

I have seen huge changes. When I was first elected to local office, there were fewer than 2,000 openly gay and lesbian elected officials worldwide. This was 1986, and it was hard to know who was there, who was out, so we scoured papers and tried to figure out who was there. That’s when we started meeting in conferences. In fact, the first conference was the year before I was elected to the Dane County Board. It was L and G, no B, T or Q, and there were very few of us, and a lot of folks really thought it couldn’t be done at higher levels. Most of us were local, and some state elected officials. It’s changed dramatically with so many. 

One of the things that I’ve learned in my time, from 1986 to now, is having a seat at the table matters. There are so many different ways to put this that make sense. One is, if you’re not in the room people are talking about you. If you’re in the room people are talking with you. And that makes an enormous difference.

Then, as we’ve gone from a handful of people in the world to hundreds now who’ve run for office in different places around the country, and around the world—there are role models. I think that symbolism matters. I remember seeing Geraldine Ferraro nominated for the vice presidency when I graduated from college, and I thought to myself as a young woman interested in public service, “Hell, I could do this. I could really do this, and I don’t have to have modest ambitions. I can do anything.” People have told me that I’ve had that impact on them, and it is really humbling and moving when I hear that. 

It’s true that all of us are leaders in different ways, and people are watching, and looking up. And that’s a really neat thing. We know how hard we have to work, and we’re good as voices for underrepresented people, and we also represent our communities at large. 

I remember when I first ran for state assembly a lot of people saying, “What’s your gay agenda?” I said, “My agenda is to fight for healthcare for everybody in my district. My agenda is to help support a really great education system for everybody.” People have to recognize that’s what we’re seeking to do, too.

There are people who don’t necessarily identify as Democrats but do identify as progressive. How do you get those folks to turn out, and how does the Democratic party win them over? How do you win them over, and what are your strengths in comparison to your likely challengers come November?

I think in this environment where Wisconsinites of whatever ideological stripe have watched out-of-state billionaires try to hijack our elections, that there are a lot of reasons for people to be skeptical about that, saying, “Why would they be doing this?” And I think that the very clear answer is that I stand up to those folks. I can’t be bought. [Those moneyed interests] are looking for somebody who’s going to do the bidding of the powerful, and not the bidding of the grassroots of Wisconsin.

I think listening is really important, and I will always prioritize listening to my constituents and not the high-paid lobbyists, who are corporate representatives. It is important to recognize what Wisconsinites are challenged by and struggling with. Healthcare: there are all the attempts to weaken and even repeal the Affordable Care Act. I’m fighting for coverage for all, and particularly protections for people who have been sick before and have preexisting conditions. 

I’m fighting for a great economy. Wisconsin is known as a major manufacturing economy, as well as an agricultural economy. Folks are struggling. They need a level playing field so they can get ahead. 

That’s how I think you win over both progressives as well as people of all political stripes, because you get credit for listening, you get credit for fighting for them, and people recognize that not everyone takes the same approach. If you’re listening to the problems and trying to tackle them, you get some credit for that.

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