'The rest of the state is just as susceptible to her charms as her home district has been.' —Bill Kraus
She wins and wins in liberal Madison. But is Scott Walker's Wisconsin ready to vote for a woman Democrat as U.S. senator?
How about a lesbian? What if she backed an even stronger Obamacare before Obama? What if she decried the Patriot Act and was one of the few who voted against the war in Iraq?
"I think I've had a very positive response," says U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who's been testing the waters for 2012. "People are encouraging me strongly, and they recognize that - even though the decision will come at a later point - there's no time to lose in organizing."
A Senate run had earlier occurred to her, but she never seriously considered it.
"I recognized that there might be a time that there'd be an open U.S. Senate seat," says Baldwin. "Of course, I came to the House with two U.S. senators that I greatly admired and wanted to keep in office. So [running for Senate] was a distant thought."
Then, in May, Sen. Herb Kohl announced that he will not run in 2012.
Baldwin has vowed not to run for Kohl's seat if a fellow Democrat, former Sen. Russ Feingold, does; he says he'll decide by Labor Day. Meanwhile, Baldwin is already fundraising for a possible Senate campaign. In June she raised more than $400,000.
She's also been checking the political winds around the state. What she's hearing, not surprisingly, is that people's "immediate focus is on state politics, the contentiousness of our new governor, his strike at collective bargaining," she says. While Washington politics may not seem as critical at the moment, "People do take a longer-range look, and I think there's a belief that Wisconsin has learned a lesson from the midterm election."
"The most progressive member of the House," as named by The National Journal in 2011, has been criticized at home for being quieter in Congress than she ever was in the state Legislature. Baldwin admitted herself in 2009 that she's been more cautious on the national stage. She says that doesn't make her any less passionate, and she's as angry as any Democrat over Walker's Wisconsin.
"I have to say that everything that unfolded this spring in Madison and surrounding areas - I was so frustrated with what was going on," she says. "I'm in Washington, and feeling like people's voices were not heard. I saw a number of my constituents who frankly demanded to be heard. That's state politics, but it reminded me of how important the job is, whether you're in the majority and governing, or in the minority and representing those voices that feel like they're not getting heard."
Bill Kraus, co-chair of the Common Cause in Wisconsin State Governing Board, predicts that those voices may soon be heard in a big way, based on data collected by UW-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein.
"If Ken Goldstein's polls hold up, there will be a counter-tsunami in 2012 which will undo the tsunami of 2010 that did Russ Feingold in," says Kraus, a campaign aide for the late Wisconsin Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus. He calls the coming storm "a plus for Tammy."
"Don't underestimate Tammy Baldwin," warns Matt Rothschild, editor of the Madison-based magazine The Progressive. "She won reelection in 2008 by a whopping 69%-to-31% margin. In the 2010 bloodbath for Democrats in Wisconsin, she escaped unscathed, winning 62% to 38%."
Once, Baldwin was unique. Wisconsin's first congresswoman, she wore a Badger-red blazer long before Sarah Palin made it an obligatory part of the tea party woman's ensemble, at the other end of the political spectrum. As the nation's first openly gay non-incumbent elected to the House, Baldwin was newsworthy just for being who she was. When she went to Congress, the Medill News Service named her "a media symbol" for her many firsts.
The press marveled at her novelty. Male reporters who met Baldwin in the early years flirted with sexism regarding a candidate who was not only conventionally attractive, but who was also - apparently mystifyingly - a lesbian.
In 1993, Isthmus reported Baldwin's "nicely coifed blond hair, bright red lipstick and a voice remarkably close to the soft purr of actress Melanie Griffith." In 1998, The Capital Times noted her "girlish voice" and "pearl earrings and pumps," adding that she "truly loves to sew."
That's not going to go very far with voters in 2012, especially in a state and nation so sharply divided. Is Baldwin a rabid liberal, a now-quieter centrist, a symbol of a cause, or something else?
As she looks to represent the entire state, who really is Tammy Suzanne Green Baldwin?
Despite her busy Washington schedule, Baldwin claims to spend most days of the year in her Wisconsin 2nd Congressional District. She names cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and former Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson as inspirations. She enjoys biking in and around Madison. Nancy Pelosi is a friend, and Hillary Clinton has stumped for her.
"A staunch supporter of universal health care, the first out lesbian to win election to the House of Representatives, a huge defender of public workers, a courageous and independent voice on foreign policy, Baldwin would galvanize the progressive base in Wisconsin," says Rothschild.
She represents part or all of seven counties, including the cities of Madison and Beloit. She serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, its subcommittee on health, and its subcommittee on environment and the economy. She's also the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.
During Baldwin's Assembly years, a fellow legislator, Scott Walker, with whom she worked on campaign finance reform, said that he had great respect for her ability and integrity, if not for her views. Walker said she could make "some of the best arguments for some of the worst ideas I ever heard."
He added, "Folks at either end of the spectrum are almost a conscience-check for the rest of us. It can cause us to take a different look at things."
That's certainly been Baldwin's intent. While in the Wisconsin Assembly, working to address the AIDS crisis, she hit upon a legislative working style that she termed "inclusiveness." If an issue can't be resolved quickly, Baldwin moves to "educate" her opposition until the political will exists to effect change. It's been remarked that she thinks very long-term, working for years until her strategy pays off. WISC-TV recently praised her in an editorial for this bipartisan approach.
She'd rather deliver consensus than sound bites, but this quiet, backstage strategy has led some to ask, as did an Isthmus headline in 2007, "Is Tammy Baldwin bold enough?"
You want bold? Baldwin co-sponsored a bill proposing the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney. She voted against the Iraq War. She's also been a critic of the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act, which denies habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees.
She's strengthened the Violence Against Women Act and worked to extend family farm bankruptcy protection. She sponsored reauthorization of the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. She's also voted more than a dozen times to increase pay and benefits for active-duty troops.
Baldwin is proud of her efforts to return federal dollars to Wisconsin. This is, of course, a mission of every member of Congress, and it's labeled pork when it gets out of hand. Still, it's our pork, and every state wants it. She claims that she's brought home to her district more than $200 million.
Baldwin works to fund many area initiatives, including airport runway safety, police computers and economic development throughout the area. She seems to have a special affinity for bike paths: $2.1 million for paths in Wisconsin Dells, $2.1 million in Waunakee, $1.76 million for Portage, $1.6 million for Madison. She also claims to have brought home $17.9 million for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which is primarily open to hiking.
Baldwin's signature issues throughout her legislative career have included energy independence, civil rights (particularly LGBT rights) and health care. She favored a single-payer system long before the president's somewhat watered-down plan.
"I'm very proud that after 70 years of aspiring to a national health plan, we've moved in that direction," she says. "I want to see that measure successfully implemented and strengthened."
Baldwin also believes in stimulus spending to boost the economic recovery.
"One possibility still is some sort of transportation plan," she says, that would in particular aid the construction industry. "We know that's a very hard-hit segment of our economy right now. We know that that investment would put people back to work immediately. And we know that historically that measure has garnered huge bipartisan support. I know that there are many Republicans in the house who are champing at the bit to move forward on this."
As for the debt ceiling: "I'm a believer that billionaires of the U.S. be given a tax hike."
What sells in Fitchburg
Baldwin's political and philosophical outlooks were defined early, during a hard-knocks childhood.
She was born in Madison on Feb. 11, 1962. Her parents were UW students who divorced two months later. Both suffered from substance abuse. As a result, Baldwin was raised in large part by her maternal grandparents, David and Doris Green of Shorewood Hills. David was a biochemistry professor, and Doris was head theater costume designer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
When she was 9, Baldwin suffered myelitis, a rare childhood spinal disease. She was hospitalized for three months and spent a year in outpatient care. Her grandparents thought their insurance covered her; it didn't. The experience made a lasting impression.
Baldwin had the first of several epiphanies in her life while a student at what was then Charles Van Hise Middle School (now Velma Hamilton). She served on the student council, which raised money for Managua, Nicaragua, following an earthquake. She also served on a student-community outreach committee that worked to improve relations with neighboring residents. She credits this first taste of public service with deciding her career path.
Baldwin attended West High School and graduated first in her class, in 1980. She double-majored in political science and mathematics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. While a junior, she discovered she was a lesbian. She received her law degree at UW-Madison and served as an intern in the office of Wisconsin Gov. Anthony Earl.
Baldwin came out at the age of 24. She feared that she would have to choose between having a life in public service or being honest about her sexuality; finally she decided to do both.
After running an unsuccessful Madison aldermanic campaign for another candidate, she briefly filled a vacancy on the Madison Common Council and served four terms as a Dane County supervisor, representing the UW campus and downtown from 1986 to 1994. It was during that time that she made health care a permanent personal priority.
From 1993 to 1999, Baldwin served three terms in the state Capitol as representative for the 78th Assembly District. She beat future Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz in her first Assembly primary.
"Tammy was a great candidate," recalls Cieslewicz. "She worked extremely hard and was, as is obvious to everybody now, very sharp on the stump. I would think that after several tough reelection campaigns - tough in the sense that she's had to raise lots of money, defend her record, put up with attacks, etc. - she has become even more seasoned.
"The real question for me isn't 'Can we elect the first openly gay woman to statewide office in 2012,' but rather, 'Can we return a progressive on the order of Russ Feingold to statewide office?'"
When Baldwin joined the Assembly, there were only about 60 openly gay and lesbian government officials worldwide, according to one advocacy group. She twice advocated legalizing gay marriage in Wisconsin, in 1993 and 1995.
Since 1999, Baldwin has represented Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District. Outgoing representative Scott Klug, a Republican, had warned that "What sells in the shadow of the Capitol won't sell in Fitchburg." However, her campaign raised a Wisconsin record of $1.5 million.
National lesbian and gay rights organizations were eager to send dollars to Baldwin. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during her first House campaign, 58% of Baldwin contributors who gave $200 or more lived outside Wisconsin (during her 2000 campaign, this figure increased to 67%).
When she arrived at Congress, former U.S. Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, who had held the seat for 32 years before losing to Klug, said, "I think it's really a wonderful historic development."
Lesbian? So what?
Baldwin remains the only lesbian and one of only four openly gay members of the House of Representatives. But a dozen years after her first House election there is far greater acceptance of gay rights. As multiple states move to legalize gay marriage, her groundbreaking position is less special. That's great for the cause, but perhaps not so good for the candidate. Baldwin says that she is what she is.
"There's no rebranding," she says. "I'm proud of my record. But, should I run for U.S. Senate, I'm introducing myself to people that have not met me before."
Some, she believes, will still never vote for a woman, let alone a lesbian. "That's a very small percentage left, I think, especially in Wisconsin."
Baldwin has always enjoyed meeting voters and exploding their assumptions. One of her favorite campaign stories comes from her 1992 Assembly campaign, when she encountered a man who appeared hostile about her sexuality. "He looked like he was going to pick a fight," she recalls. "He said, 'Lady, if you can be honest about that, you'll probably be honest about everything.' And then he said, 'I'll vote for you.'"
Bill Kraus believes that state voters will be less concerned about Baldwin's sexual orientation than her record. "I think the gay marriage referendum is apples and gayness is oranges," he says. "So then the question is, what about her liberal voting record and her 2nd District roots?"
Cieslewicz agrees that Baldwin's sexual orientation wouldn't be a big factor in a Senate campaign.
"I think if she ran statewide it would set off tremendous excitement among progressives of all stripes," he says. "And people who wouldn't vote for her because she's gay wouldn't vote for her because of her policy stances anyway, so I'm not sure she really loses votes on that issue as much as people might think."
One likely opponent could be former Gov. Tommy Thompson. "His plusses would neutralize many of Tammy's," says Kraus. "If Tommy demurs, another wild card could arise. Steve Gunderson might be interested, or the people who are interested in Steve Gunderson might be able to stir his interest."
Gunderson, a Republican former congressman representing the 3rd District, was outed as gay in 1994. Should he run, "that would set up a contest that would be a first not only for Wisconsin," says Kraus. "Beyond those two, the GOP pipeline is pretty much empty. If an open governor's seat didn't entice any of the GOP members of the state Legislature, this race isn't likely to either."
As for Thompson, Baldwin served under him in the state Legislature. "I think we have a very good working relationship," she says.
If Thompson were nominated, she expects that they'd both run clean, issues-oriented campaigns, "which I think we could all use right now. It's the outside groups that [might] make that otherwise."
If there is a match-up with the former governor, Rothschild points out, "In a Public Policy Polling survey in May, she ran essentially neck-and-neck with Thompson, losing to him 44 to 45 [percent]. That was better than all the other possible Democratic candidates who were polled, except Feingold."
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Baldwin wonders, though, if a more conservative candidate wouldn't be the choice of Republicans in these contentious times. Congress has changed since Baldwin arrived in Washington a dozen years ago.
We've always had ideologues who play to the camera, but she believes that everything's been made worse by the decline of print journalism and the influx of corporate campaign money following the Supreme Court's Citizens United case in January 2010.
"When you have the minority leader in the U.S. Senate say his goal for the next two years is to assure that Obama doesn't get reelected, that tells you something," she says. "It speaks volumes about what your priorities are. It's not the American people. It's politics, and partisan politics."
The top priority now has to be jobs, Baldwin says, and rancor is getting in the way. Uncharacteristically, instead of quietly seeking long-term consensus behind the scenes, she's calling her colleagues on it.
She recalls, "For about two months I started every opening statement in committee by saying, 'What my constituents are asking me to work on is jobs. And now you're here to kill the House bill. And you're here attacking women's reproductive rights. And you're here trying to take away the promise of the EPA to help reduce greenhouse gases.
"They're trying to peel back progress, while people at home want us to focus on job creation."
Why not return to Wisconsin and run for governor, as Feingold is rumored to be considering?
"I'm a legislator," Baldwin says. "I believe that that really matches my skill set. As much as these are partisan and polarized times, I've been in fact someone who's been able to put together an informed majority. I mean, every bill I've ever passed has been bipartisan, whether that was in the state Legislature or at the federal level.... You can still get some things done."
Kraus summarizes Baldwin's Senate prospects: "A) Her chances look pretty good, but a challenge from Tommy or Steve could drop the odds. B) The rest of the state is just as susceptible to her charms as her home district has been; she is likeable; Wisconsin voters like likable candidates - okay, okay, not always. C) If Ken Goldstein's numbers hold up, she would not have to moderate, merely ride the wave that is going her way."
Or, as Rothschild puts it, "I don't believe the naysayers. I think Tammy can do it."
[Note: The amount raised by Baldwin in June was amended to reflect new information.]