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Baldwin's new battle: Capitol Hill's only openly lesbian lawmaker preps for a tough reelection. If only she knew who she was running against.

The presidential race will dominate this year's election headlines, but the future of equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens rests more squarely on the Capitol than on the White House. It is Congress that will determine the initial fate of the Federal Marriage Amendment, as early as this June. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the gay-inclusive federal hate-crimes law also await congressional action. With that in mind, The Advocate launches a series of in-depth articles looking at U.S. House and Senate races crucial to GLBT Americans, either because a candidate is openly gay or because the race could determine the course of federal gay rights legislation in the next Congress. Our first subject is three-term out representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

The talk show circuit was hot the Sunday morning after President George W. Bush announced his support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning marriage for gay men and lesbians. Tammy Baldwin, the openly lesbian congresswoman from Wisconsin, found herself at CBS's Washington, D.C., studio to debate right-wing Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum on Face the Nation. She hadn't forgotten Santorum's infamous comments made last year before tire U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas sodomy law: He predicted the court's decision would ultimately lead to legalized man-on-dog marriage.

Santorum stuttered and sputtered through his argument that same-sex marriage would lead to legalized polygamy. In a calm, measured voice with tones of pure Wisconsin, Baldwin mopped the floor with the senator. "I know of no one ... who is seeking the things that you suggest," Baldwin said coolly to Santorum as cameras rolled. "I don't know about your constituents, but certainly mine are not."

As the only out lesbian in Congress, Baldwin's role is not an easy one to fill. She straddles the national shift toward greater visibility and expanding civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans, but cannot lose sight of the down-home needs of constituents in her Midwestern swing state. Facing a reelection battle this year, Baldwin will have to convince them that she has delivered.

Still, the president's call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is never far off her radar. It's "a little like [living in] a community under siege" for gay men and lesbians, Baldwin says. She is angered by critics who lay the blame for the gay marriage controversy at the feet of the Massachusetts supreme judicial court, which determined earlier this year that denying same-sex couples the right to full and equal marriage rights was unconstitutional.

"[Republicans] feel like they need something to campaign on to draw attention away from the war, the faltering economy, and a national debt burden as far as the eye can see," Baldwin says. "I think there's every reason [to believe] we can win elections by focusing on the biggest concerns of most voters ... and if you can't win elections by focusing on the issues the voters are most anxious about, I think that's when you see these tactics."

To most of the anxious voters in her district, she is simply Representative Baldwin, protecting the interests of family farmers, small-business owners, factory workers, professionals, and academics alike. In her hometown of Madison--home to the oldest and largest campus in the University of Wisconsin system--she is known as much for her advocacy of universal health care as for gay rights. Her district also encompasses a swath of voters who live light-years away from erudite Madison philosophically: blue-collar workers who value secure jobs, good schools, and access to health care above all else.

Baldwin's ability to prepare for this year's race is hampered by the fact that she currently lacks an opponent--a challenger may not be named until two months before the November election. In 2002 Baldwin ran against antigay activist Ron Greer and won handily with 66% of the vote. But in earlier contests against more moderate candidates she eked out victories with margins in the low single digits. This year it appears that Greer will face a primary challenge from Dave Magnum, a prominent businessman and owner of a local television station as well as eight Wisconsin radio stations. With the primary election slated for September, the Republican contenders for Baldwin's seat have until July to file their nomination papers, leaving her in the meantime to campaign on nothing but her record.

Even if Magnum should win the primary, attract the support of the Republican National Committee, and raise the campaign funds necessary to contend, Baldwin is still expected to win the general election, says Robin Brand, vice president for campaigns and elections at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., that raises money for gay and lesbian candidates across the country. "She has been elected to that seat three times, winning not one but two very tough races," says Brand. "None of the Republicans who have filed to run against her have ever before held elected office."

As of March 31, Baldwin had raised a substantial $875,000, nearly all of which came from individual contributions, not political action committees, according to the Federal Election Commission. The congresswoman has already spent more than half of it in her reelection bid.

In an interview with The Advocate at her Capitol Hill office, Baldwin appears to have remade herself for the national stage, especially as she jumps into the fray for gay rights by taking on more speaking engagements, booking news show appearances, and lobbying fellow lawmakers to vote against state and federal bans on same-sex unions. Her once fussy hairdo is now softly tousled. Her boxy suits have given way to fashionable separates. In her fitted jacket, tailored slacks, and sleek high heels, she is polished but not slick. With an easy smile and a soft, feminine voice, she betrays not a hint of radicalism in appearance or delivery.

She seems ready for a church picnic even if her schedule has her commuting between Madison and Washington weekly, generally spending three days in Wisconsin and four in D.C. The workload in her home state is at least as heavy as that at the Capitol. In Madison and its environs Baldwin runs from one event to the next--a celebration of the dairy industry, a speech at a college campus, a fund-raiser for her own campaign. Baldwin sees herself as shy but nonetheless seems to relish the work of campaigning. "You know, I learned how to milk a cow in the context of running for Congress," she says, grinning.

Born to a single mother, Baldwin was raised by her grandparents. She graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and returned to Madison to get her law degree at the University of Wisconsin. She lives ill Madison with her partner, environmental lawyer Lauren Azar, in a Victorian fixer-upper they have taken on together. "I'm good with sandpaper and some power tools," Baldwin says, then concedes that Azar is even handier. Together for eight years, they met in a carpool from Madison to a Milwaukee fund-raiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. They are open about their partnership, but Baldwin guards their privacy. When asked if she and Azar plan to marry, Baldwin says only, "I would never propose marriage in a press release." As for children, Baldwin has concluded, at least for the time being, that her current job would make it impossible for her to raise a child in the way she would deem appropriate. She describes her relationship with Azar as "rock-solid," and it's a testament to their commitment that all but two of their years together have been spent against the backdrop of Baldwin's career in Congress.

Given the hard line Republican leadership, Baldwin's ability to get legislation through the House has waned, but that doesn't keep her from advocating for her causes--especially health care and education--in committee and on the House floor. Dennis Dresang, professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says that because Baldwin's district has rarely received much pork from Washington "the expectations are pretty low." Dresang, who has known Baldwin since her law school days, adds, "In fact, there's a broad swath of her constituency that would consider a focus on bringing home the bacon to be not desirable; that would be 'politics as usual.' Instead, they expect her to 'Vote the right way; be with us on the issues, and be a leader if you can.'"

Wisconsin Republican DuWayne Johnsrud, who has served in the Wisconsin state assembly for nearly 20 years, has worked with Baldwin on several issues and says, "Sometimes people would come to me with a problem I couldn't really do anything about, so I would steer them to her--especially when it was an impossible situation." He laughs. "'Take it to Baldwin,' I'd say."

Baldwin's most tangible victory this session may be the Bush administration's reversal of its restatement of the federal government's employment policy with regard to sexual orientation and harassment. In February the Office of Special Counsel removed from its Web site language asserting a policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the federal workforce. Then Special Counsel Scott Bloch, a Bush appointee, announced that his office was conducting a review of the policy. "It was unbelievable," says Baldwin. "I was at home when the news broke ... I represent federal employees, and people were shaken."

Baldwin, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and openly gay Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank called on the Administration to affirm its opposition to discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered federal employees. Within days the OSC suspended its policy review, although the language has not yet been restored to the nondiscrimination policy on the OSC Web site.

Baldwin's name occasionally surfaces in the pool of possible vice presidential candidates for the 2004 election. After all, she is well-liked in her critical battleground state. Her Midwestern demeanor would sell well to the Democratic base in several other states that are expected to be hotly contested in this election. When asked to comment on the speculation she laughs. "I am not one who started out with a master plan," she says. "I'm probably as surprised as anyone that I ended up here in the House of Representatives.... I didn't start out running for the county board saying, 'Someday I'm going to be vice president' or even 'Someday I'm going to be in Congress.'"

Her constituents often ask if the Senate is in her future, and her reply is, "Never say never." Baldwin says, "At every turn, when these opportunities have presented themselves I've asked myself, 'Is this a place from which I would have greater influence on creating universal health care in the United States or not?'" She explores that question in the context of the political offices she's held so far: commissioner on the Dane County board of supervisors, assemblywoman in the Wisconsin state legislature, and House member. With each step, her answer has been yes. "So, if someday in the future, 10 years from now, eight years from now, I were to have an opportunity to be considered for a cabinet post--there's a long line of Wisconsinites, by the way, who have worked on Health and Human Services issues." Baldwin mentions former secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who currently serves in that post. "I think some good Wisconsin common sense will continue to be needed there."

Did you hear that, John Kerry?

Stan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., and has written for Salon, Ms., and Mother Jones.
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Title Annotation:The Road To Congress; Tammy Baldwin
Author:Stan, Adele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 8, 2004
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