“I remember watching the Democratic convention and her giving her speech and thinking to myself, I can aspire to anything. There’s no limits anymore,” she says.
Baldwin, who was sworn in Thursday as the first openly gay U.S. senator, says she hopes her own achievement will have a similar “ripple effect.” Speaking with The Advocate in her first interview of the new year, she notes that LGBT people have already told her, “This has changed me in some way,” when talking about her win.
“At every glass ceiling I’ve broken, I’ve hoped that that’s the message that goes out so loudly and clearly,” she says. “This is a message that we don’t have to limit our aspirations in this society anymore.”
From her election to the Dane County Board of Supervisors at age 24 to her service in the Wisconsin State Assembly to her election as the first openly gay nonincumbent in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, Baldwin, now 50, has always been a trailblazer. Now, with her seat in the U.S. Senate, the granddaughter of the head costume designer for the University of Wisconsin’s theater department moves to her most visible stage to date in what has been called the “world’s most exclusive club.” She joins the Senate as the freshman member with the most seniority.
“If you’re not in the room, the conversation is about you, even if you have a lot of allies there,” she says. “If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you, and that makes a huge and transformative difference.”
As Baldwin said in her victory speech on election night, she is “well aware” of being the first openly gay senator and the first woman to represent her state in the chamber. However, neither of those details dominated the hard-fought, closely watched contest that pitted the solidly progressive seven-term congresswoman against Tommy Thompson, the former four-term Republican governor and Bush Cabinet secretary.
Voters she met on the campaign trail “almost never” raised the issue of her sexual orientation, she says. The election focused on the struggles facing Wisconsinites, especially on the economic front, and Baldwin pitched herself as a “fighter” who would represent the middle class in Washington.
“The campaign wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about Tammy Baldwin. It wasn’t about Tammy versus Tommy, even though at some points it seemed to become that,” she says. “It was about the epic challenges facing this nation.”
Outside groups including the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, LPAC, and EMILY’s List endorsed Baldwin and spoke more explicitly about the history-making nature of her bid. Their support provided reinforcement on the few occasions when opponents launched personal attacks.
Early in the campaign, a candidate for the Republican nomination sent out a fund-raising appeal that deemed her a “radical leftist” who had “led the fight to redefine marriage to include same-sex pairings.” During the general election, a Thompson staffer circulated a video clip of Baldwin dancing at a pride event with a sarcastic message about her “heartland values.” Neither tactic worked to their advantage.
“It either had no impact or backfired for the two candidates whose campaigns chose to make an issue of this,” she says. “[Voters] didn’t want to be distracted. They wanted to ascertain who was going to be for them.”
Compared to voters, Baldwin said the media represented one layer of the campaign where her sexual orientation was discussed “very consistently.” Journalists inevitably asked a question in interviews, often about whether she thought voters were ready to support a lesbian for public office, or if she believed her sexual orientation could be an asset in the campaign.
“If anyone on the campaign was likely to raise the issue, it was typically a journalist,” she says.
While not a staple of her stump speech, Baldwin acknowledges that her identity as a woman and a lesbian will be one of the essential perspectives she brings to the Senate. That lens will influence her approach not only to LGBT-specific items but also to policy conversations in general.
“We all know that having a seat at the table matters on a very substantive level, because each of us brings our life experiences with us to our jobs,” she says. “It’s not like a coat check where you check your life experience at the door and walk in and do your job and pick it up on the way out. You always have that with you, and it informs the way you approach a debate, the way you decide how to vote, and your participation in the conversation.”