Dan Baer made history in 2011 when he helped craft Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous “gay rights are human rights” speech. Now he’s trying to make history again by becoming the first out gay man elected to the U.S. Senate.
“I feel like the institutions that support our democracy are under threat daily from this White House,” Baer says in explaining his rationale for seeking the Democratic nomination for senator from Colorado, where incumbent Republican Cory Gardner is considered highly vulnerable in 2020.
Baer has ample experience representing American democratic institutions overseas. He was a deputy assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in President Obama’s administration, and that’s the capacity in which he assisted Clinton with her historic speech. Later, Obama appointed him U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, focusing on issues such as human rights and Russian aggression. He worked closely with Clinton’s successor, Secretary of State John Kerry.
After returning to his native Colorado — he was born in Denver and grew up in Littleton — Baer taught at the University of Denver and was subsequently appointed by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, which works to maximize higher education opportunities for all Coloradans, in collaboration with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.
Baer announced his Senate candidacy in April, and this month he received the endorsement of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports candidates who are both out and viable. He raised $1.35 million in the second quarter of the year, the largest initial haul ever for an out candidate for either the U.S. House or Senate.
Baer is appalled by the current administration but hopeful about the future. Under Donald Trump and his enablers, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Americans’ faith in democratic institutions has been threatened, he says. But the wave of Democratic victories in the 2018 midterm election (including many victories by LGBTQ candidates) showed that U.S. voters weren’t giving up, he notes. “That was a huge vote of confidence in the same system that is under attack,” he says.
In seeking office, he is focused on two overarching issues. One is fighting the influence of big money in politics. “Unless we take on that challenge in a serious way, it makes everything else harder to accomplish,” he says. The other is climate change.
Of course, he’s also deeply interested in health care, gun reform, education, job creation, and human rights. Baer, who is the oldest of four siblings, notes that their father died of cancer at age 54 — and even with insurance and other resources, obtaining the necessary health care was a challenge for the family. “I know what it is to be afraid for your future,” he says. “This is a personal issue for me.” He supports universal coverage, with the idea of building on the Affordable Care Act to offer what he calls “Medicare for those who need it,” those who are uninsured or underinsured.
Gun reform is also personal for him. He grew up about a mile from Columbine High School in Littleton, and two of his siblings were at a different school in the community when the mass shooting occurred at Columbine in April 1999. Baer was in college then, and when he first heard about the shooting, he didn’t know what school it had taken place at, so he feared for his siblings’ lives. Gun safety, he says, should be his generation’s cause. He supports universal background checks and a ban on military-style assault weapons. The U.S. had a nationwide assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004, and it didn’t threaten Second Amendment rights, he points out. “It wasn’t the slippery slope that people said it was,” he says.
McConnell, meanwhile, is blocking gun control legislation and many other progressive moves, which shows why Democrats need to retake control of the Senate in next year’s election, Baer says. “It is important that we take back the Senate no matter what happens with the presidency,” he says. In the chamber now, Republicans have a 53-47 edge (the 47 includes two independents who caucus with Democrats).
The Senate is also crucial to the fight for LGBTQ rights, he adds, noting that the Republican majority has voted to confirm many of Trump’s anti-LGBTQ, antichoice, pro-corporate judicial nominees. “We can’t fix the judiciary or prevent further harm without taking back the Senate,” he says.
He’s one of a dozen candidates who’ve announced so far that they want to be the Democratic nominee to take on Gardner (who, by the way, has racked up mostly low scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s Congressional Scorecard, which rates members of the Senate and House on LGBTQ issues). The Democratic hopefuls include former U.S. attorney John Walsh, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
But Baer is determined and experienced. He’s broken ground before — in 2013 he became the youngest U.S. ambassador in the world, and he was only the fourth LGBTQ person to be nominated to such a post. He points to his experience in education as well, noting that he oversaw the biggest increase in higher education funding in Colorado. He also worked on closing the gaps in educational opportunities so that more people of color have access, and on fighting back against the many attacks on equity by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
His time at the State Department is what usually piques people’s interest the most, however, so The Advocate naturally asked him about that. He gives rave reviews to Clinton, Kerry, and Obama. “All three of them are brilliant minds that we were lucky to have in service to our country,” he says.
Of Clinton’s “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights” speech, delivered before the United Nations in Geneva in December 2011, he says, “She put enormous thought into that. She was intent on making it as difficult to criticize and as comprehensive as possible.” He was there when she delivered it, and “it was a real thrill,” he says. He and his future husband, Brian Walsh, went to dinner with her afterward, and a top aide, a straight man, came up to their table to offer praise, with tears running down his cheeks, Baer recalls.
He and Walsh married in 2014 in Vienna, before same-sex marriage was legal in Austria — they had obtained their license in the U.S. Walsh has a background in physics, having been part of the team that discovered evidence of the Higgs boson particle, a.k.a. the “god particle,” believed to be responsible for all mass in the universe. Now he’s a climate economist at the World Bank, working on efforts to protect people from natural disasters resulting from climate change.
That’s a distinguished résumé, and Baer’s is equally so — and not something he envisioned for himself growing up. He was 15 in 1992, when Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, which banned the state or any of its cities and counties from enacting or enforcing gay rights laws. “That was a pretty dark moment,” he recalls. (The amendment was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.)
The life he’s led since then is far different and less limited than what he imagined at 15, and it could soon include being the first out gay male U.S. senator, joining lesbian Tammy Baldwin and bisexual Kyrsten Sinema. That he’s been able to achieve so much as an out gay man, he says, “makes me feel a debt of gratitude — and I hope it gives me a sense of empathy.”