If Wisconsin’s second congressional district makes history this year by sending its second consecutive openly gay representative to Washington, it will be a first for the nation but totally in keeping with the district’s long tradition of progressive politics.
Democrat Mark Pocan is the candidate hoping to achieve that milestone, succeeding Tammy Baldwin, who herself made history in 1998 as the first out lesbian and first openly gay nonincumbent elected to Congress. (Before that, all openly gay U.S. House members, such as Barney Frank, had come out while already in office.) Baldwin, also a Democrat, is vacating the seat to run for U.S. Senate, hoping to become the first openly gay member of that chamber. This puts her in a close statewide race with former governor Tommy Thompson, while Pocan is heavily favored to defeat Republican Chad Lee in the second district.
The reason for the district’s LGBT-friendliness and liberalism in general can be summed up largely in one word: Madison. The biggest city in the district, it is the state capital and home to the University of Wisconsin’s main campus. University towns are usually liberal, but Madison is intensely so. It was a center of student activism during the Vietnam War era, and one of those activists, Paul Soglin, has gone on to be elected mayor of the city seven times, most recently in 2011. Another carry-over from that era is Madison’s annual marijuana festival, held since 1971, which mixes entertainment with demonstrations calling for legalization of the drug.
Madison and the university also influence other parts of the district, which encompasses six counties in southern Wisconsin. “Even the rural areas have become bluer as Madison-area liberals move to the countryside,” notes the National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics. The last Republican congressman from the second district, moderate Scott Klug, once dubbed these voters “the sandal crowd” and said, “I can never make them happy unless I become a Democrat, or more like a socialist.” Barack Obama carried the district by 69% to John McCain’s 30% in 2008, and John Kerry won 67% of the vote in 2004’s presidential race while George W. Bush received 32%
The man considered the father of Wisconsin progressive politics hailed from the region, and, underscoring how the political parties have shifted, he was a Republican for most of his career. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette came from a rural area near Madison and attended the University of Wisconsin. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he held a succession of offices from district attorney to congressman to governor to U.S. senator. He fought political corruption; championed the rights of workers, women, and racial minorities; and sought to rein in corporate power. As a senator he opposed U.S. entry into World War I, for which he was called a traitor, but he won reelection nonetheless. In 1924, a year before his death, he formed his own political party, the Progressives, and ran for president, winning one sixth of the vote — a respectable showing for a third party.
Pocan considers La Follette his political hero; as a state representative, he sponsored a resolution to recognize June 14 as Fighting Bob La Follette Day. Upon this year’s observance, Pocan said La Follette “embodies the ideal that government can bring about social and political progress for the greater good of all citizens, and that’s something that we should celebrate. He fought for his constituents against wealthy corporate special interests.”
La Follette, however, was not the only progressive predecessor Pocan invoked after decisively winning the Democratic primary in August. “This is the seat of Fighting Bob La Follette,” he said. “This is the seat of Bob Kastenmeier. And this is the seat of Tammy Baldwin.”