Will Wisconsin Elect Our First Gay Senator?

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is eyeing a U.S. Senate seat, one year after Russ Feingold lost his.

Roger Bybee

People walk by the Bank of America in Chicago. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin/AFP/Getty Images)

The rebellion of Wisconsin public employee unionists against Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to take away collective bargaining rights generated crowds of 100,000 people or more at the state capitol in Madison. One of the most articulate and popular voices for the workers’ cause proved to be U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a seven-term veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives.

With a combination of intellect, political principles and personal warmth, Baldwin has developed an enthusiastic base of constituents in her district and among gays and lesbians nationally.

Baldwin, 49, has launched a populist campaign for the U.S. Senate, seeking to replace the retiring Herb Kohl, a mildly liberal Democratic senator who has served since 1988 (Wisconsin’s other Senate seat is held by former CEO Ron Johnson, who beat progressive stalwart Russ Feingold amid the Democratic carnage of the 2010 midterm elections).

With her combination of intellect, political principles and personal warmth, Baldwin – the nation’s first openly gay person to run for the U.S. Senate from either major party – has developed an enthusiastic base of constituents in her district, and among gays and lesbians nationally. Born in Madison, she has been open about her sexuality since winning a seat on the Dane County Board in 1986

Despite her openly left politics, Baldwin is well liked by politicians of both parties. While serving in the state Assembly from 1993 to 1999, when she was elected to Congress, she even got along well with then-legislator Scott Walker (now the state’s governor), with whom she worked closely on a law to require disclosure of campaign funding.

The growing shift in the national mood makes this an ideal moment for Baldwin’s message, says David Newby, retired president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and her campaign’s treasurer. The Wisconsin rebellion and Occupy Wall Street movements have been raising issues of economic injustice and workers rights,” Newby says. 

Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, says that Baldwin has taken the most progressive position on every major issue during her tenure in the House. She’s consistently been … an outspoken advocate of [a] single-payer [healthcare system]. She voted against going to war in Iraq. She has opposed free-trade agreements, including those with Colombia, Korea and Panama, which passed with the blessings of President Obama.”

Adding to the insurgent tide is a likely recall election sometime next spring for Gov. Walker, whose approval rating has plummeted since he began attacking public employees. On November 15, the Democratic Party and a group called United Wisconsin began gathering the 540,000 signatures needed to trigger a recall vote. 

Baldwin’s Republican opponent remains unclear. The heavyweight in the GOP crowd is former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was elected four times by moderating his previous hard-right positions. Thompson has had a negligible presence in the state since 2001, when he began serving as George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary. Thompson now works for a powerful law and lobbying firm, feeding the perception of him as an insider.

The Club for Growth, which favors the former congressman Mark Neumann, sponsored TV ads attacking Thompson for being too moderate (he advocated healthcare reform while in the Bush administration). 

Labor attorney and Fight​ing​Bob​.com blogger Ed Garvey believes that Baldwin has the message and the personal skills to attract voters. Tammy offers what Wisconsin produced for so many years in people in the Sen. Gaylord Nelson/​Bob Kastenmaier mold – no one questions her integrity.”

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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