For well over a year, Wisconsin had a governor in the national spotlight. Come this November, the state will feature another candidate who will be a national symbol: Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat in the House of Representatives, will attempt to become the first openly gay Senator in U.S. history.
MILWAUKEE — In the midst of Gay Pride Month, the politics of sexual identity have filled local and national news. In Washington state, Referendum 74 gained enough signatures to put same-sex marriage on the ballot in November. Nationally, the Pentagon announced they would observe gay pride month for the first time.
But come November, gay-rights activists and allies may break out their pride parade floats for another round of celebration: Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat in the House of Representatives, will attempt to become the first openly gay Senator in U.S. history.
Wisconsin’s long-time U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat of Kohl’s department store fame, is retiring at the end of his term this year. Baldwin, who was first elected to office in 1998 and represents the Madison area, has an unchallenged pathway to be the Democratic nominee for his seat.
If Baldwin wins, it would mark a historic cultural and social moment for America. For supporters, it represents profound progress for Wisconsinites and Americans alike. For opponents, it could represent a moral misstep, or, at the least, a missed opportunity to gain a much-needed Republican seat in the Senate.
The past year has included several shifts on issues of gay and lesbian politics, with wins for both proponents and opponents.
In September, President Barack Obama signed the official repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — thereby allowing service men and women to serve openly, and last summer, New York voters legalized same-sex marriage under the Marriage Equality Act. And just over a month ago, the president announced personal support of same-sex marriage. But, in a countervailing direction, North Carolinians recently decided with the passage of Amendment One to define any domestic partnership as between one man and one woman in their state constitution, and like Washington, same-sex marriage will be on the ballot this fall in Minnesota and Maine.
Baldwin would become both the first openly gay Senator ever and the first female senator in Wisconsin history. Surely for her these times are historic, even though it is far from clear how things will turn out.
To get some perspective on her views, I sat down with Baldwin’s campaign communication manager, John Kraus. I asked Kraus, who has worked on eight statewide elections, about Baldwin’s perspective on the president’s support of same-sex marriage, and noted how Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire had called Obama an “inspiration.” How did Baldwin see things?
To this point in our meeting, Kraus had been as talkative as a politician shaking hands on a rope line. But now he paused. He was hesitant to speak on behalf of Baldwin regarding this issue, noting how personal it is to her, and instead directed me to her official statement on the matter.
The statement says Baldwin is “proud of President Obama’s strong record of promoting fairness and equality. These are values I share…I am pleased that the President has today joined a growing number of people across the country who are moving forward on the issue of marriage equality and equal opportunity for all Americans.”
The statement is filed under the News section of her campaign web site but not featured on her House web site. (When a sitting officeholder is running for re-election or a new office, they almost always have separate web sites and staff working on both fronts.) However, Baldwin’s House site does feature a page on LGBT Equality in the Issues section of the site, whereas her campaign site only features four issue categories: Economic Security, Investing in Our Future, Fiscal Responsibility, and Retirement Security.
By all accounts, it appears as though Baldwin is not foregrounding her sexual orientation, or its potentially historic implications, in her campaign. Kraus said Baldwin is open about her sexual orientation but that it does not come up on the campaign trail. Rather, Kraus said voters are more focused on the issues, and when it comes to character, he said Baldwin has the “proven ability that the more people get to know about her, the more they like her.”
Baldwin echoed this sentiment in an interview with the blog Jezebel when she said the symbolic nature of her win would be “powerfully important” and that it would “make a very big difference to shatter that glass ceiling in the U.S. Senate.” But Baldwin in interview, just as Kraus did in my interview, was quick to pivot back to the issues, asserting, “Wisconsinites aren’t going to be thinking about that particular aspect when they go to the polls in November. They’re going to say, ‘Who is fighting for us? Who’s going to help our state grow again and our economy get back on track?’”
In 2006, Wisconsin voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. It seems a bit optimistic and progressive, therefore, to think that Baldwin’s sexual orientation won’t be salient — either positively or negatively — in the election.
While in Wisconsin, my curiosity led me to ask citizens whether they thought her sexual orientation would be a deciding factor in the election. Time after time, people said it would be a non-starter. Milwaukee resident Brian Rothgery remarked, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people didn’t even know Tammy was gay.” (Hey Public Policy Polling, got some free time this week?)
So far, none of the Republican candidates have openly addressed Baldwin’s sexual orientation. They are, perhaps, too busy focusing on one another at the moment.
But that is sure to change.
With attention turning from the gubernatorial recall toward the four candidates — former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly Jeff Fitzgerald, former U.S. Rep Mark Neumann, and local businessman Eric Hovde — the politics will likely be contentious through the Republican primary in August and then to the general election in November.
Will we hear whispers or anything louder about Baldwin’s sexual orientation? Two of Baldwin’s opponents, Thompson and Neumann, have both made disparaging remarks about homosexuality in the past.
In the 1990s as a freshman congressman, Neumann told the New York Times that “If I was elected God for a day, homosexuality wouldn’t be permitted.” A year later, he said, “If somebody walks in to me and says, ‘I’m a gay person, I want a job in your office,’ I would say that’s inappropriate, and they wouldn’t be hired because that would mean they are promoting their agenda. The gay and lesbian lifestyle (is) unacceptable, lest there be any question about that.”
In 2010 in an interview, Neumann somewhat backtracked on his statements, saying, “I regret talking about the fact that I would be God.” When pushed further on his comment about hiring gay employees, he said, “In terms of hiring, there are state statutes on the books, and I would certainly abide by the state statutes.”
In Thompson’s 2008 bid for the presidency, he was asked, “If a private employer finds homosexuality immoral, should he be allowed to fire a gay worker?” After some back and forth, Thompson eventually said plain and simple, “Yes.” But as soon as he said it, he walked back on his answer, saying that during the questioning he was ill with the flu and needed to use the restroom.
Welcome back to the political spotlight, Wisconsin.