Having a seat at the table has never mattered more for the LGBT community than in the 2012 election cycle, according to Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., who’s vying to become the first openly gay U.S. senator.
Baldwin, who in 1998 became the first out non-incumbent elected to Congress, was in Texas last weekend to raise money from LGBT donors for her Senate campaign. She attended a private gathering Friday night in Dallas before speaking Saturday at the Human Rights Campaign’s Dallas/Fort Worth Federal Club’s Spring 2012 Luncheon, at the Tower Club on the 48th floor of Thanksgiving Tower in downtown Dallas. Baldwin traveled to Houston for a brunch hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund on Sunday.
Baldwin is endorsed by both HRC and the Victory Fund.
Just recovering from losing her voice, Baldwin spoke softly Saturday afternoon as she gave an address that appeared to be one part standard stump speech infused with one part rallying cry for LGBT equality. Baldwin talked about the huge advances the LGBT movement has made since she was first elected 14 years ago — but also about how much work remains to be done.
“Whether the objective is large or small, whether the arena is public or private, whether you are a lone voice or a chorus of thousands, having a seat at the table matters, and this election season, I would argue that it has never mattered more,” Baldwin told the group of some 200 at the Tower Club.
Baldwin said when two lesbian sailors kissed at Norfolk harbor in December after one returned home aboard the USS Oak Hill — in a photo that symbolized the end of the military’s ban on open service — they “kissed decades of discrimination good riddance.”
“Even the very fact that I’m the presumptive Democratic nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin speaks volumes about the progress we’ve made and continue to make,” she said.
But on the flip side, Baldwin noted that “civility is hard to find” in the current political climate, and she said LGBT equality is “proceeding at an uneven pace.”
“Nevertheless, I share the frustration of those who feel our quest for equality has not come far enough or fast enough,” said Baldwin, who called the so-called Defense of Marriage Act unfair, discriminatory, unconstitutional and un-American.
Prior to the dinner, Baldwin told Instant Tea she supports the effort to add marriage equality to the Democratic Party’s platform. Baldwin served on the platform committee in 2008.
“I certainly hope we do that,” she said of the marriage equality plank. “I would say that I hope the platform in its entirety is very strong on LGBT equality. I don’t expect to be on the platform writing committee this time given my other engagements. I certainly hope that that will be a focus of those who participate in the process.”
Last week, Baldwin told The New York Times she thinks President Barack Obama is “moving in the right direction” on marriage equality. “I have no idea what goes on in another person’s mind,” Baldwin told the NYT in response to a question about Obama’s “evolution” on marriage equality. “As a legislator, I need to be good at persuading people, counting votes and getting to 50 percent plus one. I don’t go back and say, ‘Why did this person get to the right position?’ It’s only ‘Are you yes or are you no?’”
During her address on Saturday, Baldwin said Obama has done more for LGBT equality than any president in history, from signing LGBT inclusive hate crimes legislation and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to choosing not to defend DOMA against federal court challenges. But she noted that Republican House Speaker John Boehner has spent $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars defending DOMA because the Obama administration refuses to do so.
“We celebrate the increasing number of same-sex marriages, but we continue to fight a well-organized and well-financed opposition to equal marriage rights,” Baldwin said. “We celebrate every Gay Straight Alliance and anti-bullying campaign in our schools, but we continue to fight tragic cruelty that occurs to our children. We are on the right path, but clearly we have far still to go.”
And that’s why Baldwin said she chose to give up a “safe” House seat to run for what will be a hotly contested Wisconsin Senate seat. Baldwin said the Tea Party wave of 2010 led to the defeat of Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, whom she called a friend and “a great ally of the LGBT community.” Feingold was replaced by Republican Ron Johnson.
“Instead of that wonderful progressive voice we used to have, Wisconsin is represented by a senator who just votes no,” Baldwin said. “He is happy to block any and every effort to confront the great challenges that our nation faces right now, and that’s not the Wisconsin way. Our state’s motto is ‘Forward,’ and we need a senator who will lead us in that direction.”
Baldwin is vying for the state’s other Senate seat, which is currently held by Democrat Herb Kohl, who’s retiring at the end of this year. Baldwin is unopposed in the Democratic primary, but there are four Republicans in the race, including former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
“Independent polls show me in a dead heat with the leading Republican contender, a former governor of our state who is known to nearly 95 percent of all voters in Wisconsin, while I’m known to slightly more than 50 percent of all voters in the state, so I have room to grow as my message gets out. He doesn’t,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said she’s polling ahead of the other three Republican candidates. Wisconsin doesn’t hold its primaries until August.
“So, like Romney and Gingrich and Santorum, I expect the four Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate primary to kind of tear each other up, while they’re exposing their extreme agenda,” Baldwin said.
Earlier, Baldwin told Instant Tea she thinks it would be to the Republican nominee’s “electoral detriment” to bring up her sexual orientation in the general election.
“This race isn’t going to be about me; it’s going to be about having a champion for the middle class,” she said. “But with so many outside groups in politics these days, these super PACs that have been unleashed by Citizens United, we need to be prepared for any eventuality.”
Baldwin said it’s going to be “a tough race” because Wisconsin is “deeply and evenly divided.” But she said HRC has been with her every step of the way, just as they were when she first ran for Congress in 1998. She also said the LGBT community played an important role in her decision to get in the race, as well as her ability to clear the Democratic field without a primary.
“They looked at the support that I’m getting from the LGBT community and what that meant, and they wisely decided I was the strongest contender,” Baldwin said of the other candidates. “I am very grateful for that incredible support.”