BOSTON — When Tammy Baldwin takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention Monday night, with a prime-time speaking slot on a star-studded bill that includes two former presidents, a former vice president and a former first lady, she will pause to recall just how far she has come from an empty apartment on a very different convention night.

Back in 1984, Baldwin was fresh out of college and back in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. She had just sublet a small, unfurnished apartment. There was a mat on the floor, a pan her aunt had given her and a tiny, black-and-white television set. Baldwin remembers sitting alone in the apartment, watching the Democratic National Convention that was held that summer in San Francisco.

“I was 22 years old, very interested in politics, but I didn’t really know what my options were,” Baldwin explained. “That 1984 convention was the one where the Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman, to run for vice president. I was so excited. So there I was, in my little apartment, watching Geraldine Ferraro delivering her acceptance speech and thinking, ‘Wow, I can do anything in politics. The barriers are being broken. The sky’s the limit.”

Baldwin would go on to break a few of those barriers herself. After serving in local government, she won a seat in the legislature and, in 1998, she was the first out-of-the-closet lesbian elected to a seat in Congress.

As one of the youngest women in the House, a leading light on the Judiciary Committee, a key player in the Congressional Progressive Caucus and, still, the only open lesbian, Baldwin is something of a political celebrity nationally — and as much of an inspiration to a growing number of young progressive women as Ferraro was for her two decades ago. “I think Tammy Baldwin is one of the most interesting people in Congress, and she’s certainly one of the most interesting speakers at this year’s convention,” says Laura Flanders, the Air America radio host who recently authored a book on women in and around the Bush administration. “I’m more excited to hear her speak than just about anyone else on the list.”

But when Baldwin addresses the convention and the country Monday night, on a bill that will feature Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, among other Democratic luminaries, she won’t be addressing women’s empowerment, or the same-sex marriage debate in which she led a spirited floor fight against conservative House Republicans just last week.

Rather, she will focus on what has long been her signature issue: health care reform.

As one of three members of the House chosen to address key issues of the campaign, Baldwin says, “It’s my job to explain the challenges that we face in our health care system — lack of coverage for tens of millions of Americans, inadequate coverage for tens of millions more — and to explain why John Kerry would do a better job of addressing these issues than George Bush. In some senses, that won’t be hard. There are night-and-day differences between their plans: John Kerry’s got a proposal that would move quickly to cover 29 million more Americans, especially children. The president’s plan only covers 1.6 million more people.”

Baldwin, one of the most prominent backers in Congress of a single-payer health care system that would cover all Americans, admits that the proposal put forward by Kerry, the man Democrats will nominate this week for president, does not achieve the full coverage that a single-payer system would deliver. But she says that, after meeting with Kerry and reviewing his proposal, she is enthusiastic about making the case for the Massachusetts senator.

“My perspective is different on how we get there, but I’m very satisfied that John Kerry is committed to working toward getting quality health care for all Americans,” says the congresswoman, who will save her single-payer rap for House debates. “The speech to the convention is not about walking on stage and telling the nation what Tammy Baldwin wants to do. This is a nominating convention and my job is to talk about why I think it is essential to nominate John Kerry.”

That does not mean that Baldwin’s address will be a dry recitation of Kerry’s positions. She has written a speech that will use the stories of constituents from her Midwestern district to illustrate health care concerns and issues. And, in this day of scripted conventions, Baldwin says she was pleasantly pleased by the free hand she was given in preparing her remarks.

“I wrote a speech and submitted it to the Kerry people. They said they loved it – and it’s a little too long,” recalled Baldwin. “There was never any pressure on content, they just said I had to keep it to under 10 minutes.”

Two other Democratic members of the House, Ohio’s Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, will address the economy and national security issues, respectively, as part of the program that includes Baldwin. Tubbs-Jones is an African-American, Menendez is a Latino, and, of course, Baldwin is one of the handful of lesbian and gay members of the House. Unlike Republican conventions, however, Baldwin says she and the other speakers are on stage to deliver substance, not symbolism.

“Democrats aren’t going to typecast anyone. They’re embracing us as individuals who have made our mark on fundamental issues facing the country — not just as symbols,” says Baldwin. “That’s what’s really exciting about this party and this convention.”

Still, Baldwin says she hopes there will be young women, some of them just out of college and sitting on the floor of their first apartments, who will be inspired both by what she has to say and by her presence in prime time.

“A few years ago, I met Geraldine Ferraro,” Baldwin recalls. “I told her I probably wouldn’t be in Congress if I hadn’t seen her speech. I know that times have changed and there are a lot more women in prominent positions. But I would be so happy if I could do for someone else what she did for me in 1984.”