In 2010, Wisconsin voters put the governorship, a Senate seat and both chambers of the state legislature into Republican hands, earning distinction as the “high-water mark,” as the Wall Street Journal called it, of electoral discontent with President Obama and the Democratic Congress. But newly elected Governor Scott Walker’s move to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights provoked a massive backlash—state legislators fled the state to prevent a vote on the bill, while tens of thousands of protesters descended on the state Capitol—and then a recall campaign. In 2012, the tide may be turning, or at least so hopes Representative Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress, who is now running to be a senator from Wisconsin. She recently stopped by The Nation’s offices to talk about healthcare reform, Citizens United and Wisconsin’s resurgent progressivism.
The Nation: Congresswoman Baldwin, you’ve said that you’re not running away from your—very liberal—record. You think that Wisconsin is in the midst of a resurgence of progressivism—just two years after turning so many state and federal offices over to Republicans.
Tammy Baldwin: In Wisconsin we relate to progressivism. You see it elsewhere, but it means something different in Wisconsin, because Republican Bob La Follet Sr. was from Wisconsin. And, in fact, he occupied the Senate seat that I’m running for.
His was a time strikingly similar to ours right now. Back then, it was the monopolies—the rail monopolies, the utilities, etc.—were basically controlling government, and to their own ends. And people didn’t have a voice.
And so he left the Republican Party and formed the Progressive party. Because it happened in Wisconsin, we use that word a lot more often to describe what we believe in. Kids who’ve gone through the school system in Wisconsin know what that means, what that movement was about.
When you use it nationally, I think people think you’re running away from being labeled liberal. But I see it as locally distinct.
When John Nichols was visiting the office a few weeks ago he talked about how in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and others, really underestimated the extent to which, in Madison in particular, residents strongly identify with public institutions.
The University of Wisconsin Madison campus has 40,000 students. The state capitol is there. So you have the headquarters of state government and all of the major departments all headquartered there, and then city government, too.
So you do have a concentration of voters and constituents, people in that area who have a very direct relationship with what government does and the role it can play in people’s lives.
But I think what we’ve seen statewide with the workers’ rights debates that are occurring right now [represents] a reconnection to what is best done by individuals versus what is best done collectively for the common good.
Will you run on healthcare reform? That’s the line of attack: Tammy Baldwin, supporter of Obamacare.
I do run on it. It’s not separate form the struggles that middle-class families are having. Let me tell you how I approach it.
I was raised by my maternal grandparents; my mother was just a teenager when I was born, and needed their help and they stepped forward. When I was 9, I had a serious illness and I was in the hospital for three months, and my grandfather had a family health insurance policy.
But when the bills came due, fine print, covers dependents in the family, so that’s children and spouses. Grandchildren didn’t meet the definition for the family insurance. My grandparents literally had to go into the retirement savings in order to pay for my hospital bills.
After that, despite the fact that I was fully recovered, I was then a child with a pre-existing health condition, and so they couldn’t find an individual policy for me at any price, because the actuaries would look at me and were like, “We’re not going there!”
So I grew up understanding that this had happened to my family and thinking, “This is just wrong.” If I look at healthcare today, what we have, first of all moms and dads don’t have to worry anymore that an insurance company can simply reject their child at any cost. I was on the Health subcommittee so I got a chance at crafting the bill while was going through the house. I offered the amendment in committee allowing young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance until they’re 26.
There are 2.5 million young people today who have coverage that didn’t before that bill was passed. Every time I talk about that in Wisconsin, somebody comes up to me afterwards and tells me [how it’s affected them].
A dad burst into tears the other day. I don’t think he even thought he was going to be emotional about this. His 21-year-old son is now on his insurance, completely healthy kid, and I don’t know if he had a sudden illness or injury, but he had a quick, weekend hospitalization. He just started crying, “I don’t know what we would’ve done if my son hadn’t been on our insurance. He’s fine now.”
When I’m running against, right now, three guys whose first action would be to work to repeal that bill. Well, you’re taking away peace of mind from moms and dads who have kids who’ve been sick. You are stealing 2.5 million young people’s healthcare and you’re going back to the way things were before where there were no protections from discriminatory practices of the insurance companies and no methodology to get prices under control.
Not only have you out-fundraised your Republican opponents, over 90 percent of your donors have given in amounts under $100. But the Chamber of Commerce is getting involved in your race, and, as you’ve said, we’re in a post-Citizens United world. How is your approach threatened by the campaign finance law we have now?
I am very concerned about the impact of Citizens United, not from a selfish perspective, but from what it means for democracy, what it means for the people’s voices being heard. We have to have a strategy to address Citizens United, both in the short term and in the long term.
Disclosure is key. If you know where the money’s coming from, you have a different view of the message that you are receiving. If it’s from a group called Citizens for Good Government, you have no idea. If it said, “This ad was authorized and paid for by Exxon Mobil,” you have a different frame through which you hear that message.
The other things that the Supreme Court left the door open for Congress and for state legislatures to do relate to corporate governance issues of, if the CEO’s just had a bad day and decides that he—I’m going to be sexist, because that’s mostly the case—wants to get involved in somebody’s race, they don’t have to tell the board of directors, their shareholders, they don’t have to report it.
If a corporate entity is going to exercise their “personhood,” it should get at least a majority vote of the board of directors maybe? Or a shareholders’ vote.
You were the first openly gay candidate to win a seat in Congress as a non-incumbent. If you were elected to the Senate, that, too, would be historic. On the campaign trail, does that come up? Looking at Rick Santorum, the debates and culture war issues coming back, does that alarm you?
In terms of does the issue come up: it really came up on the day that I announced, when I did a media tour of the state and did my TV interviews.
We talked about my voting record and then, Can an out lesbian win? And my response was and is, I’ve always been open and honest about who I am, and I think voters look for integrity in people who are seeking to serve in public office. It that matters to people that I have integrity, that I’m honest.
But voters who go into the polling place on November 6th are going to be thinking about the economy, growth, their jobs, whether the middle class is going to get on its feet again—it’s not about me.
Secondly, in terms of people’s concern about how I’ll prioritize things, look. Discrimination is wrong in any of its forms. Race, age, gender, sexual orientation. And I just make no apologies for fighting discrimination at every turn.
Fairness, a level playing field—those things are what people are hungry for right now, and it’s what I’ve fought for in all realms.
Do you think that your Republican opposition might try and exploit your sexual orientation?
There’s a three-way, probably soon to be four-way Republican primary—they’re in their own GOP food fight. I wouldn’t be surprised if this comes up as they try to race to the right.
But I think it will be at their peril if they don’t focus on the issues that voters are thinking about day in and day out.
You’ve been focused on making trade fair—but Obama and other prominent Democrats, who have embraced a lot of anti–Wall Street economic populism haven’t changed their position on this issue.
I’ve taken my own path on this, based on what I view as the realities of Wisconsin. Overall, when you have a state that’s the number-one—goes back and forth, number-one or number-two—manufacturing state, free trade versus fair trade makes a difference. We have taken a beating in manufacturing in Wisconsin over the last, not over the recession, but over much a longer period of history because of the trade policy in the United States.
If we’re going to start making things again, we’ve got to really address that.
Would you put NAFTA, the bilateral trade deals on the table?
I’d love to. It’s very difficult to do, as our president found; he said he would in the campaign. I look at it more prospectively. I certainly think if it’s not a race to the bottom—trade is important, it’s hugely important—I support trade. We want to export things; we want to import things that we can’t make easily here. But we don’t do so in a way that undercuts our own manufacturing sector. We can’t just have a service economy.
We asked Bob Herbert whether he thinks America can regain a manufacturing base. I think he would love for America to regain a manufacturing base but he doesn’t really think it’s going to happen. You think it could?
If we have a level playing field, especially given the hardworking ethic in Wisconsin and the productivity, absolutely. The president just visited MasterLock in Wisconsin. Why did he go to MasterLock? Because they’re just bringing about 100 jobs from China back to inner-city Milwaukee, which is where the plant is, because the productivity is better in the Wisconsin plant.
Now, without additional policy signals, I don’t think we’re going to see that on a mass scale.
Did you find the New York Times report about Apple’s supply chain depressing? The extent to which their whole economy is set up to be able to furnish an incredible not only amount of labor but agility? To think that we’re up against that is scary.
Especially when you come from the state that was the first to pass a workers’ compensation law. We don’t view our people as disposable commodities that simply do repetitive work.
One of the things we learned that was so remarkable was that the Chinese government is massively subsidizes the ability of Chinese companies to turn on a dime. That’s not happening here.
And it probably never will. But if we’re competing, if private industry is competing without private industry without somebody tipping the scales, we’re going to do just fine. I really believe that.