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.