Long before the 'rainbow wave,' Sen. Tammy Baldwin was blazing a trail

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first LGBTQ person elected to the Senate, has been chipping away at glass ceilings for decades.
By Brooke Sopelsa

The midterm elections ushered in a record number of LGBTQ people to elected office. But long before that “rainbow wave” — and before it was even a ripple — Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, an out lesbian, was slowly chipping away at glass ceilings once thought unbreakable.

Baldwin, who was first elected to political office more than three decades ago at 24, became in 1999 the first gay woman and the first openly LGBTQ nonincumbent elected to Congress. Then in 2012, she made history as the first LGBTQ person elected to the Senate. And last month — despite being a top target for national Republicans and enduring over a year of attack ads— Baldwin won re-election to a second term in a landslide.

“Wisconsin voters resented that,” Baldwin said of the outside money that poured into her state. “I think they were deeply suspect of outside special interests with their own agenda spending so much money to try to buy a Senate seat that it kind of backfired.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., celebrates winning re-election last month with supporters in Madison, Wisconsin.Steve Apps / Wisconsin State Journal via AP

Baldwin also credited grassroots activism like she’d “never seen before” with energizing progressive voters in the state.

“Partly in response to the 2016 election, people said, ‘Oh my goodness, this isn’t what we expected. We are not going to be spectators anymore,’” Baldwin said in an interview with NBC News on Dec. 6 at the Victory Institute's International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in Washington.

“A lot of that energy was harnessed first to work on issues and fight back against the Trump agenda in Washington and the Walker agenda in Wisconsin, but part of it then became very focused on winning elections," she said, referring to Gov. Scott Walker, the outgoing Republican.

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Baldwin said this desire to get off the sidelines and “be active” inspired people, particularly from the LGBTQ community, to not just organize and speak out but also to run for office. The Victory Institute, which trains and tracks LGBTQ political hopefuls, reported that more than 600 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer candidates ran this year, approximately 432 made it to the general election and an estimated 244 emerged victorious on Nov. 6.

“People were very frightened about turning back the clock on so many things that we’d made progress on,” Baldwin explained. “The LGBTQ community was no exception in saying, ‘We can’t be spectators, we can’t take for granted this rapid progress we’ve seen in the previous administration.'”

"I really worried that I might have this choice between being honest about who I am and running for office ... I remember the time and the moment where I realized I could have both."

Baldwin said the success of these candidates, who had a 56.5 percent win rate in the general election, was due, in part, to their refusal to be “stereotyped or typecast as just being LGBTQ candidates running on an LGBTQ agenda.”

“Our candidates made the case that they’re fighting for everyone,” Baldwin stressed. “They were making the case to their voters, ‘I am here to fight for you and to fight for all of us to be able to get ahead economically, to be able to have fair treatment.’ I think that was one of the winning combinations.”

As one of the highest-ranking openly gay elected officials in the country, Baldwin is undoubtedly seen as a role model by many in the community, given that only 0.12 percent of elected officials across the U.S. are estimated to be openly LGBTQ. When asked whether this responsibility was ever a burden, Baldwin said it had been challenge earlier in her career finding a balance with the demands of her high-profile day job, but that at this stage it was just a “great honor.”

“Once you’ve been elected to office, high office especially, you do get to be a role model whether you want to or not,” she said laughingly. “I’m just overjoyed when I hear a story from, say, a young person who’s thinking about running for office who said, ‘You know, I kind of thought I couldn’t do it, and then I read about you, and I read about some of the wonderful path-makers in our community, and now I’m doing it.’ That is an amazing feeling. I think we just need more and more role models to show it’s not something exceptional.”

So, what advice does Baldwin have for those who want to keep the “rainbow wave” going in the next election?

“One of the most amazing experiences of my life has been the ability to work from within a legislative body to build majorities, to change minds and hearts, and to bring people to the place where they're proud to call themselves fighters for equity and equality,” Baldwin said.

But she added that she didn’t always think that the successful career she ended up building for herself would be possible.

“I really worried that I might have this choice between being honest about who I am and running for office,” she recalled. “I remember the time and the moment where I realized I could have both. Right? I could be totally honest about who I am, and I can run for office, and I can win.”

She described that moment as “very freeing” and said it enabled her to better connect with her constituents.

“Voters see immediately if you're authentic or if you're hiding something, if you have integrity or you're parsing your words too carefully,” she explained. Being honest about who you are, she added, “can even be viewed as an asset or an advantage from that perspective of courage, integrity and honesty.”

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