News » Politics

Tammy Baldwin Makes History As First Openly Gay U.S. Senator

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Wednesday Nov 7, 2012

After a hard-fought, costly and bitter race, openly lesbian Democrat Tammy Baldwin emerged victorious in her race against Republican Tommy Thompson to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. This historical win makes Baldwin the first openly LGBT person to serve as a U.S. senator.

"I didn't run to make history, I ran to make a difference," Baldwin said in her acceptance speech. "A difference in the lives of students worried about debt and seniors worried about their retirement security, a difference in the lives veterans who fought for us and need someone fighting for them and their families when they return home from war, a difference in the lives of entrepreneurs trying to build a business and working people trying to build some economic security."

In 1998, Baldwin became the first woman in Wisconsin's history to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress in American history. She had one of the most liberal records in the House, which was at first considered a liability. She voted against authorizing the Iraq War, and against a pro-Patriot Act resolution that she viewed as anti-veteran.

She also supported universal health care, adding the section to Obamacare that allows children to stay on their parent's insurance until they are 26 years old. Baldwin was an outspoken advocate against Bush-era tax cuts, sponsored legislation that makes the rich pay more taxes and fought against tax breaks for overseas corporations.

She was also a champion for LGBT rights, working on the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, and advocating to prevent bullying and suicide among LGBT youth.

Thompson was initially viewed as a shoe-in for the office, until a series of gaffes about President Barack Obama, cuts to Medicaid and his time as a private sector health care company consultant undermined his lead, sparking a cutthroat series of negative ads between the two candidates that became the most expensive U.S. Senate fight in state history, costing $65 million.

The seven-term congresswoman honed in on the fact that the 70-year-old Thompson no longer represented the values of Wisconsin residents, focusing on the millions of dollars he made in the private sector off his connections made while serving as governor and U.S. health secretary. Baldwin, in contrast, promised to be a champion for the middle class.

In the end, Baldwin led former governor Thompson 51 to 47 percent, as President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin. Although Thompson got support from whites, Christian evangelicals and families with incomes over $100,000, he came up short at the polls. Baldwin said that Thompson called to congratulate her, and said that while he would not go away, he would not run again.

Outside a Madison polling station, 34-year-old warehouse clerk Chris Pfeifer told the Chippewa Herald that he had voted for Baldwin.

"She's been a really good representative for the district," Pfeifer said. "I think Tommy's had his chance already."

Baldwin will succeed retiring Sen. Herb Kohl. Her election will raise the number of women members of the Senate to 18, a new record. Baldwin's exiting congressional seat was filled by openly gay state Rep. Mark Pocan, giving Wisconsin two openly gay members of Congress.

"I am honored, and humbled, and grateful," Baldwin said in her acceptance speech. "And I am ready to get to work."

Baldwin’s Win Signals A New Era of Acceptance for LGBTs

National LGBT organizations championed the win, among them the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which raised more than $1.5 million for Baldwin, and the Human Rights Campaign.

"Baldwin is a role model for LGBT youth and all young women across the country," said HRC President Chad Griffin.

LPAC Chair Sarah Schmidt echoed this sentiment. This newly founded, grassroots, lesbian-focused Political Action Committee raised more than $700,000 in this election cycle, just since July.

"Because of your help, President Barack Obama will serve out another term (four more years of pro-LPAC values in the White House!), the Democrats will retain control of the Senate and will be joined by LPAC endorsed candidates and Tammy Baldwin, a champion for social justice, will now be the first openly gay U.S. Senator," said Schimdt in an email.

The victory also marks the changing national attitudes about LGBTs and gay marriage, cementing the decisive win six years ago in Minnesota, rejecting an amendment that would have constitutionally banned gay marriage. Baldwin’s sexual orientation was not an issue during the campaign, but she did not shy away from discussing it.

"If you are not in the room, the conversation is about you," she told The Guardian this week. "If you are in the room, the conversation is with you. We never had an openly LGBT member of the U.S. Senate, and even though there are strong pro-equality allies who serve there, it has always been a conversation about a group of people. So this changes everything."

"She’s our girl," said Kate Peyton, who worked on Baldwin’s first campaign for Congress in 1998, in a U.K. Guardian article. "We raised money, we knocked on doors, we fed volunteers. And the culture has changed a lot. I just think there has been a sea change in how OK it is to be queer."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


  • Wayne M., 2012-11-07 20:19:06

    Whether it is the support given in referenda to move toward marriage equality or the election of Tammy Baldwin to the Senate as well as other capable and intelligent LGBT persons to other political offices, I believe it is becoming clear to more people that equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is not a threat to the morality of the nation. In fact, there is a realization that the real immorality is denying equality to LGBT people - and using fear, anger, lies and religious extremism to do so.

  • Raven, 2012-11-08 14:31:39

    As one of Sen. Baldwin’s happy new constituents, let me say it was far more important to me that she is honest, egalitarian, unafraid to be confrontational when necessary -- she doesn’t back down from a fight -- and truly dedicated to helping ordinary people... as notably distinct from her lobbyist-for-the-rich-and-powerful opponent. But yeah, it’s good to have more diverse representation in Congress. Also. Too. [/palin]

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