Tammy Baldwin’s big moment

Wisconsin Senator leads the way toward a bipartisan deal on marriage equality

July 28, 2022 6:30 am
Tammy Baldwin photo

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Vaughn R. Larson | Wis. Dept. of Military Affairs)

Leave it to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) to begin building bipartisan consensus on a bill to protect same-sex marriage, just as the Jan. 6 committee hearings are exposing how political polarization is ripping our nation apart.

Baldwin is keeping her head down, doing what she does best — pursuing an earnest policy goal and, in her low-key way, winning over unlikely partners from across the aisle. In order to overcome a potential filibuster of the Respect for Marriage Act, the bill that passed the House on July 19 codifying federal protections for same-sex and interracial couples, Baldwin has been put in charge of rounding up Republican votes.

“It’s going pretty well,” she told me on the phone Wednesday afternoon just before taking the podium to preside over the Senate.

“You know, there’s all sorts of complexities of counting votes,” she added. “People will say, ‘I’m leaning your way but I don’t want my name to be used publicly.’ It’s like, OK, should I put that as a solid ‘Yes’? Should I put that as a ‘leaning Yes’? So, there’s those complexities. We need 10 [Republican votes] in order to overcome a filibuster. We have five public. I have five that I would put in the camp of ‘leaning Yes’ and wanting to remain private. And so I think I need a couple more just to make sure that those slippery ones don’t slip away.”

The Respect for Marriage Act became an urgent priority after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, eliminating the nearly 50-year-old precedent protecting abortion rights. Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion,  suggested that the Court should apply the same logic it used to erase the constitutional protection for abortion to overturn precedents recognizing a right to privacy and protecting the use of contraception, private sexual conduct and same-sex marriage.

In the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Samuel Alito took pains to state, “Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.” But legal scholars — and the dissenting justices on the Court — cast doubt on that assurance, pointing out that the same legal basis for the Dobbs decision could also be used to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut (protecting the right to contraception) Lawrence v. Texas (preventing states from criminalizing private homosexual activity) and the 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges recognizing same-sex couples’ right to marry.

As Ruth Marcus points out in the Washington Post, three current members of the Court — Thomas, Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts — dissented in the 2015 Obergefell decision. And Donald Trump’s three conservative appointees have since joined their ranks. And while no one joined Thomas’ opinion that the Court should jettison the whole idea of a constitutionally protected right to privacy, “who knows who will be willing to join him down the road?” Marcus writes. “His envelope-pushing is more than doctrinal provocation — it has real-world consequences. It invites conservative activists to bring such challenges.”

A lot of Republicans downplay that possibility. But in the post-Roe world, things seem possible that didn’t before.

“The most challenging piece,” says Baldwin, “has been convincing those who just don’t think the Supreme Court will ever revisit Obergefell — so why bother?”

The elimination of the constitutional protection for abortion, which most of Baldwin’s Republican colleagues supported, was “a shock to the system,” Baldwin says, “to see tens of millions of Americans enjoying fewer rights and freedoms than their mother and grandmothers.”

Still, she is committed to pushing forward constructive legislation by reaching across the aisle, as she has been doing for a decade now in the U.S. Senate.

“I know that in order to be successful with most of my legislation — if not all of it — that I have to work across the aisle,” Baldwin says. Over the years she has worked with most of her Republican colleagues, either in committee or on bills like this week’s $52 billion subsidy for the domestic semi-conductor industry, where they shared a common interest.

When she was in the Wisconsin Legislature, Baldwin prided herself on cosponsoring bills with conservative Republicans.  She worked with a Republican legislator named Scott Walker, before he became famous as Wisconsin’s “divide and conquer,” union-busting Republican governor. Baldwin and Walker co-sponsored legislation to create a system for electronically filing campaign finance reports, to make them more accessible to the public. “People were like, ‘You had a bill with Scott Walker? How could that possibly be?’”  Baldwin says with a chuckle. 

A 2014 profile in Milwaukee Magazine, “Tammy Baldwin’s Long Game” by Matt Hrodey, opens with a description of Baldwin smilingly deflecting an unhinged C-SPAN caller focused on the fact that she is a lesbian, and asking her what she’s going to do about a child sex-trafficking ring. Baldwin manages to remain attentive and polite, while averring that she has no idea what the caller is talking about. It’s a classic moment. Summing up Baldwin’s style, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), calls her “a quiet, calm voice in a Congress where a lot of people are trying to make it about themselves.”

Baldwin’s Midwestern charm, including her ability to set her ego aside and listen deeply to others, has made her an object of fascination in Washington, D.C., where mammoth egos collide. Each time she wins a race, national media swoon over the fact that the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate and the first woman ever sent there from Wisconsin, who champions labor rights, opposes U.S. military interventions and has long championed universal, single-payer health care, wins so many votes in rural, Republican counties. In 2018, Baldwin won re-election with more than 10% of the vote, picking up votes in Trump strongholds, while Democratic Gov. Tony Evers beat Walker in a squeaker by 1% and the other Democrats in statewide races won by similar nail-biting margins.

Part of Baldwin’s secret is simple hard work. She travels to every corner of the state, gets to know people personally, understands what matters to them and goes to bat for them in Washington. She champions the interests of dairy farmers and Wisconsin manufacturers — opposing massive global trade deals that have been disastrous for farmers and blue-collar workers. And she brings home the bacon in the form of ship-building contracts and even the controversial F-35 fighter jet — which progressive Madison residents heartily resisted.

Those bread and butter issues are often more important to voters than the culture-wars Republicans are fomenting. Take immigration. While GOP Sen. Ron Johnson and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels are running against the “illegal aliens” supposedly pouring over the border and threatening the lives and livelihoods of Wisconsinites, Baldwin wrote a letter to then-President Donald Trump back in 2017 asking him to lay off the anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE raids and trade wars with Mexico — all of which were hurting Wisconsin dairy farmers, who rely heavily on immigrant labor and Mexican markets.

Baldwin’s granular approach to policy, finding areas of agreement, and her relentlessly positive relationship-building are a bright spot in a bleak political environment these days.

Still, when it comes to toxic partisanship, “I would love to tell you that I was optimistic, but I’m not,” she says. “I do think that small little steps we can take help.” She points to a regular bipartisan women’s dinner in the Senate. “Sometimes the environment on the Hill feels so toxic that we won’t even talk politics,” she says.  But even small efforts at improving relationships are worthwhile, in Baldwin’s view. She likes a colleague’s idea that the Senate reconsider seating people by party, on opposite sides of the chamber. “You could seat people by seniority, and you would have a much bigger mix. You’d have to talk to each other and visit with each other a little more,” she says.

In many ways, Baldwin says, the increasing polarization of America goes deeper than politics. She traces it back to Mr. divide-and-conquer himself, Scott Walker, and the way his attacks on public employee unions divided families and exacerbated bitterness and resentment in a state once known for civility and friendliness. “There were families sitting around the Thanksgiving table, yelling at each other,” she recalls. “The divisions have gotten worse since then.”

Although her voting record is just as progressive as many rock-throwing, take-no-prisoners Democrats in the House, Baldwin rarely raises her voice.

Contrast her approach with Congressman Mark Pocan, who, from the same seat Baldwin once held representing the deep-blue 2nd Congressional District around Madison, feels free to cut loose.

Urging his Republican colleagues to support the Respect for Marriage Act on the floor of the House, Pocan told them, “If I was the entity on the other side of the aisle, I’d be more concerned when my own members accused them of having cocaine-fueled orgies than worrying about the morality of my marriage.”

Baldwin takes a quieter approach. Her current mission to garner GOP votes to protect gay marriage turns on personal connections. The Republicans she is trying to persuade to join her are not just ideological libertarians or candidates in socially liberal districts. They are senators with friends and family members who are gay, and whose right to have their marriages recognized and to visit their loved ones in the hospital are now on the line.

“In the years since Obergefell, the chances that my Republican colleagues have a staff member, have a family member, a neighbor, somebody who they go to church with or synagogue with who’s gay and married — the chances have just gone up and up and up,” she says. “And so I do think that that’s a factor at play. They now know, if they’re going to vote ‘No,’ that they’re literally placing in jeopardy marriages within their states, and I think that’s why we saw such a good vote last Tuesday, in the House.”

Perhaps marriage equality is a good issue to start to heal political divisions because, unlike abortion, it makes people feel good.

Warm feelings, after all, are part of what helped turn the tide and led to the dramatic advance in civil rights for LGBTQ people

Personal relationships changed hearts and minds on gay rights. As more sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, moms and dads came out, more Americans recognized that gay rights meant acceptance, safety and respect for the people dear to them — urban, rural, Black, brown and white.

The more people see civil rights issues as issues that touch them personally, the more widespread the support. It’s the opposite of what opponents of non-discrimination laws used to call “special rights,” as if blunting the effects of bigotry were some sort of privilege conferred on LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. “Special rights” was a divide-and-conquer term. “Respect for marriage” brings people together. 

The gay rights movement was propelled both by taboo-breaking transgressive rebels and by the more staid advocates for inclusion and recognition of LGBTQ families. Both groups were vitally necessary. Right now the second group, if slightly dull, seems to be leading the way.

No doubt about it, it’s Tammy Baldwin’s moment. Politico called her a “midwestern pioneer” this week, and described her as “blazing a trail” to bipartisan consensus on marriage equality. 

In our fanatically polarized political environment, it’s fascinating to see Baldwin working her magic on Republican senators. 

Her approach, speaking softly and building consensus behind the scenes, in this era of increasingly angry, alienating and hateful rhetoric, offers hope for a more civil and humane politics — and a democracy that allows people with different views to come together around shared values.

Imagine that.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.