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Take a seat - openly lesbian Representative Tammy Baldwin
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Rep. Tammy Baldwin and her girlfriend add a new spin to the Washington political and social scenes

When Tammy Baldwin was sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives at a January 6 ceremony, the first-ever openly lesbian congresswoman was cheered by several dozen gay activists who had worked on her campaign.

Now that Baldwin has capped her historic triumph by taking office, she faces unique challenges in both her personal life and her professional one. Not only must she get used to a new balancing act--splitting time between her work in Washington, D.C., and her partner, Lauren Azar, in Madison, Wis.--she also needs to contend with constituents who fear she will transform into a gay activist from hell, obsessively pursuing gay causes at the expense of everything else.

Baldwin, who spent six years in the Wisconsin state legislature before coming to Washington, insists fears of her being a single-issue politician are overblown. "My fundamental belief is that voters cast their ballots based on what candidate understands their struggles and their dreams,"


Baldwin tells The Advocate in a telephone interview from Madison, where she and Azar share a home with their two cats. "I think voters chose candidates without regard to sexual orientation, gender, or even party affiliation. Few people objected to the fact that I fought a same-sex marriage ban in the state legislature because they felt I was the best person to deliver on the so-called kitchen table issues--education, health care, etc."

In the November 3 general election, Baldwin became not only the first out lesbian ever elected to Congress but also the first woman to join the Wisconsin congressional delegation. "The fact that I shattered not one but two glass ceilings got voters very excited," Baldwin says. "It meant a lot to people who have traditionally been overlooked in the political process." Adds Kathleen DeBold, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which backed Baldwin's candidacy: "Tammy Baldwin tore down the Berlin Wall of electoral politics. People said an openly gay person couldn't get elected to Congress, but she did it anyway. Now others can follow in her path."

But Baldwin can't afford to celebrate for long. Despite a fund-raising advantage of $1.5 million to $861,885 over lesser-known GOP opponent Josephine Musser, Baldwin squeaked by with a 53%-47% win. (Baldwin's fund-raising set a state record for a congressional election.) A "swing district" in the parlance of political consultants, Wisconsin's Second Congressional District is not safe territory for either party. It encompasses farmlands as well as the liberal university bastion of Madison. Before Baldwin's swearing in, the district was represented by Scott Klug, a moderate Republican who didn't seek reelection.

Baldwin's narrow victory means that to keep her seat, she must walk a tightrope between advocating for gay causes and heeding the demands of the majority of voters, who have little interest in gay issues. Gay activists who expect her to become the lesbian version of firebrand Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) are likely to be disappointed, at least in her first tenn. "In some ways her politics are a little to the left of the district," says Amy Walter, coeditor of the Cook Political Report, an insider's guide to American politics. "She is going to have to keep the urban liberal--who spilled blood for her in the streets, rural farmers, and more conservative suburban voters. It's not going to be easy." DeBold disagrees: "Tammy Baldwin was elected with a scarlet L emblazoned on her forehead. She doesn't need to go around saying, `I'm gay, I'm gay.' Voters already know it and expect her to fight for gay rights."

At the young age of 37, Baldwin is already a seasoned politician. With her polite Midwestern demeanor, thoughtfulness, and trademark large, hairspray-styled coiffure, she has been charming voters of all stripes for years. After graduating from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., Baldwin was elected to the Dane County (Wis.) board of supervisors at just 24. In 1992 she was elected to the state assembly. Her expertise on issues such as health care and the environment helped insulate her from the single-issue charge.

But Baldwin does not shy away from her gay activist background. She credits the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials, which supports and educates openly gay government officeholders, with assisting in her rapid rise through the political ranks. "In 1986, when I joined, there were only 14 of us [openly gay public officials]," she says. "We were all trailblazers of sorts. Now there are well over 200. The sad part is, we don't know each other as well because there are so many of us now. But the good news is, there are so many people challenging perceptions about what it means to be a gay or lesbian politician'

In the nation's capital, where the political establishment has been rocked by a series of highly publicized sex scandals, Baldwin exemplifies "family values." She and Azar, an attorney specializing in environmental law, have been together for four years, and Baldwin plans to be a regular on the Washington-Madison shuttle. "The reason my relationship [with Azar] works so well is that we prioritize our relationship when we do have time together," she says. "The stresses and strains are, of course, similar to those of a heterosexual politician with a family back home. With constituency outreach so important, the days of moving the family to Washington are over." Still, Azar, who will continue living in the couple's Madison home, and Baldwin plan to make regular appearances on the Washington social circuit. Says Baldwin: "I want to share the adventure with her and make it clear that same-sex couples should be welcomed in political circles."

She also wants to share the adventure with her mother, Pam Bin-Rella. "My mother is bursting with pride," Baldwin says. "I called her to make plans for her trip to Washington ... and one of her coworkers picked up the phone. She said, `Oh, you are Pam's daughter. We saw you on C-SPAN.' Mom loves all that."

Baldwin also bears primary responsibility for her 92-year-old grandmother, who lives in a Madison nursing home. "We have an aging population, but it's unrecognized that as many families are caring for seniors as for youngsters," she says. "This has a disproportionate impact on gay children and women, who are often seen as the family members more available to take on the nurturing role." She plans to take that insight to the House floor. "We have to make sure that the elderly are getting the good care that they need," she says.

Baldwin arrives in Washington at a time when politicians' sex lives often garner more press coverage than their political views or their legislative ability. "I'm coming in with 39 other freshman members, and we all are grateful for the fact that we have not been a part of the rancorous and highly partisan debate of the last several months," she says, referring to the Starr report and President Clinton's impeachment. "Most of us came out of competitive campaigns that brought us into more contact with voters than the senior members. What we all heard is that people want us to return to issues that matter in their daily lives and to stay away from sex scandals."

Baldwin also benefited from antigay rhetoric, which backfired on its promoters during the past year in Madison. Ron Greer, a former firefighter turned antigay activist, made a failed bid for the GOP nomination based primarily on antipathy to Baldwin and gay rights. A religious conservative group, meanwhile, paid for billboards declaring HOMOSEXUALITY IS A SIN. That was countered by a campaign using lawn signs that said MADISON SUPPORTS ITS GAY AND LESBIAN COMMUNITY. "What Greer and the right wing didn't count on was that the community only grew stronger from all the homophobia," she says. "All nine candidates in the primary condemned Ron's action. Everyone, gay and straight, came together to fight bigotry." That's a reaction gay men and lesbians hope Baldwin can replicate in Washington.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Liberation Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group