Before Gwen Moore took the podium at the Washington Park Senior Center for a speech this fall, she did a little dance and blew a kiss to the audience. “It’s such a privilege and pleasure to serve you,” the Congresswoman says as her gargantuan earrings danced in the light.
Brenda Moore, Moore’s sister and staffer, is always telling her to leave the big earrings at home. If Gwen’s ever wearing statement jewelry, it’s safe to guess she left Brenda in Washington D.C. to tend to fundraising, she says.
“They’re not professional, Gwen,” she’ll often say.
But Moore doesn’t mind being a peacock among pigeons.
Back at the senior center, Moore began her speech – another area in which she’s known for her eccentricity. By the time her 30-minute speech ended, she impersonated an upper-class citizen using a British accent, mocked Marco Rubio’s water sipping gaffe, yelled until she strained her vocal chords and disregarded the carefully penned speech her aides have written for her.
The candor is quintessential Gwen Moore. She has a tendency to go unscripted, connect with the audience and use biting sarcasm. She doesn’t understand dull politicians who read straight off the talking points. “Some people might say I don’t have a filter,” Moore says. “I will say to them that, unlike them, I’m authentic and for real.”
In her fifth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, unconventional speeches have become the 62-year-old’s signature. Whether she’s pointing scathing criticism at Gov. Scott Walker, singing a Beatles song at a gathering for Michelle Obama or yelling at a Tea Party rally, she’s always full of passion. And in Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District – which has elected a Democrat for the past 50 years – her progressive personality suits her Milwaukee constituents.
In 2004, Moore was the first African American and second woman (after Tammy Baldwin) to ever be elected to Congress from the state of Wisconsin. Since then, she has used her passionate style to slowly rise into a position of leadership, and gotten increased media exposure. In the last year, she’s been a key source on women’s issues for political analysts and spoke at the Democratic National Committee. She’s been the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, as chosen by her fellow female house members; a staunch supporter for reproductive rights; a progressive leader for the poor; and a representative on the Financial Services and Budget committees.
But will her off-the-cuff style work on a larger stage?
Moore says she first realized the power of words as the student council president at North Division High School. Partnering with the community, she gave a series of passionate pleas fighting for a new school. She was a strong voice in the fight, which eventually resulted in a $20 million renovation to North Division that opened in 1978. From then on, she was hooked on artistic expression and public speaking.
“For the first time, I was then in a place where I was affirmed as intelligent, as a person who had something to bring to the table,” she says. “I was poor and I was black and I was female and somehow that was alright. I was just affirmed for who I was.”
After graduating from Marquette University and logging time at the Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations and Health and Social Services and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, Moore won a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1988.
During the 16 years she spent as a state representative and then as a state senator, Moore gained a reputation among her peers for speaking out. Moore tells the story of a politician who formerly served with her in the Wisconsin State Assembly. He said, “Politically, Gwen Moore might punch you in the throat, but she’ll never stab you in the back.”
In 2004, she was elected to the House, and the current era of Gwen Moore dawned. “At first I thought she was a little laid back,” says Arnold Mitchum, the president and founder of the Council for Opportunity in Education, who has known Moore since she was a college student. “The first term in Congress I didn’t feel she was assertive enough. In the past four years, she’s become much more assertive, much more involved in leadership. She’s proven and shown she’s a key player – not an outlier.”
Moore is average in terms of numbers of bills that she has sponsored and co-sponsored, says University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor David Canon, but she’s made a reputation another way – with her colorful performances.
When asked to introduce Michelle Obama at a rally in 2008, Moore took the creative route. She rewrote lyrics to the song “Michelle” by the Beatles. Instead of “Michelle, my belle, these are words that go together well,” she sang, “Michelle, our belle, gonna help our families do well.”
In 2010 on her way to Fighting Bob Fest, a progressive rally named for Wisconsin’s U.S. Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and held during the Halloween season, Moore brought a cap with a skill and crossbones on it. She was speaking about the evils of the Tea Party and thought the poison symbol would go perfectly with her point.
“Woo!” she said as she took the podium. “I happened to bring a little tea with me here today.”
She raised her cup and referenced all the “evil” tea party legislation, calling it poison tea. “Don’t drink the tea people,” she said. “Remember the Kool-Aid? This tea is just a lethal.”
Sometimes her enthusiasm goes too far. Even her former communications director Nicole Williams admits that her speech style isn’t safe. It can veer off into inaccuracy. “If you’re running down stats that aren’t quite on the paper or sometimes when you’re talking if you use the wrong word, it can get misconstrued,” Williams says.
In 2011, Moore said Gov. Scott Walker was cutting funding but providing “$200 million worth of tax breaks – and [he] just literally invented a $3.6 billion budget deficit.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called this statement “false,” citing that Moore didn’t address the amount debt Walker inherited or the $49 million in tax increases Walker proposed in the same budget.
In April 2012, Moore said Walker had “gutted” the Earned Income and Homestead Tax Credits. The Journal Sentinel defined “gutting” as “to remove vital or essential parts,” and in its estimations, though Walker had cut credits, he had not “gutted” them.
But Moore has a different take on the difference. “It’s poetic license,” she says.
John McAdams, a conservative political science professor at Marquette points to the Bob Fest speech as the epitome of when her brash style works against her. “I don’t think her style is strategic at all,” he says. “I believe she’s authentic, but that has its limits. Her demeanor just isn’t suited for leadership.”
Moore says her speech style is strategic. As a woman who was previously on welfare and someone concerned with issues facing those in poverty, she wants to be sure she’s reaching her target audience. And she believes the best way to reach people is through stories, examples and a little bit of humor. “Some other politicians, they don’t use the language in a creative way,” she says. “They read the talking points; they reiterate them on MSNBC. They get up and say things like ‘We don’t want these job-killing regulations.’ I resent the way they talk. What do they mean?”
Oftentimes, she ignores the speeches her aides have written. Her staff of 19 has meticulously researched every speech she has given. Her communications director Staci Cox gathers research and then carefully pens each one of her speeches then passes it on to get Moore’s thoughts. Moore will skim it, mark it up, note key statistics and then set it aside. Moore appreciates the gesture, but never reads directly from a speech. She’ll memorize the information, plan her speeches in her head and deliver them on the spot – even she doesn’t know exactly what she’ll say until it comes out of her mouth.
In April of 2012, Moore gave a particularly pointed speech. Moore was angry with legislation Gov. Walker had been proposing, including stripping workers of their collective bargaining rights and a package of tax cuts that hurt low-income constituents. She’d been fuming for months and hoped Walker would lose the upcoming recall election. As an artistic outlet, she decided to write him a note to the tune of the classic song, “Hit The Road, Jack.”
“I am looking forward to getting rid of Scott Walker,” she says, referencing the upcoming recall election for Governor. “My therapist said, ‘Gwen, you can’t internalize the pain. You’ve got to externalize it.’ And so she advised me to write a poem about my feelings for Scott Walker…”
Moore then asked for her backup singers, her staff members and friends, to enter the stage and stand in a row behind her. She taught the main lyrics to the audience and then the show began.
“Hit the road, Scott! And dontcha come back no more, no more, no more, no more! Hit the road, Scott! And dontcha come back no moooore!”
“…Great Scott, Scott Walker, you’ve gotta go, baby!”
The performance ignited a media frenzy. Her song was on every local news channel in Milwaukee and some national programs. A blogger for the Journal Sentinel mocked her, calling the clip “The mellifluous stylings of Rep. Gwen Moore.” In the post he wrote, “In case you were wondering, this actually happened.” Pretty soon, there were several renditions of the song, and it went viral.
Her style has caught the eye of at least one Washington up-and-comer, her budget committee colleague Paul Ryan. “She’s successful because she presents her views very passionately and very clearly,” Ryan says. “The budget committee has a very wide spectrum of views. The members who do well are the members who present their case very strongly and in a passionate way and articulately and she does that.”
Moore and Ryan, who disagree about nearly ever function of government, sit next to each other every week on the airplane when they fly back and forth to Washington. During the most recent budget session, she referred to Ryan’s proposed budget as “class warfare against the poor and middle class meant to line the pockets of the rich.”
But Ryan doesn’t take it personally. “She has strong opinions, a lot of passion,” he says. “She’s pretty funny when she gets going on a roll. It’s part of her charm.”
In May, She used her spunk and humor to draw attention to Milwaukee by appearing on “The Colbert Report” during its “Better Know a District” segment. Colbert teased Moore and asked if Walker was a “great governor” or “the greatest governor.” Moore smirked and said she thought his parents, wife and children were “wonderful.” The most memorable part shows Moore and Colbert pretending to ride a motorcycle.
“Let’s go,” Colbert says to Moore and gestures for her to hold on to him while he grasps for imaginary handlebars. He then makes a revving engine sound and pretends to drive the motorcycle, running from the cops. The two act out a skit until finally, at the end, they lose the trailing cop car and come to a halt.
“You okay, baby?” Colbert asks Moore.
“Why did you run from the cops?” Moore asks.
“Because I’m on probation,” Colbert says.
“Why did you shoot at them?” Moore asks referencing his fake gun.
“Because I’m carrying weed,” he says. “And they’d arrest me.”
“I trusted you,” she says incredulously. “You betrayed me.”
Then the two embraced.
Just a month later in June, at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s 2013 state convention, the legislators took turns approaching the podium with severe criticism for Governor Scott Walker. But party officials remained tight-lipped about who might take him on in the 2014 gubernatorial race. For several months, Moore’s name has been thrown around by bloggers and online commenters. After all, she’s the only politician to have beaten Walker for political office, in a 1990 race for a Wisconsin State Assembly seat. (It was then-22-year-old Walker’s first shot at politics.)
If she decides to take on Walker, a Republican politician so well-known that many consider him a front runner for the 2016 presidential election, could her candor be enough to break historical and racial barriers to see Wisconsin’s first female and black Governor?
But in Wisconsin these days, anything is possible, says Milwaukee County Democrats chairman Sachin Chheda. “If she wanted to run state-wide, she’d be a phenomenal leader, but we also deal with some issues around race,” Chheda says. Is a state that’s only 6 percent black the likeliest state to elect an African American senator? “I wouldn’t put us at the top of the list,” he says. “Then again, people also said Tammy Baldwin couldn’t win in Wisconsin.”