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What has the Madison progressive made of becoming the country's first openly gay senator?

On a Sunday morning in November 1998, Madison Democrat Tammy Baldwin, newly elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, sits down in C-SPAN’s corner television studio overlooking the U.S. Capitol, cool blue in the morning light.

At her left is the morning’s host, Steve Scully, the C-SPAN political editor whose job sometimes entails highlighting news clippings and describing them for the camera, like a cross between Peter Jennings and Mr. Rogers. The program is “Washington Journal,” which pits live callers against members of Congress in what is perhaps D.C.’s least-controlled arena for public debate.

Baldwin looks poised and ready, hands crossed in front of herself on the table. The first call, from an unnamed woman in Alexandria, Va., arrives like a warm hug. “Your election was very hopeful for a lot of us,” she says, “for a lot of reasons.”

“I’m delighted to hear your encouragement,” Baldwin says. She’s already described the freshman orientation session organized by the House Oversight Committee as “tremendous.” The Democratic leadership races have been “very respectful,” she says, and she pledges her distrust of Saddam Hussein, who had recently forced U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq. Her campaign “really did have an opportunity to talk about some wonderful, bold ideas,” she says, including health care reform, then still a liberal dream deferred under President Bill Clinton.

“We’ve got a call from Hawaii,” Scully says, closing the line to Virginia.

“Good morning.” It’s a man. “Hey, I was trying to get through earlier, but I have some questions. Ms. Baldwin, I know that you’re the female homosexual that’s got elected to Congress now.”

The congresswoman-elect leans forward and nods, as if holding herself up for examination.

“I’m as concerned about … are you going to be stonewalling the abuses of the heterosexual, like,” the man says and provides a garbled name, “who was abducted by three lesbians from the social services in Washington State … who has been kidnapped and raped at 14 years old?”

Baldwin has smiled and allowed her facial muscles to fall, but not into a frown. The man could be talking about his marigolds.

“And Sen. Stevens there knows about this, and he’s also homosexual. And he’s not doing anything to help retrieve this child.”

Scully jumps in. “I’m going to stop you before we go on making other accusations,” he says, “but he did bring up the issue of your sexuality.”

“Yeah,” she says. “Mm-hmm.”

Congressional Quarterly writes you were the only one of the four lesbians running who won, and you acknowledge ‘the historic nature of my campaign and my candidacy.’”

“Right.”

“Why was it historic?”

“Well, it shattered a glass ceiling that hadn’t been shattered before,” she says. “Frankly, the same is true of my becoming the first woman ever elected from the state of Wisconsin to Congress.” An out lesbian from the liberal incubator of Madison, she rushes into a homey vignette demonstrating how she’s become an example to women and young people – a story about a 9-year-old girl who “hugged her sleeve” during a tour of the state Capitol and hopped into her chair on the Assembly floor.

“I like the feel of this,” the girl said. “Maybe I’m going to be a state representative someday.”

“What’s really important,” Baldwin says, “and to get to some of what your caller was talking about – I’m not sure what your caller was talking about – but my focus has been on issues that impact everybody in my district. They’ve been on health care and the quality of public education in my district, and a real strong focus on young children and their health and safety, and that will continue to be my focus in Washington, D.C.”

“At what point should the private life of a public, elected official be drawn,” Scully asks. “Where does one divide it?” In a few weeks, House Republicans will vote to impeach President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“I think,” Baldwin begins, and pauses. “I’m trying to read into your question, what you’re getting at. I have simply been honest about who I am throughout my career in public life, and what I hear from voters is that my integrity and honesty are very important to them, and beyond that, our discussions are about the kitchen-table issues that matter in people’s lives, their struggles to balance work and their families, their struggles to support their families and have adequate health care for their families and make sure their children get an adequate education, and the so many who are balancing the responsibilities of caring for senior relatives, as I am.”

Although it’s not the last time a caller will lob a grenade into a Baldwin appearance on “Washington Journal” – during her second turn, in 2013, she’ll deflect a question from a 9/11 “truther” by stating that she relies on The 9/11 Commission Report for an account of the attack – her blithe response in 1998 suggests that she’s emerged from Madison with the agile yet understated approach for which she’ll come to be known, always Tammy from Wisconsin, often turning the rhetoric of family and generations against her foes.

Marking all of Baldwin’s “firsts” takes a bit of deduction. Former Madison-area legislator Spencer Black says Baldwin “was probably the first openly and unambiguously gay state legislator,” although, “she never made a big thing of it.” Another former Madison lawmaker, David Clarenbach, who came out not long after leaving office in 1993, went on to lead the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group that supports out gay candidates (but first, as the Advocate noted, he had to come out himself). After Baldwin left for D.C., Madisonians elected another openly gay candidate, Mark Pocan, and then elevated him to her old U.S. House seat in 2012.

Now the first openly gay U.S. senator of any gender, Baldwin has followed in Herb Kohl’s footsteps by working closely with paper manufacturers and other industries in the state while consistently voting to the left of center. There’s little of Barney Frank – the hardboiled and gay former congressman from Massachusetts – in hypercautious Baldwin. While state Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) says Clarenbach’s sexual orientation was effectively an open secret during his tenure, Baldwin’s has always slipped out of plain view, making her the most reserved player in her own moment in history.

The D.C. Metro lets out on the south side of Capitol Hill. Staffers carrying their subway books and backpacks trudge up the rest of the way. The Capitol itself is a classical symbol filled with security checks and cafeterias and not an easy place to loiter. D.C. is warm, 70s, and itching with activity in late May, and Baldwin’s schedule for the morning includes a hearing before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, where she finds an open seat next to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Supporters say Warren, the former Harvard law professor and special assistant to President Barack Obama at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, could upset the 2016 Democratic primary for president by challenging Hillary Clinton’s progressive credentials.

Two caffeinated staffers have followed Baldwin here, one of them briefing the senator on the hearing’s business as they walk and talk, a discussion of “end of life planning” and how to care for the terminally ill. The night before, Carolyn Walser – Baldwin’s executive assistant and director of scheduling (one of three schedulers helping Baldwin) – stocked a central, black binder for the senator with documents relevant to the upcoming day, including written testimonies submitted by the hearing’s experts, which she read at her apartment in the busy Penn Quarter neighborhood, bordered by the White House and the National Mall. The binder also contains a long-form schedule and an easy-reference version, neatly condensed and stapled.

“It’s a two-page day,” Baldwin says.

The committee room is relentlessly brown, and Baldwin may have to leave the hearing early. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs could vote to name a post office in Wisconsin, a matter she follows through her iPhone and messages to her staff. To ease logistics and hurried lunch breaks, there are small and secured tram tunnels connecting the House and Senate office buildings, where most representatives have their offices, and the Capitol basement, where exposed plumbing and lanyard-wearing Capitol natives cross the ceiling and floor, respectively. Extracurricular engagements can tie knots in senators’ schedules. “You might have a big speech off the Hill,” Baldwin says, plus a vote to cast on the Senate floor. “I have to figure out how to get over there, to another part of D.C.,” and somehow return.

The HSGAC (pronounced hiss-gack) vote never happens, so Baldwin remains in the Aging hearing longer than expected. Although the small audience is dimly lit, the central “roundtable” for senators and experts is aglow, for the benefit of video cameras that will archive the proceedings at aging.senate.gov. With long, dark curtains covering the windows, the setting is right for a discussion about death, and Warren shares an intimate story about her own father’s passing, from stage 4 cancer. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) describes a “proud lady” and constituent who died “exactly in the way she had asked all of us to make sure that she did not die, which is to say, on a tube, unable to speak, unable to say farewell,” none of which resulted in a “reportable event” for the hospital.

Baldwin deals in one of her stocks in trade, civic zest, sketching the outlines of a program at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, where 99.4 percent of patients are said to have completed an advance care plan, an almost-unheard-of figure. Elsewhere, Capitol business has carried on such that her inbox broke the 300 mark at around 9:30 a.m. and continued to rise. Much of a U.S. senator’s working life is spent attending to a river of information in perpetual flood. “There’s something from my aunt, and something from Kathleen [Laird],” one of her legislative assistants, she says, as her personal iPhone handles both private and public business. Senate decorum forbids smart phone use on the chamber floor, but members hide them in bags, briefcases and their desks, wooden, lacquered antiques that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 19th-century schoolhouse.

Asked to describe her, Democratic colleagues drizzle their comments with descriptors like calm, level-headed, soft-spoken and principled. Sen. Al Franken, the comedian and writer turned Democratic legislator from Minnesota, met Baldwin at a Madison rally in the 1990s, and since running for office himself in 2009, he’s massively revised his politics, trading in satire for almost radical seriousness. “I always told Tammy, ‘You’re the most serene member of this body,’” he says, but then a hearing on the Citizens United decision alerted him to the timbre of another new senator, Mazie Hirono. “It might be a tie between [Baldwin] and Mazie,” Franken now says, “who is Hawaiian and a Buddhist.”

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One of Baldwin’s first committee assignments has been to serve on the Senate budget panel, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), who calls Baldwin “a quiet, calm voice in a Congress where a lot of people are trying to make it about themselves.” The two “spent hours and hours” in October 2013 courting votes to end the three-week government shutdown, Murray says, succeeding only as a truly vertiginous brink, a U.S. default, approached.

Shareable grandstanding is more in vogue. Baldwin’s Republican colleague in Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh, a staunch fiscal conservative who sued Obama over the Affordable Care Act, had his moment tangling with Hillary Clinton on the subject of Benghazi, viewed a half-million times on YouTube. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan left heel prints on IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of Ashland, another Wisconsin Republican, promoted a video of himself torching Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Baldwin warms. “I’ve never known her to yell or scream,” says Fred Risser, the state senator, or otherwise strain her voice.

According to Spencer Black, Baldwin once stood up during a meeting of the Assembly’s Democratic caucus to stress that although she disagreed with state Rep. Wayne Wood (D-Janesville), an outspoken Christian, on gay issues, “she could work with him on other ones.” Baldwin backed Black during one of his early Assembly races, in the 1980s, when a female opponent brought in “gender issues,” he says, and attempted to color him an outsider. “Tammy stepped forward as someone with credibility in the women’s community and endorsed me based on my record.” But office loyalties later prevented him from returning the favor. One of Black’s staffers, Dave Cieslewicz, ran against Baldwin for an open Assembly seat, in 1992, and enjoyed his boss’ support.

When Cieslewicz lost the primary, the West Allis native and future Madison mayor said to Black, who had called to offer his sympathy and talk about returning to work: “This woman’s headed for bigger things.”

A New York Timesreporter asks Baldwin about ISIS’ rise in the Middle East. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

A New York Timesreporter asks Baldwin about ISIS’ rise in the Middle East. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Speaking to a group of about a dozen high school students from southeastern and central Wisconsin, Baldwin traces her career in a gradual, happy slope, mentioning little in the way of grand ambition. “I grew up in Madison, Wis.,” Baldwin says on the afternoon of the Aging hearing, after tiptoeing around her office’s long conference table to shake the hand of each tired-looking student, “and our middle school had a student government” where she “got involved and had several projects that taught me that I could make a difference,” including a peace deal she negotiated between the angry owner of a trampled flowerbed near the school and fellow students with dirty shoes. Raised primarily by her grandmother, a costume designer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her grandfather, a biochemistry professor at the college, Baldwin went on to major in political science and mathematics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and became progressively more interested in adult politics.

“I started working on other people’s campaigns,” she says, “and following what was happening in local government, and thought, ‘I could make a difference again.’” Having returned to Wisconsin, she ran for the Dane County Board of Supervisors and won, served there for eight years, finished a law degree at UW in the meantime, and proceeded higher up the rocky cliffs of American politics, eventually defeating one of the most popular politicians in state history, former Gov. Tommy Thompson. (“I don’t know what happened,” he joked at a Wisconsin Technology Council event in February. “Something happened between the time I ran and the time I got to the ballot.”)

“Nobody thought she was going to do it,” says Ellen Bravo, a longtime Baldwin ally and director of the Family Values at Work organization, which lobbies for paid sick days and family leave. “People said, ‘Oh, come on.’” But outstate campaign stops, like past engagements in rural Dane County, started to go well. “She had to go into all these communities where people voted against marriage equality,” Bravo says, and find a way to connect. “She’s like a steady heartbeat. Rather than rousing, she’s persistent and thorough and digs deep and stands fast.”

Baldwin hit Thompson early, and hard, with black and white attack ads alleging “he’s not for you anymore” but a Washington shill. A Karl Rove issues group, Crossroads GPS, later released its own earworm, the now-joked-about “you’re damn right we’re making a difference” ad. After the clip of a rare, heated moment, taken from a Baldwin speech at the liberal Fighting Bob Fest, a narrator says, “Tired of all the shouting? Tammy Baldwin is just out of touch with Wisconsin.”
You’re an outsider, both campaigns had alleged in the air war, now difficult for the victor to describe. “Tammy, who very rarely uses profanity,” Bravo says, “can hardly tell the story without saying, ‘You’re damn right.’”

The ad and Thompson’s own messaging proved too little, too late for a presidential year, when Democratic turnout is usually higher. After a competitive Republican primary, Thompson’s “bank account was empty,” says Scott Jensen, the former Republican Assembly speaker, who co-sponsored legislation with Baldwin during her time in the chamber. Jensen, who agreed to pay a civil forfeiture in 2010 after an eight-year investigation into the state caucus scandal, says Thompson’s rapid undoing rattled even a Democratic operative he encountered on an airplane in mid-2010.

“I can’t believe what they did to Tommy,” the operative said.

“Forty years of branding was undone in three weeks,” Jensen says. “It was very impressive.”

Now seated at the head of her office’s conference table, Baldwin says she’s “as surprised as anyone to be serving in the United States Senate.”

“Can we take a photo?” asks a young woman from Port Washington High School.

“Sure, do you want to do an individual one?” Baldwin says. Earlier, a Senate photographer took group shots with the students.

“Maybe she could take a selfie,” a teacher says.

“I’ve been known to!” Baldwin says, and a staffer steps into position with a camera. “All right, here we go.”
“One, two, three,” says the staffer; the official photographer has left. “One more?” The senator and student smile on.

Baldwin’s headquarters in the Hart Senate Office Building is airy, compared to most congressional offices, with room to spread out. Small fluorescent panels fill the space with light, and her inner office, located behind a cubicle farm for staffers, contains a standing desk, neat stacks of papers, an iMac and, perched on a low cabinet, a token of whimsy: a beaver statuette beside a placard that reads, “Dam Right.”

Throughout both state and federal office, health care and women’s issues have outlasted other priorities on Baldwin’s agenda, at times rising above her leadership on LGBT rights. Most recently, she’s dueled with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker over his decision to move some 60,000 BadgerCare beneficiaries into the state’s health insurance exchange, after refusing an estimated $119 million in new Medicaid funding from the federal government.

She was as outspoken as anyone on gay issues in 1990s Wisconsin – broaching the topic of legalizing same-sex marriage at a time when the country was still coming to grips with Anita Hill – and running openly for the House with partner Lauren Azar, a lawyer whose resume would go on to include the state Public Service Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy. The two ended their domestic partnership in 2010, after filing for it in 2009, with a terse statement: “Neither Tammy nor Lauren will have any further comment on this very private matter.”

Baldwin arrived in the Senate, a haven for rarefied collegiality, ready to back existing legislation in line with LGBT causes. “There needed to be champions, and there were,” she says. “People have stepped forward, and I don’t take their bills away. I say, ‘I’m here to help.’” Chief among these is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation once championed by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and now carried along by the dutiful Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon). ENDA would make firing an employee based on sexual orientation illegal under federal law, a restriction already in place in Wisconsin, which passed the first of several state-level bans in 1982.

The Senate passed ENDA on to the House on Nov. 7, 2013, where it has since languished. Baldwin met one-on-one with other senators to lobby their support and demonstrate, by dint of a sizable majority, that the legislation, if not a done deal, was at least a viable prospect. Ultimately, about a quarter of Senate Republicans voted aye.

On Nov. 4, 2013, Baldwin delivered a 10-minute speech on the Senate floor in support of the measure, quoting Robert F. Kennedy and growing more insistent as the time wound down: “We don’t just want to live in a country where rights are respected under the law. We want to live in a country where we are respected for who we are, where we enjoy freedom and opportunity because that’s who we are as Americans.”

Baldwin’s hallmark is a deliberate bearing perfected over a long career in politics. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Baldwin’s hallmark is a deliberate bearing perfected over a long career in politics. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Baldwin still leaves the Aging hearing early to attend a festive USO event at the Rayburn House Office Building, once home to her old House office. Because of the sunny weather, she takes the above-ground route to Raynor, crossing the Capitol grounds between throngs of tourists and a line descending into the Capitol Visitor Center. “Hi senator,” says a middle-aged woman at a crosswalk connecting the area to some of the sternest edifices of public life, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Library of Congress. “We’re visiting here from Wisconsin.”

“Oh, hi!” Baldwin says, as if these are old friends. “Nice to meet you!”

“We’re going to be in your office later this afternoon,” the woman says, meaning herself and the man walking behind her.

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“Terrific!”

The USO event is held in an open room on Rayburn’s second floor, under the watchful bust of Texan Sam Rayburn, still the longest-serving House speaker in U.S. history. Lines of representatives and various other notables are sipping coffee and stocking care packages for wounded soldiers with hand towels, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, foldable combs, toothpaste tubes, lip balm and shaving kits, beginning at one end of a long row of tables and slowly emptying cartons of government-rate Fresh Moment Hand and Body Lotion. USO employees fawn over Baldwin, who next encounters a performer in a candy-red Sesame Street costume.

“This is Elmo,” says a man pretending to be the character’s handler. “He’s kind of flirtatious, so be careful.”

“Uh-oh,” says Baldwin, stepping in line.

She’s learned by name the three locations where soldiers will be treated for their injuries, places spanning Germany and D.C. itself, and despite her mostly serious attitude, joviality abounds.

“Ho, ho! Cookie! Elmo and Cookie!” says one care-packager who joked earlier to a friend ahead of him in line that, “We got a dollar waitin’ on a dime” – an important person held up by someone not so important. Cookie, like Elmo, is enormous and shaggy.

“Don’t mind the Cookie Monster,” Baldwin remarks and goes through the line a second time. A new staffer has arrived, one of her schedulers, a young man wearing round, plastic glasses. Before joining her Senate staff, Christopher Semenas spent a year working on her campaign, and a year in Sen. Kohl’s office.

“We’re going to head back to the Capitol,” announces Leah Hunter, Baldwin’s press secretary, “so she can go vote.” The Senate is considering a pair of presidential appointees, for the Federal Reserve’s board of governors and a judicial vacancy on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers New England.

To get there, Baldwin walks through a drive-up entrance favored by lawmakers at the front of the Capitol. “Well over half of our votes are on confirming presidential nominees, versus legislation,” she says. “The Senate alone has that duty.”

If Johnson was the insurgent candidate, Baldwin is the structuralist, a fish in water, and rarely have the two demonstrated their differences more starkly than during a HSGAC hearing in July, when Johnson extracted statistics from a haggard line of officials during an immigration hearing – administrators within U.S. Customs, the U.S. Department of Justice, the State Department and other agencies – and attempted to combine the numbers into a gotcha moment. “I come from manufacturing, so root cause analysis is just in my DNA,” Johnson begins. “From my standpoint, what’s causing all the illegal immigration into this country is that we’re actually incentivizing it.”

The senior senator from Wisconsin lays out his numbers trap as follows: “If 20 percent of the 57,000 unaccompanied children [in fiscal year 2014] are Mexican, subject to those expedited procedures”– procedures allowing U.S. officials to immediately remove them from the country – “how come we’ve only deported, what is it, 1,500, 1,700, when the number is closer to 10,000 or 11,000?”

But Thomas Winkowski, an administrator for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says that Johnson has mislaid his figures. “I think the [1,500] number that I was quoting was from the South Central American countries and didn’t include Mexico,” Winkowski says. “We try to break them into different buckets here.”

R. Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, steps in to say that the “vast majority” of undocumented Mexican immigrants caught at the border “are returned almost within the same day. They move very quickly.”

Baldwin, sitting at the other end of the wooden semicircle from Johnson, goes next and asks several of the witnesses to follow up after the hearing with more “granular” data for the committee to review. Forget theater; this is intermission.

“Can you give us month by month, year by year data going back several years?” Baldwin says, playing “good cop” to Johnson’s bad one. “We’ve declared ‘crisis’ in recent months, but it seems to me that this is of some duration.”
She even notes that Kerlikowske is “new to the post.”

“You’re absolutely right, senator,” he says of the crisis, which has compounded itself over multiple years.
The Senate’s customs are ripe for this sort of diplomacy. Its staff historian, Donald Ritchie, delivers regular presentations to the Democratic and Republican caucuses; in May, the speech to Democrats centered on Noah Webster, the early dictionary-compiler and advocate for intellectual property law. Further ceremony surrounds a senator’s first, or “maiden,” speech. In Baldwin’s, she said she “didn’t run for the Senate just because I agree” with complaints about a dysfunctional Congress. “I’m optimistic,” she said. “I ran for the Senate because I think we can do better, and I know that I have a great example to follow in the people of Wisconsin. These are particularly tough times for my state. Even as the national economy is rebounding, businesses and middle class families in my state really remain stuck in neutral.”

Most commonly, her ambitions are local to Wisconsin. On the morning of the Aging hearing, as on other days, she’s thinking about the Navy’s “littoral” combat ship program and arguments for its survival. Wisconsin’s Marinette Marine makes hulls for the craft designed to operate in shallow water, but technical concerns with other components have threatened to shelve the program worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and prompted Baldwin to lobby colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Arguing Medicaid issues with Gov. Walker has become another Baldwin standby. But former state Rep. Black, now vice president of the Sierra Club, resists the thought that the senator, in hitting Walker this fall, was helping Democrat Mary Burke’s campaign. “She’s saying what she believes,” he says.

“You learn that you work across party lines [in the Senate] and work on a far greater breadth of issues,” adds U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), another progressive Democrat from a manufacturing-heavy state in the Midwest. “She’s able to be pro-business and at the same time not lose her focus on fighting for workers.” Brown, like Murray, Baldwin, Franken and Warren, may be considered members of the party’s leftmost side, but Brown says there’s no real “progressive caucus.”
“It’s more informal than that,” he says.

Somewhat quietly, Baldwin has served as the highest-ranking Wisconsin Democrat during what has been a beleaguering couple of years for the party. “The major focus has to be on giving hardworking Wisconsinites a fair shot at a brighter future,” she says, when asked where Democrats in the state go from here. The day, May 21 – the one that will include the Aging hearing and the USO event before lunchtime – is just now beginning, and the freshman senator is seated at one end of the formal yellow couch in her office, speaking more slowly, and with greater purpose, than during her bright-eyed appearance on “Washington Journal” in 1998. “That’s jobs and good-paying jobs, increasing the minimum wage. That’s helping the unemployed seek the retraining they need to get back in the labor market at family-supporting wages. It’s about the economy, but it’s also about our shared belief that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get ahead. And I think so many Wisconsinites feel like they’re working so hard, and they’re just slipping back.”

In terms of worldview, these are issues that exist alongside, or compete with, others described by Baldwin, including climate change. “It’s clear that Congress, right now, is not poised to act in big ways [on climate change],” she says, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing everything we can in other respects. There’s a lot of impact, whether it’s Great Lakes water levels or the flooding issues we’ve had in recent years. There are so many issues.”

The Republican critique, politically, ideologically and personally, has been that Baldwin is a product of the Madison bubble, and too theoretical for statewide office. “A lot of Republicans have underestimated her because they know how extremely liberal she is and assume that doesn’t sell in Wisconsin,” says Scott Jensen, who thinks she’s succeeded by emphasizing populism in Wisconsin over a progressivism that plays better among D.C. elites. “You don’t see her talking about her foreign policy and positions on social issues,” he says. Instead, the public focus has remained on jobs and health care.

Both Baldwin and Johnson are “maverick” candidates, according to Jensen – rousing prospects for their respective bases but not always the best breadwinners when it comes to federal funding. “You don’t get it by being the porcupine at the party,” he says. “You get it by going along, and we don’t tend to elect senators who go along.” We also tend to elect senators to prolonged tenures, he says: Herb Kohl for 24 years and Russ Feingold, another Democrat, for 18. If history holds, Baldwin and Johnson could remain in office for decades.

Like Franken, once a leading writer and sometimes performer on “Saturday Night Live,” the junior senator from Wisconsin has attempted to serve beyond what might have become a defining identity – in her case, the first openly gay senator. But Franken stops the analogy right there. “There’s been a big change in how people think about LGBT persons,” he says, “but I don’t think there’s been a big change in how people think about comedians.”

Warren, in a statement provided for this story, calls Baldwin “a fighter” who “knows how to get things done in the Senate to help level the playing field for hard working families.” In addition to the Aging Committee, both senators serve on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, another acronym lobbed around the Hart Building, and Baldwin has been a reliable guide for Warren, serving her first elected office in the Senate, on Congress’ workings.

But the Wisconsin senator is perhaps closer to Franken, a Midwestern transplant she “vouches for” at campaign events, he says. The two became acquainted, years ago, as the satirist did repeat events for her in Madison, favors that Baldwin has since returned, according to Franken. “She was kidding around once and said, ‘I’m his straight man.’”

Matt Hrodey is an associate editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at matthew.hrodey@milwaukeemag.com.

Matt Hrodey discusses the story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Dec. 5 at 10 a.m.

‘Tammy Baldwin’s Long Game’ appears in the December, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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