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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Tammy Baldwin takes her fight for the middle class to U.S. Senate
"The hallmark needs to be what's fair"
Baldwin: 'This is an unbelievable moment for me.'
Baldwin: 'This is an unbelievable moment for me.'

Sure, Tammy Baldwin might be operating out of a double-wide trailer for the first few months of her U.S. Senate career, but she wants to be clear about one thing: "I'm not complaining in the least."

Like all freshman senators, Baldwin must wait while more senior senators decide whether they will stay in their current offices or move to new ones. That means Baldwin is not expecting to move into her permanent office until late April or May.

For Baldwin, the wait will likely be just one of the many organizational differences she'll encounter between the Senate and House of Representatives, where she spent 14 years. Baldwin, who clinched a historic victory over former Gov. Tommy Thompson Nov. 6, stopped by Isthmus in late December to talk about her next steps before she had to board a plane to Washington, D.C., to vote on the "fiscal cliff" bill - her final roll vote as a congresswoman. On Jan. 3, she was sworn into the Senate after being escorted to the floor by Herb Kohl, who retired from the seat after 24 years, and Sen. Ron Johnson.

"This is an unbelievable moment for me," Baldwin said at a reception after the ceremony, according to USA Today. "I'm proud to have the honor of being sworn in as the first woman from the state of Wisconsin and as the first openly gay member to serve in the United States Senate in our nation's history."

Longtime Baldwin supporters, including Denise Matyka and Margaret McMurray, were there for the historic moment.

"I cried when I saw Tammy being sworn in," says McMurray, who lives with Matyka in Madison with their 10-year-old daughter, Maria. "It was an emotional moment, and I was thinking of how hard she worked to reach her dream. She was surrounded by family and friends who were all excited to see her on this fabulous day. You could feel the energy in the room."

Matyka says that after the swearing in, Maria ran down the hall to throw her arms around Baldwin.

"I thought to myself that Maria wasn't thinking about what a historic day it was, but I was," says Matyka. "I thought about little girls everywhere."

A core group of women

Baldwin met McMurray and Matyka in the 1980s, when both were active in Wisconsin NOW. Baldwin, just out of college at the time, was working in Gov. Tony Earl's office on a workplace survey as part of the governor's pay equity task force.

"As someone who had just graduated from college with a political science and math degree, this was heaven to me," she says.

Through this work, Baldwin says she met a lot of women who were active in advocacy groups and business networks. At the time, she was also helping out on local political campaigns and contemplating a run herself for Dane County Board. Late activists Liesl Blockstein and Susan Herbst, both active in the National Women's Political Caucus, became mentors, and McMurray and Matyka became fast friends, says Baldwin.

"A core group of women really encouraged me to run," says Baldwin. "All these years later, their encouragement means the world to me."

And they continued to stand by her side, even when others doubted that an "out" lesbian from liberal Dane County could win a statewide race. "The role has changed in some ways from super volunteer to confidant and dear friends," she says, adding, "which a candidate needs."

Washington wonk

Baldwin says she is slowly learning the small and big differences in the way the House and Senate do business.

She says she is most eager to "immerse" herself in the minutiae of floor procedure. When the House takes up controversial legislation, there is an orderly process for setting up the rules of debate, she says. "If everyone is interested in speaking you may get a minute, literally," she says. In contrast, "The Senate may take a whole week on the bill on the floor."

The huge difference, she adds, is the filibuster or threat of filibuster. Baldwin was hoping the first day of the Senate session would include a vote to change the filibuster rule. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed that vote until later this month.

Senate rules that permit members to speak as long as they wish on any topic (unless three-fifths of the Senate brings debate to a close by invoking "cloture") are often used to prevent votes on controversial legislation. "The threat of filibuster has been used to stop way too much progress in this country," Baldwin says. "I'm hoping some reform will emerge."

Baldwin is also hopeful that a progressive agenda has a chance in Washington. "A lot of the progressives who have now been elected or reelected are really talking about the agenda that grows the middle class again," she says. "Literally it's been shrinking across the country. Unfortunately, in Wisconsin the pace has been more rapid than elsewhere."

The question, she says, is, "how do we put the meat on the bones in terms of the progressive agenda that has a clear vision to rebuilding the middle class, whether it is the manufacturing industrial sector or other sectors of the economy?"

As for the social services or "entitlements" that progressives hold dear, Baldwin says she thinks the president is in a strong position to protect critical programs.

"Clearly the significant majority of this country said keep middle-class taxes low, keep small-business taxes low, but let's ask the very wealthiest to do their fair share. We know we must confront the deficit, we know we must confront the debt. But don't ask seniors, veterans and poor and middle-class families to shoulder all the burden.

"I think it's pretty clear and simple," she adds. "The hallmark needs to be what's fair."

A strong supporter of marriage equality and gay rights, Baldwin says she thinks lawmakers will wait to see how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on two pending same-sex marriage cases before taking any action on the Defense of Marriage Act or other legislation. It was just announced that the court will hear oral arguments in late March.

"I do believe there will be deference to the court proceedings," she says.

But Baldwin does expect movement on a bill that would extend federal employment discrimination protections to the LGBT community.

"I suspect an early focus for the new Congress will be on rights in the employment setting and advancing the Employment Non-discrimination Act."

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