How Wisconsin Came To Embrace Gay Politicians

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 19 2012 11:49 AM

Wisconsin Pride

Tammy Baldwin may become the first openly gay U.S. senator. And no one is talking about it.

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Today, Pocan is running for Baldwin’s House seat and winning it easily. (The redistricted WI-02 gave 69 percent of the vote to Obama-Biden in 2008.) It will probably become the first seat to be represented by two gay members in a row. Between the election and his swearing in, Pocan will celebrate his sixth wedding anniversary. We meet up at Fair Trade Coffee, near the local Obama for America/Baldwin campaign office.

“Fourteen years ago, when I ran for office, if there was an article about me someone would write ‘dead faggot’ across my face and send it to my home,” says Pocan. “Things like that. People like Ralph Ovadal—he’s this guy who runs a church out of an old machine shed building—would come over and leaflet my home. And now it’s almost a nonissue. I was in Lafayette County the other day. You can’t buy a pair of pants in Lafayette County. There are no street lights. And I went to go speak to a group in Lafayette County, the Democrats down there, and I saw a woman with a PFLAG sticker.”

It’s more than a nonissue. There’s no upside for the Republicans who talk about it. In early September, Thompson’s political director sent out an email with video of Baldwin dancing at a gay pride parade. “Clearly, there is no one better positioned to talk ‘heartland values’ than Tammy,” he wrote. Thompson promised to demote him. It’s not clear whether or not he actually did. Just as importantly, though, the Baldwin campaign blew off the story, letting Thompson get sucked into a media shame cycle.

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“This is the time of year we usually start seeing people getting hit with anonymous fliers and smears in the mail,” says Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, who promotes gay candidates. Baldwin, in her first Assembly race, was one of the first endorsees; the PAC has given $16,400 to her Senate campaign. “This year has been remarkable for the absence of that.”

After President Obama finally admitted the obvious and announced his support for gay marriage, Democrats waited for the downside. It didn’t come. There was no notable dip in the president’s polling. There was, however, a spike in donations from gays who were holding out until the president “evolved.” This year, as in all of her re-elect years, Baldwin has collected checks from donors who see her as a rising gay star. The congresswoman’s 2000 opponent even ran ads that portrayed a woman, meant to look like Baldwin, hoarding money bags labeled “New York City” and “West Hollywood.” That would be hard to play in 2012, when millions of dollars worth of ads from outside groups like American Crossroads and the Emergency Committee for Israel are keeping Thompson in the game. And why even go there?

“One of the most positive transformations in American politics is that a candidate’s sexual orientation is no longer the issue it may have once been,” says the Human Rights Campaign’s Michael Cole-Schwartz. “Tammy’s not pigeonholed as a gay candidate because her message is so much broader, and you haven’t really seen efforts to marginalize her.”

In Madison, among the students, I hear the first subtle references to Baldwin’s sexual preference. A warm-up speaker says that electing her to the Senate will “make history.” Laura Gladstone, a grad student who’s signed up for extra canvassing, says it’s “super exciting” to have a hand in, possibly, electing the first gay senator.

“I was with Russ Feingold about two or three weeks ago,” says Baldwin. “We were having a fundraiser for me in Milwaukee. And everyone was acting a little cautious. So Russ got up and said: ‘Have you guys forgotten what it feels like to be winning? We’re winning here!’ Everybody started squaring their shoulders and puffing out their chests. I’ve stolen that line. I think people can taste this one.”

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