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Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Will Tammy Baldwin Become Wisconsin's Next U.S. Senator?

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Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is starting to make headlines for her race for the U.S. Senate. But Milwaukeeans may know little about the longtime public servant besides the right-wing attacks on her effective and progressive record in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Baldwin is changing that by deepening her connections to Milwaukee and mounting a formidable campaign for the Senate. She opened her campaign headquarters here on Monday and will be working hard to earn votes in the city, so crucial for Democrats in a general election.

Baldwin stopped by the Shepherd's offices recently to introduce herself to our readers and explain why she's running for the Senate. In our wide-ranging conversation, Baldwin expressed her frustration with the political games being played in Washington, the impact of globalization on the state's economy and the liberal label.

Baldwin also got personal. The daughter of a teen mom who divorced soon after Baldwin was born, the future congresswoman was raised in Madison by her maternal grandparents. At the age of 9, Baldwin was hospitalized for a rare, serious illness. She fully recovered, but to her grandparents' surprise, grandchildren were not included in the definition of a dependent on their insurance policy. Her grandparents paid the bill, but Baldwin was denied insurance until she became an adult because of her pre-existing condition. That experience is one reason why Baldwin says she has fought hard for health care reforms that benefit consumers. In particular, she championed the Affordable Care Act provision that allows young adults up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents' insurance policy, a reform that has enabled 2.5 million young Americans to gain insurance coverage.

Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

Shepherd:
You've just returned from Washington, where Congress finally resolved its deadlock over the payroll tax cut—at least for now. What do you make of that debate?

Baldwin:
It's been very disappointing because this session—perhaps more so than any time I have served in the House—the needs and the suffering of real people are so pronounced. And to see all of this partisan maneuvering at such a time is incredibly disappointing and frustrating. If there ever was a time for people of different ideologies and parties to come together and say, “It's time to do the people's business,” it is now. It is now. It's just infuriating to see this happen.

Shepherd:
Do you think taxes should be increased for those who make more than $1 million per year to pay for the payroll tax break for everyone else?

Baldwin: I think that one of the things that is being widely discussed in America right now is that we don't have shared sacrifice the way that we have had in previous times. When we're facing such incredibly important struggles, when people are making major changes in their lives and lifestyles because of this huge recession and very, very slow recovery, there's a sense of fundamental unfairness that the best off among us who have benefited from the investments we have made as a country aren't doing their fair share to see us pull out of this. I absolutely support restoring the Clinton-era tax rates in our country.

S

hepherd: Why did you decide to give up your seat in the House of Representatives to run for U.S. Senate?

Baldwin: This summer I traveled across the state of Wisconsin, partly in connection with the recall elections, but talking with voters in all parts of the state and recognizing two really obvious things. One is that people are really struggling right now. And No. 2, they are—and I am—completely frustrated with the disconnect between the policy debates you hear in Madison and Washington, D.C., and what's going on in their real lives. I'm running because I want to fight for them, and not for Wall Street and Big Pharma and not for the tea party. I want to fight for them. The next election is going to be fought over economic issues. You're damn right it is. And the people in Wisconsin need a champion.

Shepherd:
Already, the Republicans are painting you as too liberal for Wisconsin—one of the most liberal members of Congress, if not the most liberal member.

Baldwin:
I think that what I am is a fighter. I think that when you stand up to powerful interests, as I have over the course of my time in public service, people like to give you labels. I've stood up to Wall Street when I voted early in my tenure against the repeal of the Glass-Steagall rules, which I think would have averted our financial crisis. I believe that very strongly. It's the separation of investment and commercial banks that prevented taking these enormous risks with people's life savings where they could lose everything. Those walls were removed when, unfortunately, Congress didn't listen to me [laughs] and repealed the protections.

I was among the first to stand up against George W. Bush in terms of going to war in Iraq. I think there were 19 of us who stood up and said, “We're going to be organizing against this and voting against this.”

Basically, when you show that kind of courage and stand up to these incredibly powerful interests, they like to label you. I'm not surprised by it. What really characterizes it is that I'm independent and strong and unafraid to stand up to these powerful interests.

Shepherd:
What can you do in the Senate to help Wisconsin's economy?Baldwin: First of all, fight for the people of this state every day, as I have for my constituency as a member of the House. I think about the work I've done with business leaders across south-central Wisconsin year in and year out to help the economy grow in that region. One of the communities I represent is Beloit. Beloit struggled mightily after the closing of the GM plant in nearby Janesville. I worked with Rock County leaders prior to that closure and throughout that process on how to diversify the economy in Rock County so it's not a one-business, one-industry economy. One example of the fruits of our labor is a business and commerce and industry park called the Gateway Business Park, which is right as you drive from Illinois into Wisconsin, very well located at the intersection of interstates there. That has brought dozens of new businesses, and each of them has brought dozens of new jobs, and it's been a success. But it's also been a local and federal partnership, one that I played a lead role in terms of securing resources to make that a go.

As a senator I'm going to be a champion for Wisconsin, the whole state. I'm running for the seat that Herb Kohl is vacating as he retires, but in many ways he's a great model for that. I worked closely with him in the district I represent. The opportunities available in the Senate to be a champion for Wisconsin are incredible.

Shepherd: More specifically, what things can help to jump-start Wisconsin's economy?

Baldwin: I think if you look at the impact of trade and globalization on our state, there are a number of warning signals that have emerged that are staring you in the face. One is, especially in the economy of northern Wisconsin, timber and paper, part of the issue there is that China is cheating, whether it's currency manipulation or direct government subsidies of their industries to get an upper hand. And then there's product dumping in the U.S., and we don't have a strong enough response. If there's a level playing field and our trading partners aren't cheating, we're going to do just fine. But we've got to be much stronger in terms of cracking down on the cheating and making sure there's an even playing field.

I'm the only member of the Wisconsin delegation who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over energy issues, environmental issues, health and telecoms, to name just a few. Although I represent south-central Wisconsin, I know and I have worked closely with the energy sector statewide, the telecoms statewide, the health care sector statewide, just because I'm the only member from Wisconsin on that committee. So I start this Senate race with some pretty solid working relationships with folks who, when we all work together, can have a very positive and beneficial impact on the growth of the economy. I think that diversification is always a key issue. We don't want to be a one-industry community so that a problem in that industry can have a huge impact.

Shepherd: How can the federal government help jobless Milwaukeeans get back to work, besides just extending unemployment benefits?

Baldwin: The most successful models of federal and state partnerships here in the community that we ought to look at include Job Corps. When I toured there recently, they were just graduating their first students into jobs. Almost everybody who completes their work there goes right into a job in the community. It's very targeted to folks who are long-term unemployed. I think when there are successful models, you want to replicate and grow them. There's obviously a very important federal role to play there.

We're hearing a lot about skills gaps, where there are jobs available right now and employers are saying we are not finding good matches for the level of welder or electrician or whatever it is. I think that requires leadership. The technical colleges in this state have played an enormous role in training workers, but when there's a skills gap being reported, there's obviously a mismatch. We need to get better at that. I know that it's important to have regular communication between the technical college leadership and those who are creating jobs.

Education plays a huge role in creating jobs. But at the state level education is being assailed. In K-12, Wisconsin took one of the biggest hits in the country, and higher education is taking a hit too. I believe that education investments are the keys to growth.

I go back to one of the wisest things the president has said this year. In his “State of the Union” address, he said, “To win the future we must out-educate, out-innovate and out-build the rest of the world.” Those are the investments you make even when you're tackling tough budgets. Those are the things you never abandon because that's the future. That's as true for Milwaukee as it is for the state and the rest of the nation.