Rep. gives Spear Lecture

Liz Riggs

Cowles Auditorium, the original site for the Seventh Spear Lecture on Public Policy, sat empty Saturday.

But just across the river, well over 100 people gathered inside University Baptist Church to listen to Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) speak. Baldwin made the last-minute venue swap just days before the event was intended to show solidarity with the striking American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Introduced by long-time friend and former Minnesota state Sen. Allan Spear, Baldwin delivered this year’s lecture as part of the series bearing her friend’s name.

Baldwin represents Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the state’s capital, Madison.

“Politics isn’t just flash and glitter; it’s hard work,” Spear said.

“And Tammy had been one of the hardest working and most effective politicians I’ve ever met. Gay and lesbian rights (have) been just one of the things she’s been a strong and effective leader (for).”

In addition to being the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives from Wisconsin, Baldwin holds another distinction: She was the first openly gay woman to be elected to Congress.

Wearing an “I support U of M workers” button, Baldwin said she was proud to be visiting Minnesota, the land of Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone and Gene McCarthy.

“For a progressive politician, a visit to Minnesota is kind of like a pilgrimage,” she said.

In her speech Saturday, titled “Leaning toward Justice,” Baldwin described struggling as a young college student with what she saw as two conflicting interests – having a career as a politician and leading her life as an openly gay woman.

“I did not believe, at that time, that I could have both,” Baldwin told the audience.

She went on to describe how she was elected to her first post, as a Dane County Board member.

Although she didn’t hide her sexual orientation, during her first election the fact that she was gay really wasn’t much of an issue until she agreed to do an interview with a local newspaper for a series on the gay community, Baldwin said.

“It was the most freeing day of my life,” she said, about the day the article was published.

As an “out” 24-year-old in 1986, Baldwin said it was estimated that there were fewer than two dozen openly gay elected officials worldwide, at the time.

Today, she said the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute is aware of well-over 600 openly gay officials in both elected and appointed positions on five continents.

The theme driving Baldwin’s speech, “Leaning toward Justice,” was borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin said.

The now-famous phrase originated with Theodore Parker, the well-known American abolitionist.

“Above all, we can be sustained by the knowledge that, indeed, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Baldwin told audience members, in concluding her speech.

Pam Bin-Rella, Baldwin’s 65-year-old mother, and admittedly her daughter’s “biggest fan,” was in attendance at her daughter’s speech.

“She was interested in politics even back in high school and sort of planned her life accordingly,” Bin-Rella said.

Bin-Rella said Baldwin’s first election as an openly gay person, when she ran for the county board position, is still the defining moment of her political career.

Ezekiel Montgomery, a recent University graduate originally from Wisconsin, also attended the lecture.

“It was good to hear an ‘out,’ open congresswoman from my state speak on issues that matter to me,” Montgomery said.

Michael Lent, a fourth-year biochemistry, prepharmacy student, said several things about Baldwin’s speech especially stood out.

The first, Lent said, was Baldwin’s “being ‘out’ at such a young age and having a political career.”

Lent also said the dilemma Baldwin faced as an openly lesbian congresswoman from a state that later passed an amendment to its constitution banning same-sex marriages was particularly poignant.

Montgomery said a key part of Baldwin’s speech came during a question-and-answer period.

“I thought it was really useful to hear her perspective on what activists in Wisconsin could have done differently” when lobbying against the same-sex marriage ban, including the importance of organizing faith communities, Montgomery said.

Baldwin’s advice could become extremely relevant if Minnesota ever considers adding a similar amendment to its constitution, Montgomery said.