“I had a lovely visit to Northern California. It’s sunny and it was a welcome weekend away from the mess that is Washington, D.C. right now,” says out Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, casually tossing off the understatement of the year.
Baldwin was in San Francisco on May 12 accepting Equality California’s Equality Leadership Award as the nation’s capital was roiled in yet another controversy over the crumbling fate of decency.
The White House aide Kelly Sadler refuses to publicly apologize for her comment about Republican Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War hero who endured years of torture as a POW. McCain, who is fighting brain cancer, opposes the confirmation of Gina Haspel—who oversaw an “enhanced interrogation” program—as CIA director. Sadler said McCain’s opinion didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway.”
Baldwin didn’t want to weigh in on the controversy, but noted that she and McCain have partnered on three major bills, including one to reduce prescription drug prices and another “to confront the high rate of veteran suicides, focusing on the intersection with the opioid epidemic.
“I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with John McCain but I feel that he has been such a fierce and independent member of the United States Senate and where I have had an opportunity to partner with him on important efforts, it has been a joy to work with him,” Baldwin told the Los Angeles Blade on her way to the airport.
Baldwin’s bipartisanship is not reserved for McCain. “I am a strong supporter of Buy America policies. I’ve been working on them since I came into the House of Representatives in 1998,” she said. “Frankly, it’s so important to my Wisconsin workers that I’ve called on the president to help me strengthen our Buy America provisions. So far, no action.”
But Wisconsin is a 2018 battleground state and Baldwin’s record of working across the aisle is obscured by the avalanche of ugly negativity funded by the GOP, the billionaire Koch brothers and hard-right industrialist Richard Uihlein spending up to $5 million as two conservative Republicans vie for votes in the Aug. 14 primary.
Last July, for instance, a Milwaukee radio station ran an ad saying: “Did you know one out of three babies aborted in America are black? One out of three. And Tammy Baldwin is a big reason why. That could be the next Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King they’re aborting.”
More recently, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who overwhelmingly won the party nomination on May 14, issued a news release featuring photos of herself with Haspel as members of “Team America” and Baldwin with 9/11 mastermind as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as “Team Terrorists.”
Baldwin’s focus is on healthcare, as well as the economy, with personal stories to back her policies. At age nine, for instance, she was diagnosed with a childhood illness that put her in the hospital for three months. She recovered but now has a pre-existing condition.
But it’s Wisconsin’s opioid crisis that is building bridges. Baldwin just revealed that her late mother was an addict.
“I remember what it was like to come home from school and not be able to get into the house. I’d pound on the door, but my mother wouldn’t answer. She’d be passed out inside. My mother had a drug abuse problem. She struggled with addiction to prescription drugs her whole life. I had to grow up fast. Very fast. So when I see the opioid crisis that is wrecking so many Wisconsin families, all I can tell you is—I’ve been there. I know how hard this fight is. I know the stigma that comes with drug abuse and mental illness,” Baldwin says movingly in a new video.
The statistics are overwhelming. “Fifteen people a week are overdosing in Wisconsin. This is a crisis for our country and far too many Wisconsin families,” Baldwin says.
Baldwin has been a public figure since 1986 when she was first elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors at age 24. But this is the first time she’s talked about her mother’s addiction.
“I lost my mother last August and I know that throughout her life she was ashamed, frankly, of the fact that she wasn’t able to raise me for most of her life. My maternal grandparents raised me,” Baldwin tells the Blade. “I live a very public life. But, like my mother, I’m a fairly private person. And it was very important for me, as best I could while telling my true story, to protect her privacy. But I also believe, as somebody who—my mother was in and out of treatment throughout her life and was also, by the way, and employee assistance counselor at one point in her life—that she would definitely want her experience to help others.”
Baldwin says she decided to tell her own story because “the power of telling stories is what I see as leading to change. And I wanted to honor the courageous people who’ve been telling their stories and fighting the stigma and the shame by being willing to tell my own.”
The response has been “unbelievable,” enabling others to open up about their own experience, including at the Equality California Awards. A man sitting at the table next to her leaned over and teared up, saying “that’s my dad.”
“I’ve been calling this a ‘second coming out’ because I think of it in terms of how we bring about change politically,” Baldwin says. “For the LGBT community, it’s always been ‘come out, come out wherever you are.’ Our visibility, our stories make a difference. And I think the same is absolutely true with this—that the more we fight the stigma, fight the shame and tell our stories, the more we lead to political change.”
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Gay Media Association.