Running! is a Teen Vogue series on getting involved in the government.
When Teen Vogue interviewed Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the Democrat had just completed a busy week that included cosponsoring bipartisan legislation to fund school security improvements and invest in early prevention and intervention programs for students, school officials, and law enforcement. Baldwin, 56, is also gearing up for a reelection campaign that some are calling the top Senate race in the country in the November 6 midterm elections.
Wisconsin was a surprise loss for Democrats in 2016, when then candidate Donald Trump surpassed Hillary Clinton by fewer than 30,000 votes, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1984. Baldwin’s seat has emerged as a prime target for Republicans aiming to keep their narrow majority in the Senate, as the GOP wages a fight to capitalize on her vulnerabilities in a state where political views have become increasingly polarized.
“Going into the 2018 cycle, I think for many, many reasons there’s more interest [in the midterms]…[And] so many issues impacting young people are getting really strong public view,” Baldwin tells Teen Vogue.
“[When I was starting out] so many people were saying…’young people don’t vote.’” Well, I couldn’t get elected to office if young people didn’t vote.” she says. Elected to the Senate six years ago after 14 years in the House, Baldwin made history as the first woman to represent Wisconsin in the Senate, and the body’s first openly gay member.
More than six months before the midterms, conservative groups outside of the state — some with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers — have already spent nearly $10 million against Baldwin, more than any other Democrat seeking reelection in the Senate — combined.
She is a leader in the ongoing bipartisan fight to extend the federal Perkins Loan program to 2019, which would continue to provide low-interest loans to college and graduate students with high financial need. In 2015, Baldwin introduced and was instrumental in passing the In The Red Act. This bill combined her own legislation, America’s College Promise Act, which guarantees two years of tuition-free community college, with education reforms championed by fellow Senate Democrats, including increasing access to federal Pell Grants, which supply need-based grants to low-income college students, and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) plan to allow students to refinance debt, much like a house or a car.
“We have the whole spectrum of college graduates, people in school, and people aspiring to get a higher education with the policies in the In the Red Act,” she says. “Probably the closest to my heart is starting a college promise whereby people can know they can get through the first two years [of college] without having a lifelong debt.”
Helping increase the number of women elected to office is another cause close to the senator’s heart. In 2016, Baldwin made calls directly to female candidates to encourage them to run for seats in the state legislature. Last year, her office also started a field organizing program with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, one of the largest programs in the state’s history. “I embrace the chance [to help elect other women to office] whenever I can,” she says.
First elected to office at the age of 24 as a representative for the Dane County Board of Supervisors in her hometown of Madison, Baldwin cites the National Women’s Political Caucus, a muti-partisan organization established in 1971 to recruit and train women to hold public and elected office (and which counts Gloria Steinem, Dorothy Height, and Bella Abzug among its founders), as a particular source of guidance during the earliest days of her political career. (Disclaimer: The author of this piece is a contributor to Ms. magazine, which Steinem co-founded and for which she now serves as consulting editor.)
“That was so formative for me,” she says. “These women understood what a difference it was going to make [to elect women to office] and they recruited and mentored…You can pay it forward.”
Baldwin’s childhood experiences have taken center stage as she’s fought back against the Trump administration’s efforts to return preexisting conditions to the insurance market. After an illness similar to spinal meningitis put Baldwin in the hospital for three months at 9 years old, she was labeled as having a preexisting condition, so her grandparents, who raised her, were unable to find a plan that would insure their granddaughter. Baldwin remained without coverage until college, so she is familiar with the fear and stress of getting sick when the costs of care are high.
Health care isn’t the only issue where she disagrees with the Trump administration: She describes the administration’s rescission of DACA in September 2017 as “cynical” for its targeting of young people. America’s youth are a group she talks eagerly about, excited about the changes in store in the wake of the Women’s March and the activism of the students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“We have a generation of young people who have grown up in an age of school massacres and much other gun violence…[there are young people who] are so dedicated to our environment and sustainability and can’t believe there are so many old white guys in Congress that don’t believe climate science is real and climate change is upon us. I think those, combined with many other issues, school debt and affordability of higher education and getting good jobs, that is a perfect storm for a lot of youth engagement,’” she says. “[Young people] are looking and saying, ‘Washington isn’t responding, we have to…help elect the people who are.’”
During the 2016 election Baldwin mounted a statewide tour speaking at college campuses across Wisconsin, and she’s preparing for a similar tour in the run up to the 2018 midterms.
“Showing up matters and engaging people matters,” Baldwin says. ”That’s been a formula that’s been really important for me if we want input from the entire electorate — not just those who are predictable voters, you have to create new voters.”
There’s a quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead that Baldwin has framed in her D.C. and Wisconsin offices. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
“It’s so inspiring to me,” Baldwin says of Mead’s words. “I think we forget that truth.”
“The idea that you wait until you’re invited to join a movement rather than starting it, that wouldn’t work in the scheme of things,” she says. “Everyone has the power to make a difference. And it usually starts with folks identifying a wrong and talking about that wrong and then acting in concert to address it.”
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