Posted: October 17, 2010 in Politics, Profiles

So what is your story, when did you know you wanted to do what you do?

The earliest I can trace my interest in public service to is middle school, believe it or not. The “A-ha!” moment wasn’t running or winning the student council race, but it was some of the work I was involved with once I was elected. It was just that light-bulb moment for me that a small group of people could make a difference in others’ lives. Our school had a sister school in Nicaragua. There was a huge earthquake and the school there was heavily damaged, so we raised pennies, nickels quarters and dimes, and got letters back from those children thanking us, saying they were able to buy books. So here we were, pre-teens in Wisconsin, making a difference halfway across the world.

There was also an issue that brought me to public service, which is my belief that everyone should have comprehensive healthcare coverage that’s affordable. When I was nine years old I had a very serious childhood illness and was hospitalized for a long time. I know that my grandparents who raised me weren’t able to get insurance coverage for me after that. I just thought that shouldn’t happen to families, having to pay out of pocket and not being able to get insurance. It became a life-long goal.

How have you seen Madison change culturally and politically since you grew up here? How do you see it continuing to change, it what direction?

I remember Hildale being the periphery of the city, and when they opened West Town you had to travel through farm fields to get there. Watching the city grow has been interesting. The economy has become a lot more diverse, which is great because it has really helped a city like Madison weather the recession better than some communities where they’re really dependent on one sector of the economy; in particular, manufacturing towns like Milwaukee, Janesville and Beloit.

My mother was an undergrad here when I was born, and she was really involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. I remember as a child all the demonstrations on campus, not violent ones, but students saying, “If we unify our voices we can really make a difference”, just by sit-ins, teach-ins, marches, etc. I think that really did make a difference. I think that has remained a tradition here, but has been strong or weak at various points in time. Obviously there are many campuses in the area and lots of opportunities for young people to engage both on campus and their larger community.

Are there any messages you have specifically for college students?

If you think about it at a very basic level, every single election is about the future. We’re not electing people to make decisions about the past; we’re electing people to make decisions about the path we take from here. Of course young people, students who are about to enter the job market, have more at stake than any other generation. Yet we know with some of the data and history, students are sometimes less likely to vote. Sometimes, ironically, the people who show up to the polls with greatest certainty are those in their retirement years. So if you really internalize the fact that every election is about the future, you have the most at stake.

Clearly, given the current economy and the fact that we are basically slowly recovering from a very, very deep recession, I think that job creation has to be a firm priority for all office holders, all people who are in a position to shape public policy. It’s going to be my central focus until I feel like we are back on very solid economic footing, which I hope won’t be too far away. Right now, we know this recovery has been a slow one. Where I think we can grow the most in our nation’s economy is areas like clean energy. I think about the last time we had tiny unemployment rates and our country was prospering in major ways, was back in the ‘90s during the digital revolution and the internet and “.com” boons. Today, I think our real opportunity for growth and innovation and leading the world economy is if our country and our area is the place where we develop solutions that allow us to eliminate our dependence on foreign fossil fuels and allow us to create energy with less green house gas emissions. Whoever in the world makes those discoveries, produces those products and finds those answers, is going to prosper in the decades to come. I want that to be us. So a lot of my work around job creation, is trying to create that environment where we can take the lead.

We have to look at both immediate and long term solutions. Clearly people don’t have jobs now that need them. We need jobs open tomorrow for people to get in to. But I think it’s shortsighted if we don’t think, “What will the jobs be next year, 5 years from now, and 10 years from now?” Some of that requires early investment; you won’t be able to turn on a dime and have those things happen.

There’s been a current wave of suicides among gay teens in the country. If you compare Texas Councilman Joel Burn’s speech the other day with Kleefisch’s comment on gay marriage, it’s obvious how mixed a message people are getting from our politicians.

At Edgewood we have had homophobic graffiti in the dorms and staff and faculty fought for partner benefits. Though the faculty and staff and administration at Edgewood are very accepting and tolerant, it’s still technically a Catholic college, and we all know the official stance of the Catholic Church on this issue. Do you have any message for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender student community and their allies at Edgewood?

I think that one of the most powerful messages to send to our LGBT youth is one that they’re really bringing out in response to these suicides and the harassment and bullying that occurs, which is the message that it gets better. There’s every opportunity in the world for LGBT youth to succeed and contribute to their community and to be respected and appreciated. That’s one of the reasons why when I moved into public life I decided to be out about me. I was the first out gay or lesbian person to be elected to congress in the US without coming out in office; everyone knew when I was first running. And I hope that my being visible and being vocal provides young people who, maybe, in 9th grade feel like there’s not a light at the end of the tunnel, feel like “I can become a congress person someday.” We are seeing all the people who are coming out in the context of the “don’t ask don’t tell” battle to repeal that law. All these opportunities are there.

Young people are in the middle of both taunting and bullying and harassment from peers as well as seeing people that you would ordinarily think were authority figures or role models say despicable things. There are so many more in our society (and it increases every day) who feel the opposite way. Not only will it get better as you go from junior high-school to high-school to college to life in the world, but it will also get better as our movement progresses and we achieve changes in laws and changes in mind. Think about when the constitutional amendment in Wisconsin was on the ballot to put in our constitution that marriage was only between a man and a woman and similar benefits couldn’t be granted to same sex couples. Obviously we lost that battle and that was a very terrifying message to a lot of gay people and their allies in the state of Wisconsin.

Nevertheless, in the years since that’s passed, opinion is continuing to change in the right direction, getting more and more accepting and tolerant. Tolerance isn’t enough, I want acceptance and respect. It’s turning the same way in the nation. It gets better as you get older and as society progresses. That progress is only won as people are willing to be out and share their stories and win over the hearts and minds of others.

Other topics:

Reducing concentration of wealth and wage inequality:

Wealth and equality is a problem. It’s sort of playing out in tandem with the discussion and debate of what we are going to do with tax policy once the Bush tax cuts expire. There isn’t a lot of public knowledge on this topic. If you ask people how much wealth the top 1% to 2% of society controls, they don’t recognize how vast that number is, how big this gulf is. If it’s hard to recognize, it’s hard to understand the consequences of it, too. It scares me because I think we are seeing a lot of that play out. The Citizens United Supreme Court case allows corporations to spend limitless money in campaigns. They will obviously invest in the campaigns of people who protect the interests of the wealthy; they aren’t do-gooders who want to help the poor. They are protecting their corporate interests… I agree with the middleclass tax cuts from the Bush administration, but Republicans won’t let us pass that until they also get the tax cut for the wealthiest 2%. It would cost $700 billion over the next 10 years, and they just plan on borrowing that money. It would slash the whole federal budget, including education. If low income students can’t get a higher education and get trapped in low wage jobs, they get trapped in a cycle without upward mobility.

Department of Peace and Nonviolence (initiated by Dennis Kucinich):

Think of the department of defense and homeland security, the two most behemoth agencies in federal government, with all of this focus on war. We should proactively work on peace and justice, and clearly not enough is being spent in that direction. How do we orchestrate those efforts? The peace core is a very important agency, but if you drew together all the folks out there who are working on initiatives like that, if you bring those voices together it could be a very powerful thing.

Medical Marijuana referendum in Madison:

The irony is that you could be convicted of murder and still get a student loan. Part of the war on drugs is that anyone with a drug conviction (we’re talking non-violent possession of drugs) can’t get student financial aid.

I cosponsor a federal piece of legislation that would permit medicinal use of marijuana. Even though we have several states now that have legalized medicinal use, our drug enforcement agency at the federal level still pushes the federal laws which are inconsistent with state laws. So we still see major busts and prosecutions when I think there are so many other higher priorities. Even if you just limit the discussion to drugs, there are certainly drugs that are very highly addictive and have no similar benefits that medicinal marijuana does in alleviating suffering, pain, nausea etc. I hope [the referendum] sends a strong signal to legislatures that at least this part of the state has a different view.

A city/area going against both state and federal laws— is that uncommon?

I think sometimes that’s the way movements begin: community. We had that a few years ago in referenda across the state against the Iraq War. It may go against federal policy, but it’s a statement that citizens of a certain part of the country don’t agree with the policy. I think office holders, policy makers, look at that. We’re supposed to be representatives of the people, and that means taking their views at minimum into consideration, if not taking those views and fighting for them.

Equal Pay & Lilly Ledbetter acts:

Lilly worked for a company many years, and someone tipped her off that for all those years she had been paid less than male counterparts even though she did the same work. When she discovered this she sued in federal court, and there was no question of her evidence, but a quirk in the law said you must initiate suit within a certain number of days after that pay begins. She didn’t know about that until somebody told her that she was no longer in the time slot to follow suit, so they threw out the case. I think people looked at the case and said, “This is unfair and unjust.” You can’t expect someone to file suit before they even know they were wronged. We changed the law so you have time after you find out. Sadly, the only person who wasn’t protected was Lilly herself because her case was decided and we couldn’t reverse it; we only changed it for people moving forward.

Equal Pay for Equal Work was one of the first issues I worked on here after college. Not even just two people working beside each other on the same job making the same pay, but people in different professions, how do you compare their work? You can ask questions like what level of responsibility that worker has, what is the consequence of error, how many people do they supervise, how taxing physically is the job, and so on. You would still find that professions dominated by women tend to get compensated a little less, but you would find people working side by side at the same job at an equal experience level getting paid the same salary. [In Madison, from what she can tell, this is being followed well]

State of partisan politics now (Wisconsin):

Compared to the last several races that I’ve been involved in as a candidate, this is very unique. Part of it is the difficult economy. People are frustrated, scared and anxious. But some people have jumped in to use that uncertainty to their political advantage. I’m really worried about the state of our media right now.  I think increasingly people think when they turn on a cable network that they’re watching news, even on the left. They think they are watching a news production where there are journalists out there doing reporting, but they aren’t hearing news. These people who aren’t journalists are stirring up a lot of the passion and sentiment you are seeing right now. A lot of folks are buying air time and sending out a message that isn’t news but a very partisan perspective aimed at advancing those paying for it. It’s a scary time in that sense. I hope before or after the election we figure out a way to dial this back. I have no problem having legitimate differences with Republicans, as long as at the end of the day we are all still working to make America better and to make life better for people. We might have different ways of doing it, but that has to be the goal.

The thing I like about both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is they’re making fun of how “news” is being reported. Anyone who is sophisticated and watching that understands it’s satire, and hopefully recognizes that they have to be careful consumers of that stuff or else they’ll be hoodwinked.

Interviewed by Michael Stock


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