Run, Tammy, run!

Jamakaya

Herb Kohl’s retirement from the U.S. Senate at the end of his fourth term opens the way for a rush of candidates to the wide-open race in 2012.

I’d love to see U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin make a run for the seat. She’s great on all the bread-and-butter issues – LGBT and women’s rights, healthcare, labor, Social Security, agriculture, clean energy, consumer rights and peace.

Plus, she’d be a refreshing alternative to the boring old usual suspects, such as Tom Barrett, whom Democratic Party bigwigs probably will promote. Having a woman and an open lesbian run for the Senate would infuse new energy into the race and attract lots of young campaign workers.

Baldwin is a great fundraiser and a vigorous campaigner. She would provide a real contrast to whatever corporate shill or wing-nut the GOP puts forward. She knows how to connect with people and frames the issues well. She’s smart and ambitious and, despite whatever anti-gay crud the opposition would throw at her, I’m convinced she could overcome it and win.

I have never been a big fan of Herb Kohl, who is often described as “beloved” by the state’s mainstream media. His personal fortune and name recognition, due to his family’s history in the retail trade and his ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks, have fueled his success as a candidate. It certainly hasn’t been his charisma or, for me, his stands on the issues. As a senator, Kohl voted for NAFTA, the PATRIOT Act and the Iraq war, and he’s been a real Herbie-come-lately to LGBT rights.

In 1993, Kohl voted for “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the Armed Forces as long as they shut up (or lied) about who they were. In 1996, he voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman and declared that no jurisdiction would be required to honor the marriage rights of any same sex couple.

Kohl belatedly had a change of heart on both issues. He voted last year to repeal “don’t ask” and recently signed on to support S598, the “Respect for Marriage Act,” which would repeal DOMA. S598 faces stiff opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, so it’s just the beginning of a long fight.

I shouldn’t be too hard on Kohl though. He did provide me with one of the most satisfying moments in my career as a journalist and activist. I attended a State AFL-CIO Women’s Conference in Manitowoc in 1993 at which Kohl appeared. It was shortly after his vote for “don’t ask,” and some of the women there really let him have it, questioning him aggressively about his alleged commitment to civil rights. They loudly scolded him and told him he should be ashamed of himself.

I asked Kohl whether he thought the anger over his vote could be due to the perception that he might be part of our “community.”

“You mean, am I gay or lesbian?” he asked. I nodded, and he shook his head and said, “No.”

More important than my little coup in getting Kohl to address the long-time speculation about his sexual orientation, I will never forget how fierce those union women were in speaking truth to power and demanding accountability. The attack on unions today is designed to quash forever that type of principled opposition and it must be met with equally fierce resistance.