The Students' Rep

The Capitol Hill office of Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) looks like nothing so much as a college bookstore without the books. Her University of Wisconsin-Madison pennant is proudly displayed, along with the matching stuffed bear, football and autographed basketball and football. A poster behind the reception desk proclaims that the Madison Area Technical College makes "everyday heroes." A visiting student would feel comfortable here -- a good thing, considering Baldwin needs student votes and works hard to get them.

At first glance, Baldwin seems the perfect pol for a liberal college town like Madison. When initially elected in 1998, she was the first non-incumbent, openly gay candidate to win a seat in Congress. She's since become a tribune for a raft of progressive and youth-oriented causes. But winning elections by mobilizing the youth vote is never easy, and it's been a constant challenge for Baldwin throughout her career. At a moment when 20-somethings and teens are tuning in to politics through the Internet and the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean, Baldwin's successes offer lessons that Democrats ignore at their peril.

Wisconsin's 2nd District is home to seven universities and colleges, the largest of which, UW-Madison, has more than 41,000 full-time students and a rich history of political activism. Any savvy candidate in this district should be campus-friendly, but Baldwin, much like the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), has put students at the center of the progressive coalition that, in turn, put her and has kept her in power. Her initial run for Congress resulted in what one journalist termed an election-day "youthquake," of a magnitude sufficient to send her to Washington.

Baldwin's campus ties date back to her first semester as a UW-Madison law student in 1986, when, at age 24, she won a seat on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. The only way to win, it was clear, was to mobilize an uncommonly mobile population that most political consultants would have written off as unmobilizable. "I didn't have a choice to campaign in more stable, less transient neighborhoods because I was running for a seat ... that had dormitory housing as well as private residence halls," says Baldwin. "[Y]ou learn some different techniques for campaigning. You know that buying that voter list from two years prior is going to do you no good at all because there's probably a 90 percent turnover in two years." Baldwin served four terms on the county board, then went on to represent Madison students for three terms in the state assembly before deciding to run for Congress when the Madison-area seat came open.

Facing a tough Democratic primary, Baldwin, then 36, worked Madison students like no candidate had since the Vietnam era. As a local paper reported in August of that year, "People joke that even if there's a hurricane or a nuclear war, Baldwin's supporters will make it to the polls on Sept. 8. That's the level of devotion she inspires." Baldwin ran on a platform of single-payer universal health care, tougher environmental and labor regulations, and public financing for day care. Stoked by her commitment and the sense that in electing an open lesbian they could make some history, Baldwin's troops responded -- and she beat Dane County Executive Rick Phelps by 2.3 points.

After the primary, Baldwin took on Jo Musser, a moderate Republican. By then something of a national liberal cause célèbre, Baldwin raised record amounts of money, much of which she invested in her student base. She ran campaign ads on MTV and during Ally McBeal that encouraged student volunteers to join the campaign. In the end, she amassed more than 3,000 volunteer precinct walkers, envelope stuffers and phone bankers, 1,700 of them students. (By contrast, Musser had 350 to 400 volunteers.) Baldwin's crew chalked miles of campus sidewalks with campaign slogans and organized the UW-Madison campus with military precision -- every residence hall had a captain, every floor had a leader and Baldwin herself knocked on dorm-room doors to spread the word. She ate dinner with students at co-op houses, chatted with them at the local farmer's market and attended numerous campus forums.

In a campaign as reliant as Baldwin's on volunteer zeal, surrogates aren't nearly as effective as the candidate herself. Says Baldwin, "Showing up matters," a credo whose importance was made abundantly clear in 2000, when she was challenged by popular UW-Madison history professor John Sharpless. Despite her organized students, Baldwin barely squeaked by, winning by a scant 51 percent to 49 percent margin. Papers attributed the close race to Sharpless' campus ties and moderate Republican platform, attractive to the district's more conservative suburbs. But Baldwin's staffers blamed Congress' long session for keeping her in Washington all fall. "The schedule really denied her the chance to interact with students," says Baldwin's chief of staff, Bill Murat. "Face to face contact is extremely important."

Wisconsin is peculiarly hospitable to new voters. It is one of a handful of states that allow same-day registration (students need only show up at the polls with photo ID and a piece of mail), and Baldwin's campaign works tirelessly to take advantage of this law. (In neighboring Minnesota, same-day registration was one key to the election-day victories of both Wellstone and former Gov. Jesse Ventura.)

For the midterm election of 1998, Wisconsin election officials had predicted 40 percent statewide voter turnout. In fact, while the state saw 45.4 percent participation, Dane County logged 55 percent. Baldwin's "youthquake" caused 28 polling places to run out of ballots, and some voters waited in line for more than two hours to cast their vote.

According to UW-Madison professor David T. Canon, in the six wards with the highest student density, Baldwin received 70.1 percent of the vote. "People say that students won that election for her," says Kris Johnson, UW-Madison student and director of the Lesbian-Gay-Bi-Transgender Center on campus. "I totally believe it." As The Washington Post later reported, Baldwin swept the university students by an 8,100-vote margin, winning her seat over Musser by 13,600 votes.

During her four-plus years in Congress, Baldwin has made students a consistent priority. She co-sponsored legislation to double Pell Grants from $3,500 to $7,000 and continually works to secure funding for schools in her area. Early this July, Baldwin secured $100,000 in federal funding for the University of Wisconsin-Rock, which isn't even located in her district but serves some of her constituents.

Attentive scheduling is one basic but important way that Baldwin makes time for students. She meets with young voters in her Washington office, at brown-bag lunches on campuses and in interviews with the editorial boards of school newspapers. Baldwin travels back to her district every weekend to participate in casual local events, on and off campus. Her Web site devotes an entire section to student readers, including a "Dear Student" letter from the congresswoman herself. Because e-mail is the one address most likely to follow a student through every college year, Baldwin also encourages collegians to sign up for her office's electronic newsletters.

All members of Congress have Web sites and e-mail, of course, but few use technology to its full advantage, especially when it comes to students. While Baldwin does have a sizable young constituency, she has colleagues with comparable student populations: Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) represents more than 145,000 students from 32 schools (including Harvard University, Boston College, Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in his district of 620,372; Ohio State University's 57,271 students look to Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) for representation; the district of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is home to Ann Arbor's University of Michigan (35,700 students), Eastern Michigan University (23,710) and several other schools. But none of these Congress members' Web sites offer much more than a list of links to local colleges, some three clicks into the site. Even Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who represents the University of California, Berkeley (33,145) and 13 other schools and does have a section of student resource-type links, fails to write directly to student readers and nowhere mentions her efforts to champion student concerns.

According to Baldwin, that type of proactive "you matter" communication is key, and she shows that she's paying attention by "engaging in the issues that young voters are concerned about." Baldwin cites foreign policy, civil rights, civil liberties, environmental protection and a woman's right to choose as her students' current concerns -- issues that might be on the minds of many constituents, young and old.

It would be a mistake to portray Baldwin as just a "students'" representative, and it would be a mistake for her to act like one. Wisconsin's 2nd District is quite diverse: Madison, the liberal stronghold that is home to the university and more than 200,000 residents, makes up just one-third of the district. The other two-thirds is split evenly between rural areas and growing suburbs, both more conservative than the capital city. Baldwin represents the Oscar Meyer headquarters (her office displays the famous wiener, too), farmers, veterans and working families.

Baldwin's knack for satisfying a spectrum of constituents and still finding time for students makes the congresswoman tough to duplicate, her supporters say. But there are other exceptional circumstances at work, too: Few states have enacted the student-friendly process of same-day registration, Madison students were already politically active (though they'd grown a bit dormant until Baldwin came along) and Baldwin started forging student relationships when she was herself a young student.

Still, a lot of Baldwin's appeal seems rooted in nothing more than a common sense that could be growing even more common with the early successes of Howard Dean among younger voters. "She is where she is today because of the students," says Katie Belanger, a recent Madison grad and Baldwin's 2002 campaign field director. "I don't know if other people are able to do that. I hope that everyone would try."

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