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What is your connection to
I was born and raised in Wisconsin; in fact, where we’re sitting is probably one and a half miles from the hospital where I was born. So I haven’t gotten very far from where it all started. But I was lucky to be born here. I went through the Madison public schools and had a lot of family associated with the university here, so Madison and Wisconsin are part of me.
What are some key memories you have growing up in Wisconsin?
I was raised by my maternal grandparents; and both of my grandparents had an affiliation with the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. My grandfather was a biochemistry professor and my grandmother designed the costumes for the theater program at the university - so an art person and science person. I remember as a child being inspired by their worlds. My grandmother would bring me backstage and let me see the costumes being designed and made. Then I got to go to opening night of these fabulous theater productions. She actually let me try out and be in one play which was kind of fun for a child. My grandfather was always doing experiments in his laboratory and writing about them, so I would occasionally get to hang out there, and see how they used all these big machines to look at little microscopic things. Both of their worlds were very exciting to me. I remember spending a lot of time on the university campus as a child long before I was even thinking of going to college myself.
Path has your career taken over the years?
I think my earliest interests in public service and policy and politics can be traced back to my junior high school days. I ran for student council and that sort of sparked my interest. I followed that interest as I moved into adulthood and took what I call a step ladder approach.
Today, I find myself today in the United States House of Representatives, but I started with school politics. During my first year of law school at the UW, I ran for local office on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. I served four terms on the County Board representing the downtown Madison area, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. I also served briefly on the Madison Common Council, filling an aldermanic vacancy. Then somebody urged me to run for the state legislature where I served six years as a WI State Representative.
In the beginning, I could never have imagined that today I would be serving in the United States Congress. But that path of learning about the community and politics at the local and state levels of public service took me one step at a time to where I am today.
What are some key opportunities that you were provided with that got you where you are today?
On many occasions throughout my youth and early adulthood, people stepped forward and encouraged me and offered me training opportunities or internships or experiences that allowed me to gain the skills I needed to take steps on my own. When I was in local office, a person who was in the state legislature came up to me and said, “You should think about running for the state legislature.” And I said, “Me!? I can’t believe that you would be asking me to think about that.” But indeed, they were serious and they encouraged me. Then I took the time to get some serious training so that I would have the skills and the confidence necessary when the opportunity presented itself.
When I was urged to think about running for Congress and contemplating that, a similar thing occurred. I had the opportunity to have some really expert training, for example, in appearing on television: what do you do you do when the camera is rolling and when they ask you a tough question and you’re trying to think of the right answer? How do you maintain your composure? How do you organize a campaign? How do you inspire people to volunteer and how do you raise money because, unfortunately, that is still a big part of winning an elective office. I had really good mentors training me in those skills.
Is there one specific
opportunity that you thought really helped your career and inspire and be a life
In terms of the patterns that have repeated themselves in my career, I would say the benefit and importance of mentors and people encouraging me. I don’t think I could have ever seen myself in my early twenties saying that someday I would be in the United States Congress. That was just beyond my vision of what my future held. To have other people come and express confidence in me and encourage me that if I took other steps I could be prepared to do that was tremendously important. It seemed like every instance where I had an opportunity to advance, there was someone there to give me a little nudge or encouragement and I think that’s very powerful.
What are some things that you
like most about your job?
As a Wisconsinite and someone who is very proud of the traditions and the values of this state, representing us in Congress is a rare privilege. I think about the Wisconsin work ethic. I think about the diversity of the constituency that I represent. We benefit from a rich history of dairy farmers, many of them immigrants, who put great value on hard work and education. Our University of Wisconsin is almost as old as the state; I think that it was founded the year after statehood. So there is a tradition of having an excellent academic institution grounded in the “Wisconsin Idea:” that the knowledge generated at the university should be of service to the people of the state and beyond.
I get to rely on the incredible resources and expertise of the people I represent and carry that rich tradition to Washington D.C. – to “The People’s House,” as we call the House of Representatives. So I think my favorite part of the job is meeting and learning from the people I represent.
What are some key issues or legislation you’ve been involved
My key focuses over the years are also very much responsive to what people here want me working on: health care, energy, and civil rights. But you certainly know that, right now, were in extremely trying economic times. We’re seeing some of the worst joblessness that we’ve seen in decades. Overall, our economy is struggling nearly as much as it was in the 1930’s and 40’s, 30’s mostly in the Great Depression. There’s a renewed focus on the strength of our economy and trying to strengthen it, trying to bring jobs into the area, trying to assist local communities, and private businesses with job creation and economic development.
That has not been a constant because, in the early days of my service in Congress, the economy here was doing great and I could focus more squarely on health care, health care reform, energy and climate change issues, and civil rights issues. But today, I would say my focus has really pivoted to job creation and economic development, in part because this is the real need of my constituents right now and you have to be flexible enough to respond to what the need is today.
How is being a woman
influenced or affected your career?
I’ve been mindful throughout my career that women are still very much under-represented in elective bodies throughout the world, certainly at the national level. In Congress, women constitute 18% of the House of Representatives and the Senate. That’s a pretty small percentage given that we are more than 50% of the voting population.
When I first started in local politics the disparity was not as significant. When I was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors, it was almost 50-50 women and men. When I was first elected to the state legislature, it was about 1/3 women - 2/3 men. When I first elected to Congress, I think was about 13 % women, now its up to 18% women, but we have a long way to go.
In 1998, I was the first woman from the state of Wisconsin to be elected to the United States Congress either in the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives. I was mindful of this because we had just celebrated our state’s 150th birthday. We were founded as a state in 1848 so it took 150 years for us to elect a woman to the U.S. House of Representatives. I’m surprised that in a state as progressive as Wisconsin, we hadn’t done it earlier, but now I’ve been joined by Gwen Moore, a House member from Milwaukee.
What has been some of your
biggest struggles throughout your career?
I think more recently the biggest struggle of being a Member of Congress is time away from home. Obviously, part of my work takes place in Washington D.C. and part of my work takes place in the area I represent, which is all or part of 7 counties in south-central Wisconsin. When Congress is in session, I actually commute on a weekly basis and spend lot of time on airplanes. As somebody who was born and raised in and loves this area, I still find it a challenge, the stretches I need to be away from home. Yet, that’s where the job takes me. That’s probably the biggest challenge.
Do you think there is more
equality in employment opportunities today?
Certainly it has improved over my lifetime if I take that sort of snapshot. Of course, I’m very familiar from my history books with how things used to be before I was around, but I’ve certainly seen progress, although sometimes that progress has been pretty slow.
In the 12 years that I’ve served in the House of Representatives, we’ve gone from 13% to 18% women. That’s not a huge jump, especially if you’re aiming for being reflective of the population at large, which would be 50 or 51%. In terms of women in the workforce, it was just in this past year that a study revealed that half of our workforce is now female. That is something that has been steadily increasing over the years. But are those jobs comparable always? I would say the answer is no. There are professions that are just proportionally female; there are professions that are just proportionally male. The compensation for those professions is still a little bit out of balance, sometimes a lot out of balance.
There is still a statistic, reported annually, for every dollar how much is made by a male worker, how much is made by a female worker. It’s still not dollar for dollar although we’re up from when I first entered the work force which was in the 60 to 70 cents range. Now we’re creeping up and there are new legal tools for women to use to fight wage discrimination; though we shouldn’t have to threaten lawsuits to achieve parity. I have certainly seen market progress, but we have a long way to go.
What are some accomplishments that you are proud of that you’ve made during the time that you were in congress?
On the legislative side I am very proud of my bills that I have had signed into law. A lot of it deals with health related issues, for example, early screening for breast and cervical cancer for women who have no insurance or have insurance that doesn’t cover that type of testing. We know that if you can get a diagnosis very early, the chances of you surviving and being healthy for the rest of your life is much-improved and so passing life-saving legislature is just really very exciting.
I have passed legislation to help veterans who were disabled during their time of service to their county in particular, a measure dealing with vision loss and correcting an inequity that was in our U.S. statutes for many, many years. It’s so gratifying to get a thank you from a World War II veteran saying, “I really appreciate what you’re doing for us.” There is nothing that makes me feel prouder.
I passed a measure to try to improve research, improve treatment, and improve support to people who are living with spinal cord injury legislature. It was actually named in honor of Christopher Reeve, the actor who was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident
I’m very proud that two of those pieces of legislation were signed into law by a Republican president, George W. Bush and the other by a Democrat, Barak Obama.
In terms of other legislative accomplishments, I sit on a health subcommittee and so had a big role to play in the health care reform legislation passed in 2010. I offered many improvements and amendments to the legislation that were incorporated in the final bill, and I was very proud of them and for all my efforts in passing that historic legislation.
But I would say that passing legislation is just one realm of what I get to do. In my offices in Madison and Beloit, I am regularly contacted by people who have some sort of issue with the federal government that’s not working out to their satisfaction and they’ve reached the end of their resources. One may call and say, “I’m a veteran. I’m disabled, but no one is returning my calls at the V.A. They’ve lost my paper work. Can you help?” Helping people with problems they’ve struggled with for months, or even years, is so rewarding. It may be someone working with the Social Security System or someone who is adopting a child from overseas and having trouble getting a visa approved to bring the baby back here. When there is a happy ending, it can be so moving and very worthwhile.
What are some important life lessons that you would like the younger generation of women to be aware of?
I would start with one that applies equally to young women and young men which is, if at first you don’t’ succeed try, try again. There are any number of things that I have set out to do at which I was not successful at first. Had I given up, there’s no way I would have the privilege of doing what I do today.
Something that worked really well for me in the realm of politics, but is no doubt useful in other fields, is demystifying the topic. As an undergraduate in college, I double majored in math and government, so I’d studied government affairs. But getting involved in politics and government is very different than reading about it in your text books and discussing it in a classroom. What I did following college was to volunteer and looked for internships that allowed me to really see what happened in government and take what I learned in the books and lectures and demystify it.
I sat in on Dane County board meetings to see what really happened in a local government meeting and I clearly remember some debate that was going on for hours and thinking, “I’m as smart as everyone who is participating in that debate. I could do this!”
Before that I imagined all the elected officials were somehow more expert or more knowledgeable and, had I not been there, I would have not realized that they were just average citizens who were volunteering their time for public service and I could do the same.
I also volunteered on people’s campaigns and for me that demystified how you actually go from saying, “I’d be interested in serving in office” to “Okay, I need a certain number of votes on Election Day; how do I get them? What’s the process?” Do you knock on people’s door and say, “Hi I’m running for office?” It’s breaking it down and demystifying a subject into a discreet action that you can take to succeed. This is very empowering because you can imagine what you have to do and give it a try.
Do you think that that is
partly whey there is still more in a quality in numbers because more women
don’t know what will happen if they step forward, do you think that women are
more cautious of about taking that next step to run?
I don’t think it’s the fault of women; I think it’s more of a societal message. I’ll give you an example of a study that was done. I think it’s been updated and the conclusion hasn’t changed a whole lot. They were looking at who ultimately gets elected to state legislatures or Congress. They studied the backgrounds of people who were on their way into public office, and then they took a sample of folks in those professions, half men and half women and did long interviews with, for example, recent law school grads or those starting on a law career and saying, “Have you ever thought of running for city council?” They weren’t saying running for president, or running for Congress, but running for city council.
The type of responses that they were getting had a significant gender difference that was of concern to the researchers. It was much more likely a young man would say: “Wow! That would really expose a lot of new networking connections that might help bring businesses into my firm.” “This is really intriguing.” “That would probably, if I were successfully elected, bring honor to the firm.”
It was more typical for a young woman to say, “My supervisor would see me on the phone doing things that aren’t related to my job, and worry that I’m not serious enough about my new job.” One looked at the glass half full and the other looked at the glass half empty. So that was a concern.
The second had to do with family issues. I find this, until very recently, has been my experience. Women in families with young children defer the idea of running for office either until their kids are old enough not to need sitters or the kids are actually out of the house in college. Young men with children the same age do not make the same decision, probably because they have the support of a spouse. That is a hugely gendered distinction.
It is very reflected, at least, with the older generation in Congress. I don’t have children so that was never a factor for me.
Happily, things are beginning to change. Since I entered Congress, four of my colleagues have had babies while in office. That is probably the largest number that has ever happened in history, four in the last twelve years and probably four in the last hundred years. It is not at all uncommon to have children running around on the House floor if we have late night votes. You can have children up to age twelve come on the House floor. So the young mothers will bring their kids to the office if there’s a late night vote after school’s out or the sitter’s gone. It also happens that young men will bring their young children along. So that’s a noticeable change.
There is one more stark gender difference, and I get this because this was a hurdle for me. When someone first told me I should run for county board I said, “Well, I couldn’t possibly. I don’t know about zoning. I don’t know about the sheriff’s department issues. I do know a little bit about human services and health care, that’s why I would want to run for the county board, but I don’t know this and I don’t know that and I would have to study up and I have to know all that before I could run.” A man would more likely say “Oh, you know, I can find out about that on the run. I’m smart; I can handle myself and I don’t need to know everything about the topic before I put myself out there.”
That need to know everything was, for me, something that I had to overcome and really focus on. Now I’m at the point where I have great command about a lot of the issues that I’m expected to know in detail and it may be the tenth question that stumps me. Now I can accept that no one is going to say I’m a bad representative because I don’t know the answer to an obscure question. I’m comfortable saying, “I’ll get back to you, I’ll look it up.”
Who has inspired you?
Oh gosh, so many people, I’m very lucky in that my family, my grandparents who raised me were enormously inspirational to me. They had already raised two children of their own and raising me kind sort of altered their life plan, but they were there when I needed people to take care of me. Plus, they were just enormously accomplished people and encouraging to me and on both of those levels they’re inspirational to me. Then, I would say the various people who took their time to mentor me and there are so many of them. Also, there are a lot of folks on the world stage who just showed remarkable courage that I think of and feel very moved by.
What is your position on the written rule on
renewable energy sources how did you come to such a strong stand on that
First of all, I am very convinced by the science that tells us that climate changes are occurring and the human contribution is enormous. I’m also very convinced that if we don’t take action soon, some official action, in terms of passing laws, but also each of us taking on personal responsibilities in trying to reduce our green house gas and carbon foot print, then the effects ten years, twenty years, a hundred years from now will be devastating. I feel very much like there’s an obligation to leave the planet in good condition when you exit. We’ll all exit. It’s very much a passion of mine.
We’ve had solutions elude us at the national level because I still have a huge number of colleagues who deny that climate changes are occurring. So that has made it very difficult for us to pass needed legislation.
Then you start to look at a more local response or you look at yourself and say “What can I do, personally, to take responsibility for the situation until such time that we can get a broader framework in place to act globally and nationally?” So it comes from a belief that we have to tackle this and we have a responsibility to future generations to do that.
I also have another reason that is much more focused on the present rather than the future and that is, I believe that if we put real focus and energy into renewable fuel sources and efficiency and conservation that could be a huge part of our economic recovery. Think about the last time we were experiencing incredible prosperity. It was the time when we were discovering all sorts of opportunities with the Internet and computing and speeding things up and they were creating all these companies that were doing things that were making our lives easier whether it’s Googling something, or selling on eBay. A lot of people got jobs and a lot of people became prosperous based on their ideas - ideas that had started in their dorm rooms or the classic, “We started it in our garage and now it’s a multi-billion business.”
I just met the founder of Facebook a few weeks ago in Washington D.C. He’s a 28-year-old billionaire because he and his college classmates said, “Oh, we should figure out a social network opportunity.” Well, what if we did that with renewable energy and in conservation and efficiency, in all of those areas? I think we have the potential, if we make the discoveries here that allow clean energy throughout the globe, to get a corner on something important. And I think that if we don’t, other countries with bright minds will. Right now we face that real potential because we haven’t acted. So there are long term reasons and the short term reasons for being passionate about the issue.
Are there any other stories or Lessons you would like to share?
Specific to being a woman in politics, because we’re still so few in many legislative bodies and certainly we haven’t had a woman president, I’m very mindful of the fact that I make both a substantive difference and a symbolic difference. The importance of the symbolism first came as I was serving my last few weeks in the Wisconsin legislature before the session ended. There was 4th grade group of students observing the debate and weren’t allowed on the floor of the assembly until after we had finished this business. But then they did come down and to ask questions and a little girl asked me, “Which is your chair?” I pointed it out and she jumped up into the big leather chair and she was just getting cozy and said, “I like the feel of this.” It struck me that a little girl wouldn’t see herself there unless she saw women’s faces there. Before that, this is not what little girls did or aspired to do. That moment taught me the symbolic power of having women leaders and role models, especially in an area where there aren’t very many women. So I little girl can say, “I can be an astronaut; I can run a business; I can be a farmer; and I can be a member of the state legislature” without thinking twice about it because she sees someone like her in that role.
Substantively, there have been occasions where I’ve seen the difference it makes to have a women’s voice in a debate. I was telling you earlier about how it’s only very recently that women with young children have served in Congress. Imagine having debates about child care without young mothers. The perspective and the needs of the situation aren’t going to be at the table if you don’t have somebody living it there.
For me, a particular debate on the county board when I was just starting in local politics drove the lesson home. It was about extending a bus route to Madison Area Technical College’s new campus on the city’s east side. The campus had been built about a third of a mile or half a mile from the nearest major thoroughfare and the only way to get from the existing bus route to the college was through a dark street, in a sort of questionable neighborhood; and the street didn’t even have sidewalks on it. You had to walk either on the side of the street or on the grass; and our debate was on whether the city should pay to bring a new bus route or a couple of new bus routes to the college door.
I listened to the debate (I was pretty new to the body at the time, so I was really quiet) and I was hearing finger-pointing from the men like, “Why didn’t the college think about this when they built it there?” And, “Why aren’t they paying for it; and why didn’t they come to us saying that they would give the city x number of dollars.”
Then I started to hear some of my women colleagues speak up about personal safety, saying things like, “You guys don’t have to looking over their shoulders as much if you’re walking after dark in questionable neighborhoods,” and talking about the women who were working during the day and taking the classes at night or taking care of the children during the day until their spouses came home they could then take classes - that sort of thing. This element of the debate would not have been presented if there hadn’t been people with a different life experience. So you don’t check your life experiences at the door like a coat check when you walk into work. You bring your life experience with you and it informs your participation and debate and that’s why having women at the table matters.
Than you very much
It was a pleasure.