U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin today delivered her first speech on the floor of the United States Senate. Baldwin’s speech focused on the economy and growing the middle class.
As I make my first remarks on the Senate floor, I have the honor of occupying the same Senate seat – and, in fact, occupying the same desk in this chamber – as Robert M. La Follette Sr.
Fighting Bob LaFollette, as he was known, was a Republican Senator from Wisconsin at the turn of the last century. He is credited as the founder of the Progressive Party, and the progressive movement in this country. I admire Fighting Bob’s legacy in many ways . . . but I assure my colleagues that I will not emulate his maiden speech which went on for three successive days.
Bob LaFollette ran for this office because he was concerned that while powerful corporate interests were being well-served in Washington, ordinary people weren’t even being heard. He traveled all around Wisconsin, literally speaking from a stage of soapboxes and hay wagons at county fairs, and his message came to define my state’s progressive tradition.
The things he talked about still ring true today. As I’ve traveled the state, Wisconsinites have told me that the powerful and well-connected still seem to get to write their own rules, while the concerns and struggles of middle-class families go unnoticed here in Washington. They feel like our economic system is tilted towards those at the top, and that our political system exists to protect those unfair advantages instead of to make sure that everybody gets a fair shot.
They see Washington happy to let Wall Street write their own rules, but unable to help students pull themselves out of debt.
They see Washington working to protect big tax breaks for powerful corporations, but unwilling to protect small manufacturers from getting ripped off by China’s cheating.
They see Washington bouncing from one manufactured fiscal crisis to the next, but never addressing the real and ongoing crisis of our disappearing middle class.
The truth is, while you hear a lot about the wide distance between Democrats and Republicans, the widest and most important distance in our political system is between the content of the debate here in Washington and the concerns of working families in places like Wisconsin.
That distance parallels the large and growing gaps between the rich and the poor . . . between rising costs and stagnant incomes . . . between our nation and our competitors when it comes to education and innovation. And it’s really hurting people.
When my grandparents were raising me, I learned that, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead.
The Wisconsinites I talk to grew up learning the same thing. They’re working as hard as ever. And they deserve to get ahead. But many are barely getting by.
People are still working for that middle class dream: a good job that pays the bills, health care coverage you can rely on; a home you can call your own, a chance to save for your kids’ college education, a secure retirement.
But instead, too many are finding that even two jobs aren’t enough to make ends meet, and that those jobs are hard to find and hard to keep. They’re finding that the home they worked hard to own isn’t even worth what they still owe on the mortgage. They’re finding that the cost of college is going up, and they’re worried that they might never be able to retire comfortably.
That’s the biggest gap of all: The gap between the economic security Wisconsinites work so hard to achieve, and the economic uncertainty that they are asked to settle for.
And if we can’t close that gap, we might someday talk about the middle class as something we used to have, not something each generation can aspire to.
We all get it. We all see this happening.
And while Wisconsinites don’t all agree about what we should do, they want to see all of us working together to find solutions, even if it takes some spirited debate. But when they look across that yawning divide to Washington, they see us advancing talking points and playing politics instead of putting our varying experiences and talents to work solving these problems.
But I’m optimistic. I didn’t run for the Senate just because I agree with those complaints. I ran for the Senate because I think we can do better – and I know that I have a great example to follow in the people of Wisconsin.
You know, these are particularly tough times for my state. Even as the national economy is rebounding, businesses and middle-class families in my state remain stuck in neutral. The manufacturing sector that sustained our prosperity for generations has taken a lot of hits – some that could have been prevented, and others that are simply a factor of our changing economy and changing world.
But you don’t see Wisconsin’s workers and business owners wallowing in crisis, or looking for someone to blame. Our state motto is one word – “Forward” – and that’s the only way we know.
In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve made it my mission to fight to make sure that Wisconsinites have the tools and skills they need to succeed in a “Made in Wisconsin” economy that revitalizes our manufacturing sector and rebuilds our prosperity. That means respecting labor, investing in regional hubs of collaborative research and development, supporting the technical colleges that are working to provide a skilled workforce, and encouraging public-private partnerships to revitalize our manufacturing sector.
But it all relies on the talent of individuals who are working so hard to help our communities move forward.
Years ago, John Miller, a disabled Marine Corps veteran who lives near Milwaukee, invented a new kind of lighted motorcycle windshield that uses LED lights embedded in acrylic. For years, he’s been working to bring his idea to market – testing different acrylics, showing off his work at trade shows, and spending months trying to get approvals from the Department of Transportation.
Investors are lining up at John’s door – Harley-Davidson even wanted to buy his patent – but he doesn’t just want to make a profit. He wants to make a difference. So he’s holding out until he knows that everything in his product will be made and manufactured in the United States – hopefully by other disabled veterans who often have a hard time finding work when they come home.
Wisconsin is full of John Millers – ordinary people with the ingenuity, the determination, and the civic spirit to become not just successful business owners, but engines of economic opportunity for their communities, committed to the common good.
I’m so proud of all the remarkable potential I’ve seen in Wisconsin – the Global Water Center in Milwaukee, which will open this summer as an incubator for water technology businesses; the partnership of Johnson Controls and UW-Milwaukee for an Innovation Campus research park being built in Wauwatosa; the advances in energy efficiency technology being realized at Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc; the work on sustainable biofuels at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in Madison; and small business incubators at technical colleges across our state helping to build the dreams of entrepreneurs.
But these stories of innovation and cooperation, these exciting opportunities to build an economy made to last, these are happening all over the country.
And I’m going to let people in on a little secret: We here in the Senate can be innovative, too. We can cooperate. We get excited by these opportunities. It’s true of Democrats and Republicans alike, because none of us came here just to audition for cable news or to try to win our next election before the bumper stickers from the last one even come off the cars.
I’ve already had the great joy of working with colleagues in both parties. And I know that neither party has a monopoly on compassion and common sense. There’s nothing liberal or conservative about wanting to help our manufacturers compete and win on the world stage. There’s not a Senator in this body whose heart hasn’t broken when listening to a constituent who just can’t seem to get ahead.
We can’t fix all those gaps in our economy with one bill. And not even Bob La Follette could close that divide in our political system with one speech.
But I’m using this speech – my first here on the Senate floor – to say that I’m ready to work hard, and work with anyone, to make progress on these challenges and help move this great country forward.
Thank you. I yield the floor.