January 3, 2013 at 7:08 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Baldwin sworn in as first openly gay U.S. senator
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Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) speaks at a reception following her swearing-in ceremony. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a historic day at the start of the 113th Congress, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was sworn into office on Thursday as the junior U.S. senator from Wisconsin, officially becoming the first openly gay senator.

At a reception that followed in the Russell Senate Office Building, Baldwin thanked more than 100 supporters and Democratic donors in attendance and called on them to continue the fight to enact change for the country.

“I am proud to have the honor to have been sworn in an hour or so ago as the first woman senator for the state of Wisconsin and as the first openly gay member to serve in the United States Senate in our nation’s history,” Baldwin said, eliciting applause from the audience.

Baldwin attended the reception after being sworn in on the Senate floor by Vice President Joseph Biden along with other freshman senators and colleagues who were re-elected. The room erupted in cheers and applause as she entered after being sworn in as a U.S. senator.

Also attending the reception was Baldwin’s mother, Pam Bin-Rella. As Baldwin began to speak, Bin-Rella was standing with a cane near the podium before Baldwin. The new senator said she had to address a “little logistical matter” before she continued, then positioned a wheelchair nearby for her mother to take a seat.

“I’m going to thank you the best way that any public official knows how to thank you: I’m going to ask you to do more,” she continued. “As I ran to make a difference, I intend to make a difference. Just like nobody wins a Senate seat alone, nobody moves a state or a country forward alone.”

Baldwin was sworn in on Thursday on the same day as the entire membership of the U.S. House for the 113th Congress. That includes openly gay Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

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Sen. Herb Kohl (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Introducing Baldwin at the reception was outgoing Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), whom Baldwin will replace in the U.S. Senate after his 24 years in Congress. Kohl said Baldwin has “all the qualities I, and I know, so many others look for in somebody to represent us all across the state of Wisconsin.”

“After I got elected, as a senator from Wisconsin, I got a phone call from my predecessor, Sen. [William] Proxmire,” Kohl said. “And he was effusive in his praise of me, and he predicted that I will be a model senator. He said that several times, and he was very careful in his use of words, so I couldn’t forget that he used the word ‘model,’ and I wondered why he used that word specifically. So, I went to the dictionary and looked up that word: ‘model — a model is a small replica of the real thing.’ So, I’m not going to tell Tammy that she’s going to be a ‘model’ senator.”

At the event, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin told the Washington Blade that Baldwin’s swearing in as a U.S. senator marked “a real historic day.”

“Having Tammy Baldwin serve in the United States Senate is historic,” Griffin said. “To have one of us inside the chamber is meaningful for a number of reasons because we have a champion now that’s one of us in the Senate. But it also makes it more difficult for those who are against us to look at our colleague in the eye and to talk negatively about LGBT people, so I’m so excited to be able to work with Tammy as she begins today as a United States senator.”

Other LGBT notables at the event were Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force; Brian Bond, director of constituency outreach for the Democratic National Committee; and Peter Rosenstein, a D.C.-based Democratic activist. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Kirsten Gillbrand (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) also made appearances.

Baldwin’s staff said the senator wasn’t taking questions at the reception. She’s yet to participate in an interview with the Washington Blade since her election, despite numerous requests to her transition team.

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Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin speaking with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

Paul Ryan mingles with Baldwin supporters at reception

Another notable guest at the reception was fellow Wisconsinite and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, who was the Republican vice presidential nominee last year. He attended the reception early on and left before Baldwin made her appearance.

Ryan’s appearance at a reception largely attended by Baldwin supporters — many of whom are LGBT — is noteworthy because of his anti-gay voting record. Ryan was a keynote speaker during the annual Value Voters Summit last year, which was hosted by the anti-gay Family Research Council.

At the reception, Ryan declined to take questions from the Blade, saying he wasn’t speaking to the media at the occasion.

Griffin was seen talking briefly with Ryan at the reception. Later, Griffin told the Blade he wanted to speak with him because LGBT advocates can’t only engage with their allies.

“Look, it’s just as important that we talk to our friends as it is that we talk to those who are often against us,” Griffin said. “And so, I introduced myself and thanked him for being here at Tammy’s event and told them I hope we can find some things together to work together on.”

Asked for specifics on what they could find in common, Griffin replied, “It was a private conversation. So, I’ll leave it at that. But it was general conversation about my desire to find some common ground on things.”

Ryan, who’s still considered a rising star within the GOP, posed for photos with attendees. Among them was Jo Deutsch, the federal director for the New York-based LGBT group Freedom to Marry. At a point while taking photos, Ryan declared, “We’re all personal friends,” although it’s unclear to whom he was referring.

Kevin Seifert, a Ryan spokesperson, said in response to a request for comment that the congressman was “pleased to attend” the Baldwin reception.

“Congressman Ryan has served with Senator Baldwin for years and he wanted to take the opportunity to congratulate her as the next senator from the great state of Wisconsin,” Seifert added. “As to the conversation with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, it was a private conversation and I do not have any further information about the nature of their discussion.”

The former vice presidential candidate voted against hate crimes protection and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and voted on two separate occasions for the Federal Marriage Amendment. Still, he was among a handful of Republicans who voted for a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, although he previously voted in favor of a motion to recommit to scuttle the bill on the House floor.

CORRECTION: An initial version of this article mistakenly identified Jo Deutsch as a Republican. The Blade regrets the error.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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