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“Fairness is My Guiding Passion”

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Gwen Moore made history last November when she won her bid to represent Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District. Not only is she the first African-American to represent Milwaukee, she is also the first woman our district has ever sent to Washington. She won a clear mandate from Riverwest voters in the primary, where she gained 71% of the Democratic vote in local precincts. District-wide, she garnered 69% of the vote in the final election. Her remarkable victory did not go unnoticed among national political observers. CNN commentator Carlos Watson ranked her among the “Fab Five in ’05, the movers and shakers who will dominate the headlines in the coming year.” NPR ran a story about how “in her hometown of Milwaukee, hundreds of people — black, white, Hispanic and even Hmong — gathered to usher in the tenure of this former teenage mom” when she was unofficially sworn in at a ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in January. (Curiously, the Journal Sentinel ran coverage of this event on page two of the Metro section, even though it drew an overflow crowd of more than 400 well-wishers and testimonies from the likes of Gov. Jim Doyle, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Scott Walker and former State Supreme Court Justice Vel Phillips.) It was a star-studded event to launch Gwen Moore into the orbit of national politics. It was part send-off and part prayer service, with representatives of local Jewish, Christian, and Muslim congregations giving blessings to Moore’s new work in Washington. In some ways it was a betrothal, a ceremony in which Moore pledged her fidelity to her constituents and expressed her gratitude to them for the faith they had placed in her. Who is this African American woman from Milwaukee who has captured the attention of so many pundits? Who is this person who now represents our neighborhood, our district, in the Capitol? A little background seems in order. Born in Racine in 1951, Gwen Moore was the eighth of nine children. Her father served in World War II and made a living with a factory job. Her mother was a religious woman who eventually became a teacher. Gwen attended North Division High School. She still maintains ties with teachers from those years, and proudly cheers the banner of the North Division Blue Devils. Actually, she won her first election victory when she was voted in as President of the student council at North. As student body president she led a campaign for more textbooks with African-American history. After high school, Gwen enrolled in the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette University. Between keeping up her studies and supporting herself and her baby daughter, she had a hard time staying afloat during her college years. She was buoyed up by advisors and friends who believed in her, who encouraged her to keep her eyes on the prize. In 1978 she graduated with a BA in political science. Stepping out into the job market with her college degree, Moore did not go after big money. On the contrary, she signed on as a VISTA volunteer and got involved in projects related to housing and financial support for central city neighborhoods. Fed up with red-lining practices on the near westside, she enrolled in the Credit Union Management Program at MATC. She helped set up the Cream City Community Development Credit Union as an alternative source of loans for people who wanted to finance homes in neighborhoods that were written off by major money-lenders. Her work in establishing the credit union earned her an award as “VISTA Volunteer of the Decade” from Sargent Shriver and US Senator Jay Rockefeller. After her stint as a VISTA volunteer, Gwen went on to work in several city, county and state agencies concerned with housing and neighborhood development. She had her hands full with raising her three children and her full-time work. A career in politics was nowhere on her screen. So there she was, dutifully working at her desk in 1988, when she was surprised by a visit from Dismas Becker. At that time, Becker was the incumbent State Representative for Milwaukee’s near west side. As Gwen tells the story, Becker asked her to consider running for his seat. She thought he was out of his mind. Her? In Madison? No way! “Thanks, but no thanks” was the gist of her response to him. But Becker would not take no for an answer. The following week, there he was, back again, encouraging her to run for his seat. “I was absolutely afraid to run for office,” Moore recalls, but eventually she saw the possibility that running for office was the direction that her life was meant to go. “The moment I said I would do it, I felt sick.” She followed Becker’s advice and won his vacant seat in 1988, was re-elected for a second term, then moved into the State Senate when John Norquist gave up his seat in Madison to run for mayor in 1992. From her reluctant beginnings, Moore grew into a savvy legislator in Madison. According to Lt. Gov. Lawton, people may have disagreed with Moore, but they always knew where she stood. She gained a reputation for asking persistent questions, wanting to be fully informed before she cast her vote. While remaining true to her roots, she mastered the political art of building coalitions without selling out. Looking back on her years in the Wisconsin legislature, Moore says that fairness was her guiding passion. She is proud of the measures she helped craft that were signed into law. These include funding for prevention of domestic abuse, for increased child-care assistance for low-income families, safeguarding programs for 4-year-old kindergarten, and protecting voting rights. Now in Washington, Moore is a new kid on the block. She laughs as she boasts that she has the rank of 425th in seniority in Congress — hardly an influential position. But lowly rank and all, she has felt very strongly supported in her first 100 days in office. Besides her fellow lawmakers from Wisconsin, people from the whole spectrum of Washington politics have reached out to welcome her. She is pleased that she’s been appointed to the Financial Services Committee and the Small Business Committee. These fit very well with her lifelong interests. She aims to fight for workforce development, which she sees as including not just job creation but expanded access to affordable health care, education, and employment training. She strongly opposes Bush’s tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest 1% and his plan to privatize Social Security. “But right now my work is mostly about building relationships,” she says. She is getting to know her new territory. It’s pretty unfriendly territiory for someone like Gwen Moore, who cares about the needs of ordinary people. Moore observes that power in Bush’s Washington is concentrated in a very few hands, which leads to a refusal to respect differing points of view. A case in point was when she heard the Chair of the Financial Services Committee summarily declare that no appropriations for housing would be considered during this session. Moore was appalled at such a closed agenda, leaving no room for discussion, no opening for debate. But because of the way that votes add up in this 109th Congress, the Administration can nip off initiatives that it opposes before they have time to bud. Moore sees this as the arrogance of power. One of the most difficult votes for her personally was the recent $83 billion spending bill in support of the war in Iraq. From the beginning, Moore has opposed Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive attack. As recently as March 19 of this year she denounced the war and called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Yet, when she saw that the bill authorized the purchase of protective equipment for US troops stationed there, as well as increased death benefits for families of veterans, plus spending to help the victims of genocide in Sudan, plus financial support for the new government in Palestine, plus relief for the survivors of the tsunami in Asia, she didn’t see how she could vote against it. “I spent some sleepless nights on that one, let me tell you,” she says, describing her process of grappling with issues of US foreign policy. In the end, she voted in favor of the bill. That vote may have been one of the most difficult moments in her short career as a congresswoman, but she says there have been many gratifying moments in her first 100 days. Her prime example is the case of the 73-year-old constituent who called her office wondering if he was eligible for honors based on his record of service in the Korean War. When Moore’s staff investigated his case, they found that the man deserved not only a Purple Heart but five other medals of honor as well. “It was both a pleasure and privilege for me to be able to present him with those honors,” Moore recalls. She loves being able to serve her constituents in such ways. Gwen Moore puts a high priority on keeping in touch here at home, travelling several times a month between Milwaukee and Washington. In the beginning of April, she opened her new offices at 219 North Milwaukee Street in the Third Ward. She has expanded the 4th District constituent service staff to ten people, hiring one person who speaks Spanish and one who speaks Hmong. Her Milwaukee office team deals with everything from Purple Hearts to art shows. (They are coordinating the process of choosing one work of student art to represent our district in the Capitol later this year.) She encourages people to contact her office with their concerns, whether they be about Social Security, veterans’ benefits, small business support, consumer fraud, housing, immigration, or Federal health and disability programs. The number for Moore’s Milwaukee office is 297-1140. Growing into her new position, Gwen Moore says she is “very, very humbled and proud to be representing this district.” The people at Emily’s List, a group that supports progressive women candidates, have a slightly different slant. They say that Moore is “on the path to becoming a political star in the US Congress.” As voters in her district, residents of Riverwest have front row seats for watching what promises to be a very successful career. A Note From The Author After talking to Gwen Moore and doing research for this article, I feel like a miner who’s come across precious ore. I have found something that deserves to be elaborated: Underneath the facts of her career and her viewpoints on various issues, there is a phenomenal spirit in the woman who now represents our district in Congress. Doesn’t she get discouraged, I asked her, when she looks at the world around her? Doesn’t she ever feel angry at Milwaukee’s dismal record in racial relations? Doesn’t she worry about the future of her three grandchildren? To all my dark questions, she responded by focussing on the light. This is amazing to me. She does not take political attacks personally. She is awed by the way her family members supported her during last year’s campaign. Yes, she knows racism is ” alive and well, but there are people of goodwill who will support you despite your race.” This is a woman who has known the kind of poverty that breaks people down. This is a woman who has been the victim of rape not just once but twice. She is not some naive idealist but someone who knows first hand about forces that wither the human potential. Somehow she has not been withered but strengthened by difficulties in her life. To me it is very fitting that Moore’s new offices downtown are located in the Phoenix Building. Like the mythical bird that continually rises up from ashes, Gwen Moore has not been beaten down. She follows a deep-seated religious faith and goes forward in her career with a spiritual sense that she is simply walking the path she’s meant to follow. My favorite quote — a paragraph I want to post on my refrigerator — comes from an interview Moore did with Tavis Smiley on PBS in December. Reflecting on her life, she said, “It’s a story of never giving up, of always having hope, and it’s also the story of having at least one person outside your own family that really believes in you, really can see you in the future, and for people to take advantage of the abilities that they have. And even though I was poor, I didn’t succumb to a lot of the stuff that was in the streets. And, you know, by the grace of God, I was able to take advantage of the intelligence that I had, my ability to actually enjoy schoolwork and to stick with it and stay in school and really have the fire in my belly to give something back to my community.” –JRD
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