Sen. Tammy Baldwin On Family's Opioid Struggle

May 17, 2018
Originally published on May 17, 2018 7:12 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senator Tammy Baldwin generally shies away from speaking about her personal life. But this spring, she decided to go public with the fact that her mother suffered from opioid addiction. Her mom died last year, so Baldwin finally felt like she could talk about it openly. And because this is such an epidemic in the country right now, the Wisconsin Democrat decided to include her story in a new campaign ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

TAMMY BALDWIN: I remember what it was like to come home from school and not be able to get into the house. I'd pound on the door, but my mother wouldn't answer. She'd be passed out inside.

MARTIN: Far too many children in this country could tell a similar story today. But yesterday, I sat down with Senator Baldwin to listen to hers.

BALDWIN: I was raised by my maternal grandparents, her parents, from 2 months on. So...

MARTIN: Because of her addiction?

BALDWIN: I - so I would put up a number of health issues in a big bundle together. My mother suffered with mental illness. She had multiple physical illnesses. And for a number of those, she was prescribed different types of medication, as well as for mental illness. So it all kind of came together.

MARTIN: She was taking them for pain when you - the opioids in particular were prescribed for pain.

BALDWIN: Yes. And so, you know, she would have probably described it as a physical illness, that she had just intractable pain. She used that word a lot, intractable. As a youth and as a very young child, usually I'd spend Saturdays with my mother.

MARTIN: What did that look like?

BALDWIN: It varied. When it was - when she was doing well, she was so much fun. Think how young she was. She was 19 when I was born. So, you know, she's like 25 when I'm 6 years old. I mean, she was fun when she was doing well.

MARTIN: What was it like when she wasn't doing well?

BALDWIN: So usually she would be sleeping. And sometimes, it was hard to even arouse her, and that was scary. I do have a persistent memory of checking to make sure she was breathing.

MARTIN: Why did you think it was important to include this part of your story and your family's story in a campaign ad?

BALDWIN: Well, I think a number of things. This epidemic is - it's getting worse. I see numbers going up, not turning the corner yet. And yet, part of how we're ultimately going to be able to respond is when we more fully recognize that this affects everyone, indirectly or directly, and that people face up to that stigma and just say, I'm going to speak my truth. I'm going to tell my story, and I'm going to turn something very, very difficult into something positive. And since I've been talking about it, the number of people who have just reached out to say I'm going to talk about my experience for the first time or thank you, it's been quite dramatic. And I think it's going to be a good thing.

MARTIN: It is 2018. It is midterm season. And you are in a tight race to retain your seat. Wisconsin is a complicated place. It went for Donald Trump in 2016. Republicans would like to put it squarely in their column. Democrats would like to stop that from happening. What does your party need to do in order to win back perhaps those Democrats and independents who voted for Donald Trump?

BALDWIN: It's easier for me to speak about what I plan to do than necessarily speak for a whole party structure, either in state or nationally, because I believe fundamentally I was elected to fight for the people of Wisconsin. That leads me to focus on issues like health care and jobs and the economy. We're a big agricultural state. We're a big manufacturing state. I have long been a champion of Buy America policies, for example. And it's often because of the president's megaphone or tweets associated with Trump.

MARTIN: You're saying he - the president, Donald Trump, appropriated your message or a message you've been long championing.

BALDWIN: I think - I have no doubt that he believes in that. But what I'm saying is that the people of my state are looking for folks who are fighting for them, recognizing that they haven't gotten ahead the way others have. And that's - you know, that's my focus is sharing that message.

MARTIN: That's the same message Republicans are touting.

BALDWIN: Not universally, I will say, but I think it's fighting for hardworking families, fighting for access to high quality, affordable health care and education is sort of the cornerstone of what you champion if you want people to be able to get ahead.

MARTIN: I mean, that's Democratic textbook campaign issues. That's what Democrats have been about for a very long time. You think that same playbook is still relevant, or did Donald Trump change things?

BALDWIN: I think that - what I would argue is that part of the reason that he won narrowly in Wisconsin is because of a message that workers in our state heard. Now, there's been a lack of follow-through, I will say. I think that they would be at serious odds when it came to health care, for example. And I actually came to public service in part also because of our family's experience with health care issues. So it's a part of me and who I am and what I want to do to fight vociferously for the people who sent me here.

MARTIN: Senator Baldwin, thank you so much for your time.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Tammy Baldwin - she's a Democrat from Wisconsin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.