A voice leaves Madison
Rep. Tamara Grigsby battled "grave" illness and returned to Madison. She is stepping down at the end of her term, but her passion for social justice endures.
On an uncomfortably muggy day in Madison, Tamara Grigsby shuffles into her capitol office. The politician is dressed down in dark-denim capris, a floral blouse; her pretty, petite frame is weighed down by what seem like a dozen bags.
She utters a quick hello, then turns her back and whispers frantically to her assistant. Every few seconds she glances back nervously, but the commotion goes on for a few minutes.
Finally, she sighs and looks up.
“I broke the rules,” she says.
With that she reaches inside a blue canvas bag and pulls out—a puppy.
“You’re not supposed to have pets in the Capitol.”
Relieved of the ruse, Grigsby kisses the black and white Shih-Tzu mix named Bentley, unfolds a puppy playpen, and asks the assistant to fetch the panting pup some water.
Grigsby smiles and sits comfortably behind her wood desk. After all, the Democratic state representative from Milwaukee has spent the last eight years making the rules, not breaking them.
But at the tender age of 37, Rep. Grigsby is leaving Madison. She says the exit is bittersweet, but necessary.
Last December, while the state was embroiled in an epic partisan battle, Grigsby was fighting for her life. After a steep decline in her health, she was hospitalized and listed in “grave” condition. Grigsby declines to name her opponent, and is taking a break from politics to regain her strength.
Other than that—she doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I don’t want my health to become my legacy,” Grigsby says. “I’m feeling better than I have in a long time. I’m doing very well.”
It was never Grigsby’s intention to go into politics, though it seems she has a penchant for landing in political hot spots. She grew up in Madison, attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and received her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She then moved to Milwaukee and began working as an advocate for children and families in the welfare system. As a case manager, Grigsby’s exposure to disparities within the community began to fuel her frustration over the state’s “band-aid approach” to issues.
Grigsby wanted to fix the problems from the inside out. She began to familiarize herself with state and local officials, lobbying efforts, and state policies. Then in 2004, a budding acquaintance with State Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) brought her into the political world.
Taylor was the assembly representative for the 18th District following a special election in 2003, and ran for State Senate the following year. Taylor said she recognized Grigsby’s talent and wanted her to take her spot in the State Assembly.
It wasn’t easy to convince the novice to take the political plunge. Grigsby said no.
“I said ‘I don’t know how to run for office,'” Grigsby recalls.
But Taylor was insistent. She handed the then 29-year-old a “blue book,” and told her to review previous officials’ level of experience.
“I told her, ‘They weren’t qualified,'” says Sen. Taylor. “She had a foundation to work with. She was so very connected with the issues she saw. She was already a voice.”
Grigsby gave in, and quickly garnered support among constituents. She won the special election in 2004 and subsequent elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
“What was appealing was she had a social worker background,” Taylor said. “She not only had a passion to serve, but to navigate the complexities of this landscape. She was doing the professional thing. She was a single woman with a degree, who understood people at the lower ends of the spectrum. She’s an important role model.”
Grigsby admits it was difficult to adjust from her former grassroots approach in Milwaukee to sitting at a desk and working behind the scenes, 60 miles away in Madison. She spent her first year learning the rules, listening to her colleagues and observing the political process. Then she got to action.
Grigsby took on the role of watchdog. Many of her policies have focused on protecting her constituents from the injustices of poverty. Health, education and employment remain at the top of her agenda.
Some of Grigsby’s successes include a driver’s license recovery program, a transitional jobs program, and a spot on the powerful Joint Finance Committee. In 2009, Grigsby passed the most bills out of any state representative—18 in all.
From her post, Grigsby has remained a relentless advocate for citizens in Milwaukee’s 18th District. A tough quarter on Milwaukee’s North side, the area is made up of mostly African-Americans and other minorities who come from low-income households, and face high crime rates and staggering unemployment.
“I wish people would understand the concept of preventative [measures]. When you invest in something at its inception rather than later, you will have a positive impact. A paradigm shift needs to happen.”
During her political career, the 18th District has made progress, though she says it was hard for her to see in her early days of office.
“You think you can make a difference immediately and see the impact,” she said. “Sometimes you may never see the work you do. Everything is partisan. What you want—you have to convince people.”
That was especially prevalent during the year of the recall, when she says the political drama began to take its toll. Friendships have been lost, colleagues have turned against each other, and politics has, for the time being, lost its luster. It was a physically and emotionally draining experience, she says.
And a good time for her to walk away.
Though she will miss the hustle and bustle of state politics–creating policy from child welfare to spear fishing to corrections to mining in one session—Grigsby considers her exodus more of a hiatus, rather than a permanent departure. She is beginning a new chapter in her life—one filled with excitement and new opportunities.
She is certain she will find a new home to hone her political skills and says she will never stop being a voice for those who are silenced by poverty and circumstance.
“I’m going to so miss the people,” Grigsby reflects. “This is what I came here to do. This is my calling. I don’t have a passion for anything else the way I do for social justice.
“I don’t rule out showing up here again.”
Rep. Grigsby returned to the State Assembly on March 13, 2012 after her hospitalization in December 2011. On April 17, she announced she would finish her fourth term but not seek re-election for a fifth. For more information, visit her website.