The Progressive Honor Roll of 2010
The year 2010 will not be remembered as a halcyon year for progressives. But in such years the truest believers and battlers stand out all the more clearly, and patterns are set for the victories of the years to come. Here, then, are the Most Valuable Progressives of 2010:
MOST VALUABLE SENATOR: Bernie Sanders
When Vermont's Bernie Sanders waged a nearly nine-hour December filibuster against extending tax breaks for the rich, he capped a year of not just taking the right stands but acting in a bolder—and invariably more effective—manner than any other senator. Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, but this year the emphasis was on independence. He parted with the White House and Congressional leaders to push harder and smarter on issues ranging from media consolidation and the defense of small farmers to healthcare reform and financial regulation. During the healthcare debate Sanders argued mightily for single-payer and a public option. He got neither, but he did secure a provision doubling the number of Federally Qualified Health Centers, which should increase the number of patients receiving primary care at these centers by at least 18 million during the coming decade. Later in the year he amended the final financial services reform bill to require the Federal Reserve to disclose its secret arrangements to aid the nation's largest banks. This "lifting the veil of secrecy at the Fed," as Sanders referred to it, revealed that big banks and multinational corporations collected an estimated $3.3 trillion in "emergency" loans and other assistance even as they refused to restructure mortgages or make loans to small businesses in Vermont and other states.
Principled and populist, yet practical enough to get things done, Sanders points the way for progressives in the next Congress by reminding them they can win if they address the stark reality that "there is a war going on in this country...a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful...against the working families of the United States of America, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class."
MOST VALUABLE REPRESENTATIVE: Keith Ellison
Minnesota's Keith Ellison, a former civil rights lawyer and state legislator, is still identified as "the first Muslim elected to Congress." But the Congressman is making a name for himself as a progressive leader with global reach. Frequently called into action by the State Department (not just by Hillary Clinton but also by Condoleezza Rice), Ellison has a higher international profile than all but a few House members; he uses it to remind the global community—and Americans—that "religious tolerance has a much longer pedigree in America than some of the intolerance we've seen lately." His unprecedented visit to Gaza was followed this year by a call on President Obama to do more to ease the blockade of the Palestinian territory. Evenhanded and diplomatic in his approach, Ellison argued that "fulfilling the needs of civilians in Israel and Gaza are mutually reinforcing goals."
Despite his unique role when it comes to foreign policy, Ellison pulls no punches. In July he was one of thirty-eight House members who voted to direct the president to remove US armed forces from Pakistan; he also opposed Obama's Afghanistan surge, arguing that Congress should "reject the idea that our country can continue to spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on a decade of war, rather than investing in jobs, education and infrastructure for America's working families." That savvy balancing of international and domestic concerns will be one of many strengths Ellison brings to his new role as co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
MOST VALUABLE GRASSROOTS ACTIVISM: National People's Action
Its activist roots run four decades deep, but National People's Action came into its own after the financial meltdown, when it emerged as the boldest challenger of abuses by big banks, mortgage lenders, credit card companies and payday loan operations. With its "Showdown in America" campaign, the network of two dozen state and regional activist groups (including Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Grass Roots Organizing in Missouri and Denver's Rights for All People/Derechos Para Todos) has led the fight to prevent foreclosures on working families by banks that collected billions of federal bailout dollars. Committed to direct action, NPA takes victims of predatory lenders into the suites of corporations that prey on the poor. Unsettled by NPA's cries of "Make Wall Street Pay" and "People Before Profits," Glenn Beck decries it as a "dangerous group." Bill Moyers gets it right when he says NPA's "popular insurgency" is a modern manifestation of populism and renews "a grassroots movement for democracy."
MOST VALUABLE ONLINE ACTIVISM: Progressive Change Campaign Committee
"We're trying to teach Democrats how to fight," says Adam Green, co-founder (with Stephanie Taylor) of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which a year after its founding has shaken the Democratic establishment with unblinking demands that President Obama and Congressional leaders stand on principle rather than compromise. That's earned PCCC and its allies condemnation from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs (who gripes about the "professional left") and an expletive-laden dismissal from former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. But on issue after issue—healthcare, banking, the Obama/GOP tax-cut deal—the group has pushed Democrats to throw punches rather than throw in the towel. Bridging the enthusiasm gap, PCCC signed up 650,000 "bold progressives" on its e-mail list and backed its campaigning with TV ads. As with Progressive Democrats of America, PCCC's independence is its strength. At a time when it's clear what Republicans stand for, PCCC holds that Democrats can excite their base and win only if they are equally clear—and uncompromising on core values.
MOST VALUABLE ACTIVIST: Carlos Saavedra
"I saw families broken apart, but yet we kept fighting!" shouts Carlos Saavedra, as the dynamic national coordinator of the United We Dream Network rallies backers of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The bill would have given undocumented students who graduate from US high schools an opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency and a chance to pursue higher education. In a year that saw outrageous anti-immigrant politicking, Saavedra kept hope alive for the DREAM Act, which in December passed the House with a bipartisan majority. (It stalled in the Senate, but even Republicans say a version of the measure should be included in any comprehensive reform.)
Born in Peru, Saavedra immigrated at age 12 and got his start as an organizer with the Student Immigrant Movement in Massachusetts, where he led campaigns to secure in-state tuition for immigrants, prevent deportations and register all ten Massachusetts Representatives as co-sponsors of the DREAM Act. As a national organizer, Saavedra mixes facts and emotion, recounting heartbreaking stories of dreams deferred, with links to civil rights struggles of the past and an unapologetic call to action: "We're undocumented and unafraid!"