The Progressive Honor Roll of 2011
What a difference a year makes! Last year The Nation’s Honor Roll recognized courageous, if often lonely, battlers against an austerity agenda, an ascendant Tea Party and a Republican electoral wave that had put Democrats, working folks and the unions that represent them on the defensive nationwide. This year we celebrate the remarkable movements that have arisen not just to stem the conservative tide but to build a new vision of progressivism for the twenty-first century. How much has changed? As 2011 finished, even Barack Obama was sounding populist themes. And progressives were organizing, fighting and winning critical battles on the streets, in the polling places and in the media. The events of 2011 did not transform America. But they did confirm that millions of Americans are ready to fight for the 99 percent.
MOST VALUABLE SENATOR: Sherrod Brown
Faced with what was supposed to be a tough re-election race in 2012, Brown could have taken the easy way out when Ohio Governor John Kasich signed legislation attacking the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Instead, Brown leapt into the fight, speaking and rallying with the workers of Ohio and even turning what had been his campaign website into a vehicle for the movement to overturn the antilabor law. It was a gutsy move, but it paid off. Brown’s poll numbers soared as Kasich’s plummeted. Brown threw himself into the successful campaign to overturn Ohio’s law in a November referendum. At the same time, he was fighting in Washington against flawed free-trade deals that shutter US factories while failing to bring prosperity to foreign lands. Brown, a leader in the push to address poverty and disease in developing countries, is anything but an isolationist. He’s an internationalist who understands the need for global resistance to policies that privilege corporations over workers from Cleveland to Chongqing. In 2011 he linked those struggles more effectively than any other senator.
MOST VALUABLE REPRESENTATIVE: Raúl Grijalva
Few members of the House have been so consistently progressive as Arizona Democrat Grijalva, who has a history of challenging Republican, and Democratic, administrations on issues of economic justice, civil rights, and war and peace. Grijalva made headlines when—in the face of death threats—he opposed Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant laws. He has been just as outspoken at the federal level, working closely with his Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair, Keith Ellison, against the GOP austerity agenda while prodding the Obama administration to support a dramatically bolder jobs agenda. Grijalva’s no-punches-pulled progressivism is all the more impressive because he represents a district where in 2010 he faced a serious re-election fight. He saw off that challenge, proving that even in the toughest years it is possible, perhaps even necessary, to run left to win.
MOST VALUABLE STATE SENATOR: Nina Turner
“An apology! An apology! I want an apology!” announced Turner, a Cleveland Democrat, as thousands cheered the defeat of Governor Kasich’s antilabor legislation. Appearing on Ed Schultz’s MSNBC broadcast from Columbus on the night of Ohio’s historic November 8 vote, Turner was every bit as energetic and every bit as unyielding as she had been throughout the long campaign to defend the rights of public sector workers. Kasich “owes Ohioans an apology for not working on the No. 1 issue, which is jobs!” said Turner. While many Washington representatives disappointed in 2011, state legislators stepped up as champions for labor rights, the public sector and economic justice. Turner wasn’t the only smart, passionate legislator to take the national stage, but the breadth of her agenda stood out. As she was standing up for workers’ rights, Turner was also taking the lead on an array of economic development, voting rights and social justice issues.
MOST VALUABLE STATE REPRESENTATIVE: Diane Russell
A good case can be made that the most extreme of the new crop of radical right-wing Republican governors is Maine’s Paul LePage. An equally good case can be made that no one has caused LePage more frustration than Portland Democrat Russell. With deep roots in Maine and a record of agitating for progressive causes, Russell battled to block a right-wing move to eliminate Maine’s election-day-registration law. After Republicans rammed the change through, she became a leading advocate for the referendum that restored the law. Active with the Progressive States Network, Russell joined the protests in Wisconsin and returned to Maine with a renewed determination to pass pro-worker legislation. She succeeded with her work-sharing bill, which allows employers to avoid layoffs by making the state unemployment insurance program more flexible. Even Tea Party Republicans backed it.
MOST VALUABLE LOCAL OFFICIAL: Sheriff Dave Mahoney
The brutality of police crackdowns on the Occupy Wall Street protests from New York to California was a reminder that police do not always protect and serve. But there were notable exceptions. The most remarkable came in Madison, Wisconsin, when Governor Scott Walker ordered thousands of pro-union demonstrators cleared from the state Capitol. Mahoney, who since 2006 has been the elected sheriff for Dane County (Madison), helped coordinate the law-enforcement response to the protests outside and inside the Capitol. The sheriff said his responsibility was to protect public safety and First Amendment rights. As such, he objected to breaking up peaceful protests and to using deputies to shutter public spaces. “I refused to put deputy sheriffs in a position to be palace guards,” explained Mahoney, whose deputies joined “Cops for Labor” demonstrations in solidarity with the protests.
MOST VALUABLE STATE COALITION: Mississippians for Healthy Families
When antiabortion crusaders succeeded in placing a “personhood” amendment on Mississippi’s November ballot, many of the state’s most prominent Democrats said they would vote for the proposal, which not only sought to ban abortion but also threatened access to birth control and the future of stem-cell research. Outside Mississippi, pundits assumed that the deep-red Southern state would amend its Constitution and put in play a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. But ACLU of Mississippi executive director Nsombi Lambright and regional leaders of Planned Parenthood bet that voters would protect a woman’s right to choose. They organized a coalition of doctors, nurses, parents, students, clergy, and women’s and civil rights activists to campaign for a no vote. On election night, Mississippians rejected the measure by a 55–45 margin, proving that pro-choice politics can win anywhere in America.
MOST VALUABLE NATIONAL COALITION: The New Bottom Line
Objecting to a politics that makes Wall Street’s bottom line the nation’s top priority, National People’s Action, People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO National Network), the Alliance for a Just Society, the Right to the City Alliance and the Main Street Alliance declared in 2011, “We need a new bottom line that puts the economic interests and financial security of working American families first.” As the New Bottom Line coalition, they organized multi-state projects like the Move Our Money campaign to take $1 billion out of big banks. And the coalition allied with the Occupy movement in its Occupy Our Homes campaign, which supports families fighting foreclosure and eviction and helps homeless families move back into their vacant foreclosed homes.
MOST VALUABLE AGENDA: The National Nurses’ “Main Street Contract”
When most of the media and the political class echoed the austerity lie that said working Americans would have to sacrifice to pay off debts run up by Wall Street speculators, the National Nurses United union had another idea. It launched Heal America, Tax Wall Street, a campaign for a financial transactions tax, part of a broader “Main Street Contract.” NNU leaders poured resources and energy into the campaign, linking it with struggles across the country and finally with the Occupy movement, for which the nurses provided on-the-ground healthcare. The agenda was clear and unapologetic in its demands, and NNU made the case, not just in the United States but working with international unions, that “an economy for the 99 percent” should be paid for by Wall Street.