Raul Grijalva (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the seventy-six-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of the most powerful liberals in America, is no poster boy for Washington protocol. When he and his wife, Mona, arrived for his swearing-in ceremony in 2003, a man in military uniform met them at the airport and addressed him as “Congressman.” Grijalva, elected to represent Arizona’s Seventh District, promptly got the giggles.
Years later, in the wake of the conservative victories of 2010—a moment when the most prominent members of both parties were consumed with deficit hysteria, drawing up plans to slash federal spending in order to protect tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (in the Democrats’ case, somewhat reluctantly)—Grijalva and the Progressive Caucus headed in the opposite direction. They proposed a "People’s Budget" that would raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, end subsidies to Big Oil, increase the income threshold that could be taxed for Social Security and roll back tax cuts on the wealthiest estates. And they would use the additional funds, over a trillion dollars, to invest in public infrastructure, education, renewable energy and transportation.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the budget would have significantly boosted employment and economic growth while paving the way to a budget surplus by 2021. Of course, such a bold proposal was a non-starter among Washington elites. The People’s Budget went nowhere.
Today, however, Grijalva may seem more like an opinion-maker than an outlier. With a renewed emphasis on fairness and equity triggered by the Occupy movement—and with President Obama’s re-election campaign going after the GOP for its intransigent defense of tax perks for millionaires—many of the ideas embodied in the People’s Budget seem somewhat more palatable.
If Grijalva has his way, the Democrats will embrace bold initiatives in the run-up to the November elections as a way to highlight the party’s fundamental differences with the GOP. This year, Grijalva says determinedly, is about “back-to-the-basics issues,” which have to be pushed by a party recommitted to a progressive program and confident enough to craft a genuine anti-poverty agenda. The best thing Occupy has done, Grijalva says, is shed light on the nation’s inequities. “That fairness issue is going to be bigger and bigger,” he predicts. “It’s got legs. I really sense it.”
For Grijalva, politics has always been, at its core, about promoting equity. He considers it his job to bring the experiences of ordinary Joes to Washington, and he clearly identifies more with his blue-collar constituents than with his esteemed colleagues on the Hill. The Congressman, who lives in a Spanish-speaking, working-class neighborhood of Tucson, still dines at the same south-side restaurants that he and his wife have eaten at for forty years. He is known by his first name all around town. And when people who don’t like him drive past and shout, “Hey, Grijalva, you’re an asshole!” he takes a perverse pleasure in the intimacy of the moment. (At least it’s better than when he used to visit the conservative parts of his district and, staff recall, residents would routinely give him the bird or throw rocks.)
Grijalva doesn’t keep a distance from his constituents. Nor, when he can help it, does he dress to intimidate or show off his power. In fact, the 64-year-old frequently turns up at meetings in jeans and a T-shirt. He slouches, hunches his large shoulders. Much of the time he’s holding a cigarette or a cup of coffee, or both. He’s been trying to wean himself off nicotine for decades. “He was going to quit when each of the kids were born,” Mona avers. “And the oldest just turned 40!”