The Nation Dozen
THE NOVEMBER 7 ELECTION is not merely about ending six years of GOP dominance but also about assuring that the next Congress is pulled in a more enlightened direction. Starting early this year, The Nation began tracking races around the country, keeping an eye on contests where progressive incumbents are battling to keep their seats and identifying the next generation of leaders on economic and social justice issues. The Nation adopted author and activist Michael Harrington's "left wing of the possible" standard--looking for candidates who combine a chance of winning with a commitment to use the victory to fight for real change. None of the contenders profiled in this year's "Nation Dozen" list--which represents only a fraction of the progressive candidates running as Democrats, Greens or independents--are assured victory; indeed, several had to overcome daunting odds just to earn a place on the November ballot. But they have put themselves in contention with strong support from groups like the AFL-CIO, NARAL, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Peace Action PAC, the Human Rights Campaign Fund and the National Committee for an Effective Congress. A decade ago, Minnesota professor Paul Wellstone beat an entrenched Republican US senator and went on to serve as a mentor to other progressives, including several of this year's Nation Dozen. Says Wellstone: "Progressives have got to get serious about these Congressional races around the country. We need to recognize that it matters a great deal when we elect members who understand human rights and economic justice issues; that those members will have the power to raise issues, to shift the direction of the Democratic Party and to build coalitions that can actually prevail." With that thought in mind, here is the "Nation Dozen." With support from Nation readers and other progressives, they have the potential not only to win but to change the way Washington does business.
ED FLANAGAN, Vermont, US Senate
When Ed Flanagan won the Democratic nomination for the seat held by Republican Jim Jeffords, the incumbent warned that Flanagan's progressive populist style would not go over well in the tradition-bound Senate. "He makes a lot of noise, shakes things up, and that's the last thing we need down in Washington," said Jeffords, who is best known for singing in a barbershop quartet with Trent Lott. Jeffords is right about Flanagan; he would shake things up. A former intern to liberal Republican Senator George Aiken and a four-term state auditor, Flanagan condemns "the military-industrial complex that does not have America's defense interests in mind, but is simply out to make the big bucks," and he asks how the Senate can justify a failure to implement living-wage legislation "in the context of an economy that is so rich but has concentrated so much wealth with so few people and so few huge multinational corporations." The odds against Flanagan are long, in part because he is an openly gay man running in a state where conservatives are stirring a backlash against Vermont's just-implemented civil union law. But he is betting that the state that sends Bernie Sanders to the House is, indeed, prepared to shake up the Senate (www.flanagan2000.org).
NANCY KEENAN, Montana, House, At-Large
To understand where Nancy Keenan is coming from, you need to know the story of the Smelterman's Day Picnic that used to be held every August 8 in Anaconda, Montana. Keenan, the daughter of a boilermaker, would line up with the other kids at the picnic to receive a silver dollar from the copper-smelting company that gave the town its name. "As you stepped forward, the management representative would look you straight in the eye and press that shiny silver dollar firmly in your hand. The message couldn't have been clearer: You knew who owned you," Keenan recalled in a speech to the state AFL-CIO. "But the company was wrong. They might have owned our sweat, they might have owned our labor, but because we were members of a union family, they could not own our souls." Keenan, who is seeking to be a voice for hard-pressed factory and farm families in a state where annual incomes are among the lowest in the nation, got into politics to battle for corporate responsibility: After Atlantic Richfield shuttered the Anaconda smelter in 1980, she was elected to the legislature and helped pass a plant-closing notification law. Now, the three-term state superintendent of public instruction is running for Congress against a right-wing opponent on a platform that includes pledges to fight for labor-law reform, vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws against agribusiness monopolies and guarantees that farmers and workers "are not sacrificed at the altar of international trade relations." She says politics beats her old job--shoveling ore and wrangling buckets of boiling copper. "You wore an asbestos suit and counted on your workmate to beat out the flames when you occasionally caught on fire," recalls Keenan, who promises to fight to toughen workplace safety regulations (www.nancykeenan.com).
BRIAN SCHWEITZER, Montana, US Senate
Long before Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee read polls that told them prescription drug prices were a potent political issue, Brian Schweitzer, a peppermint farmer with no political experience, began loading senior citizens onto buses and driving them over the border to buy cheap drugs in Canada. The first-time candidate's political instincts proved so good, and so threatening to troglodyte conservative incumbent Conrad Burns, that a faked-up "citizens' group" funded by drug manufacturers began blanketing the state with anti-Schweitzer commercials. Schweitzer took the attacks as a badge of honor, while the Billings Gazette joked that anti-Schweitzer forces would have a hard time convincing Montana voters to fear him as a candidate "coming to strip us of our God-given right to be shafted by the pharmaceutical industry." After Burns voted against a proposal to place a moratorium on agribusiness mergers that harm Montana farmers, Schweitzer detailed Burns's $198,608 in contributions from agribusiness lobbyists. When he is not banging away at corporations, Schweitzer works to heal rifts between unions and environmentalists that Burns and other Western conservatives have fanned in order to divide progressive voters in states with depressed economies and threatened natural areas. "The debate over the past ten years has been jobs versus the environment," says Schweitzer. "The results are in, and it's clear that we're losing both" (www.brianschweitzer.com).
LANE EVANS, Illinois, District 17
Congress has no truer heir to the prairie populist tradition of the Midwest Progressive, Farmer-Labor and Non-Partisan League movements than Illinois's Lane Evans. In nine terms as the representative from a farm-and-factory district that hugs the Mississippi River, Evans has been one of the few members who consistently earn top ratings from the AFL-CIO and progressive groups. In a district where Republicans remain a powerful political force and where business groups pump thousands of dollars into the campaigns of his Republican challengers, Evans talks tough about corporate crime, wages lonely battles on behalf of family farmers and helps lead the fight against Wall Street's free-trade agenda. This year the GOP has made Evans a top target. The Congressman is suffering from Parkinson's disease, and while he is fully capable of performing his Congressional duties--which would include chairing the powerful Veterans' Affairs Committee if Democrats retake the House--his weakened condition has been the target of whispering campaigns and none-too-subtle jabs from Republican backers of his opponent, a former TV anchorman (www.laneevans.com, www.house.gov.evans).
ELEANOR JORDAN, Kentucky, District 3
With Eleanor Jordan in Congress, the House of Representatives would be a lot more representative. An African-American woman old enough to remember segregation days in the border state of Kentucky, a onetime teenage single parent who understands the challenge of meeting childcare and health bills, a neighborhood activist who got mad enough about legislative neglect to run for and win a seat in the General Assembly, she has lived the issues that most members of Congress only debate. Jordan, who directed a childcare center before her election, has emerged as one of the Kentucky House's most effective advocates for programs that aid children and working moms--winning a high-profile battle to prevent the gutting of the Kentucky childcare policy council. Now, Jordan is challenging incumbent Anne Northup, a conservative Republican who came to the House as a Newt Gingrich protégée and who has established one of the most reliably reactionary records in Congress. Jordan proudly identifies herself as an "outspoken advocate for women, working families, minorities, the poor and children." She says she's not proud of all the earlier choices she made in her life. "But they were choices I had to live with, and people get the benefit of your experience only if you tell them" (www.jordanforcongress.com).
BETTY McCOLLUM, Minnesota, District 4
Even before she won the Democratic Farmer Labor Party nod in a hard-fought, four-way primary to fill an open St. Paul-area seat, Betty McCollum had lined up support from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and other green groups that usually withhold endorsements until after nominations are settled. It wasn't that her foes were so bad but rather that McCollum was so good. She was a leader in the fight to secure funding for one of the first urban wetlands restoration projects in the country. And as a member of the Environmental Policy and Environmental Finance committees of the Minnesota House, she earned a national reputation for developing and advancing innovative legislation to combat air and water pollution, destruction of natural habitats, urban sprawl and environmental racism. McCollum, who continued to work as a clerk at a St. Paul department store during her years as a legislator, is outspoken in her support of living-wage initiatives, organizing rights for unions and protections for working women. Normally, her labor, feminist and environmentalist backing would be enough to secure victory in this liberal district. But McCollum faces a tough race against a former Democratic prosecutor running as the candidate of Governor Jesse Ventura's Independence Party and a well-funded conservative Republican state senator (www.mccollumforcongress.org).
MARYANNE CONNELLY, New Jersey, District 7
Abortion is supposed to be too "dangerous" an issue for candidates in close Congressional races to touch--especially Democratic candidates seeking to grab suburban seats previously held by conservative Republicans. But Maryanne Connelly is breaking the political rules, putting her support for abortion rights front and center in her campaign to win the New Jersey seat being vacated by Republican Senate candidate Bob Franks. "I believe every woman should have the right to choose.... It's no place for the government to be involved," says Connelly. Her tough talk did not endear her to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which endorsed her primary opponent, a more pliant pol backed by powerful political machines in the region. But Connelly's emphasis on women's rights, gun control and campaign finance reform gave her the edge in the primary. In her general-election campaign against a conservative Republican, Connelly continues to eschew compromise. A former police commissioner in her hometown of Fanwood, she is fiercely critical of the NRA, promising to fight to require that all handgun owners--"just like all automobile owners"--must register their guns, have a photo license and pass a safety test (www.connellyforcongress.com).
GERRIE SCHIPSKE, California, District 38
Gerrie Schipske wasn't supposed to be the Democratic nominee against moderate Republican incumbent Steve Horn for a Long Beach-area House seat. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insiders had groomed a young, not particularly political teacher--whose chief qualification appeared to be the fact that she had been featured on national television programs as an innovative educator--for the race to reclaim the historically Democratic seat. But Schipske, a nurse practioner, lawyer and healthcare policy consultant to the Service Employees International Union, won a primary upset with backing from labor and the district's large gay and lesbian community. Allies including Congressman Barney Frank have worked with labor and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to keep Schipske, who is openly lesbian, even with Horn in fundraising. She is in an uphill fight, but, says Frank, "She's serious, she's progressive, she's got a chance to be elected, and if she wins she will immediately be a leader in Congress on healthcare issues" (www.schipske4congress.org).
SUSAN BASS LEVIN, New Jersey, District 3
Susan Bass Levin, a first-time Congressional candidate who has served four terms as mayor of Cherry Hill, doesn't try to be all things to all voters. When the House voted to cut $32 million from the Clinton Administration's civil rights enforcement budget, she angrily condemned the move as an affront not just to minorities but to women, noting that "working families already lose more than $4,000 a year on average because women do not receive equal pay." The founder of a statewide fundraising network to elect pro-choice Democratic women, Levin has thrown a scare into GOP incumbent Jim Saxton. A relative moderate, Saxton for years cultivated links with labor--so much so that after he voted with labor against granting China permanent normal trade status, the state AFL-CIO executive board recommended that unions remain neutral in the Saxton-Levin race. Not a fan of neutrality, Levin sought a roll-call of unions. She won the endorsement by a 4-to-1 ratio, capitalizing on her years of work with local unions to promote pay equity, minimum-wage increases and expansion of worker health and safety programs. "I'm an activist," says Levin. "That's why I signed on to being an elected official" (www.levinforcongress.org).
MIKE KELLEHER, Illinois, District 15
If first-time candidate Mike Kelleher wins an upset victory in his race for an open Congressional seat, it will be on the strength of a paper clip. His better-known and better-funded opponent, Tim Johnson, is a veteran GOP legislator who should be coasting to victory in a rural district with a long history of sending conservative Republicans to Congress. But Johnson got caught using a paper clip to hold in place the button that recorded his legislative votes, making it possible to appear to be present when he was absent. Kelleher, an Illinois State University professor originally regarded as a sacrificial lamb, has juxtaposed Johnson's slacker service against the work ethic of the farmers, factory hands and smalltown shopkeepers who form the core of the district's electorate. Kelleher is airing commercials that feature a construction worker trying to paper-clip shut his lunchbox, and he's launched a www/timspaperclip.com website. He backs up his populist appeal with attacks on HMOs, drug companies and paper-clip pushing Republicans (www.kelleher2000.com).
DAVID WU, Oregon, District 1
Few members of Congress were better positioned to stamp their return ticket to the House with a single vote than David Wu. The first-term Democrat from Oregon represents an international-trade-reliant West Coast district where the politically powerful business community was chomping at the bit to capitalize on "free trade" with China. But Wu, the first person of full Chinese ancestry ever elected to Congress, chose his commitment to international human rights over the easy route to re-election; he voted against the permanent normal trade relations bill, which brought to an end annual Congressional review of China's human rights record. Wu was one of only a handful of West Coast Democrats to do so. Retribution was swift. High-tech corporations in his Portland-area district--a region known as the Silicon Forest--began pouring money into the campaign of Wu's challenger, right-wing Republican State Senator Charles Starr. Wu is standing firm, telling reporters, "If the voters of Oregon decide to send me home for [the PNTR vote], I'll have to live with that. But I'd rather turn my back on the office than turn my back on my principles" (www.wuforcongress.com, http://www.house.gov/wu).
MARYELLEN O'SHAUGHNESSY, Ohio, District 12
In a Columbus district where a quarter of the population is African-American, City Councilor Maryellen O'Shaughnessy is working to build a multiracial coalition by positioning herself as a contender who won't lose sight of the need to strengthen the federal commitment to education, healthcare and senior programs. "I know how hard it is to make ends meet," says O'Shaughnessy, who put herself through college working night jobs and in recent years struggled to care for her ill mother. Running in a GOP-leaning district against a state representative who has received maximum backing from retiring conservative icon John Kasich and national Republicans, O'Shaughnessy has driven her opponent to distraction by expressing a mother's horror at his legislative votes against programs designed to protect low-income children from lead poisoning. "This woman deserves to win," says Representative John Conyers, who campaigned in Columbus for O'Shaughnessy. And, he adds, "I'm convinced that if she wins, Democrats retake the House" (www.meos2000.org).