The Nation’s annual Most Valuable Progressives Honor Roll has been going strong for the better part of a decade, and its alumni are moving up. Elizabeth Warren is now a senator-elect. Keith Ellison and Raúl Grijalva co-chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Two of our most valuable state legislators were elected to Congress on November 6: Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Ed Schultz has a prime-time show on MSNBC. The Dream Act dreamers spoke from the podium of the Democratic National Convention, and President Obama and Vice President Biden hailed their courage. But after a long election season and a hopeful outcome, there is still work to be done. Here are some of the Americans doing it.
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Most Valuable Progressive: Bernie Sanders
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
The first senator whose re-election was announced on November 6 wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican; it was independent progressive Bernie Sanders from Vermont. And cheers went up in union halls and campaign offices across the country. Why? Because though he remains intensely focused on the concerns of Vermonters and the fights in the Senate, Sanders has broken the boundaries of conventional politics. By refusing to bend to the compromises and spin of Washington, he has made himself the conscience of the fiscal cliff fight. That’s to be expected. In every austerity debate, Sanders has been resolute, championing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; defending the Postal Service against privatization threats; and opposing media consolidation schemes—whether they’re proposed by reactionary Republicans or disappointing Democrats.
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Most Valuable Senator: Jeff Merkley
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Among the new generation of Democratic senators elected in the past several years, none has been so steadfastly determined to forge progressive solutions as Oregon’s Jeff Merkley. A frequent ally of stalwarts like Sanders and Tom Harkin, Merkley has also been willing to strike out on his own to pick big fights for big reforms. On the Banking Committee, he has pushed hard for crackdowns on Wall Street abuses and for aid to Americans struggling to keep their homes. As a key member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, he’s battled to increase spending on vital infrastructure projects and worked to prevent the closing of rural post offices. Above all, Merkley is fighting to “Fix the Senate Now.” Increasingly frustrated by the Republicans’ “fake filibusters,” which have blocked action on popular legislation, Merkley teamed up with Senator Tom Udall to develop a way to end these abuses. Under their plan, the filibuster would be restored as an honest and transparent tool whereby senators who dissent must do so publicly. Think Jefferson Smith, Jimmy Stewart’s iconic character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—who, much like Merkley, hailed from a Western state and refused to compromise his principles to get along in the Senate.
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Most Valuable Representative: Tammy Baldwin
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
The House will lose some of its most independent and progressive members at the end of the current term, including Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Lynn Woolsey. One of their closest allies was Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who joined Kucinich and Woolsey as a core member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and voted with them in opposing the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, Wall Street–sponsored trade deals and the gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act’s financial regulation. But Baldwin did not leave in defeat or retirement; she’s moving up to the Senate. That she had served in the House as a progressive and an out lesbian led Beltway insiders to question whether she could win a Senate contest in a battleground state. But Baldwin—who, like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, embraced the labor rights struggles of 2011 and ‘12—believed she could run as an advocate for working families and win. She was right. Despite brutal attacks on her advocacy of nuclear disarmament and her sensible votes to dial down tensions with Iran, she won by six points. Baldwin leaves the House as a most valuable member who has taught colleagues and newcomers (including her able successor, Mark Pocan) a dramatic message: progressives do not have to compromise to get things done or get elected to higher office.