This past year was about a lot more than Ted Cruz and the surreal shutdown politics of the Republican right. Across America, grassroots groups, bold unions, inspired activists, crusading editors and courageous elected officials did great things. They are the real heroes of 2013, and The Nation’s Progressive Honor Roll celebrates them for their accomplishments this year and their determination to do even more in 2014.
MOST VALUABLE SENATOR: Elizabeth Warren
When speculation about her prospects as a presidential contender spiked, the new senator from Massachusetts turned attention away from herself and toward the need to crack down on “too big to fail” banks. “Since when does Congress set deadlines, watch regulators miss most of them, and then take that failure as a reason not to act?” Warren asked in November. That’s how she rolls: while many other senators seek the spotlight, Warren uses it to rip the “corporate capture of the courts” and object to rules in trade agreements that limit the ability of nations to regulate the financial industry. Warren’s voice is amplified by groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which have identified her as their “north star” in the fight to renew the Democratic Party. That scares corporate interests, and Wall Street–aligned Democratic groups like Third Way have attacked her populism. But her populism makes Warren a dynamic force in the Senate and beyond, as was evident when she electrified the September AFL-CIO convention, where she said, “The American people know that the system is rigged against them, and they want us to level the playing field. That’s our mandate.”
MOST VALUABLE HOUSE MEMBER: George Miller
The senior Democrat on the powerful Education and the Workforce Committee, Miller has been in the House since 1975. But the California congressman has lost none of his fire. With Senator Tom Harkin, he introduced a plan in March to hike the minimum wage to $10.10—with automatic cost-of-living increases annually. Nor did Miller stop there. He cheered on fast-food workers as they struck for a $15-an-hour wage. He tore into Republicans over their “repeal Obamacare” obsession and was even blunter in denouncing GOP plans to cut food stamps. Miller did not simply toe the Democratic line; he opposed President Obama’s proposal to fast-track the corporate-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And he was superb on an issue most members of Congress rarely recognize: after a Bangladeshi garment factory collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, Miller denounced US retailers that have “led this race to the bottom over many years,” telling corporations like Walmart that they “have to make a decision now whether you want to have blood on your labels.”
MOST VALUABLE OBAMA NOMINEE: Thomas Perez
When then-Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez was nominated in March to replace Hilda Solis as labor secretary, it was no surprise that Republicans objected. The son of first-generation Dominican immigrants who served as a civil rights adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy and as Maryland’s labor secretary, Perez has a history of focusing on immigrant rights, voting rights, racial violence and discrimination against workers. But Senate committee chair Tom Harkin refused GOP efforts to delay hearings, and majority leader Harry Reid forced a cloture vote. Even then, Perez was the first cabinet nominee in US history to be confirmed on a party-line vote. Undaunted, he moved quickly to improve the tracking of workplace injuries and make it easier for whistleblowers to file complaints. And he hit the road advocating an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, new investment in job training and a serious minimum-wage hike. “It really is a matter of fairness,” Perez said. “Nobody who works a full-time job should have to live below poverty.”