"The year 2010 will not be remembered as a halcyon year for progressives," writes John Nichols in his Progressive Honor Roll for this year. "But in such years the truest believers and battlers stand out all the more clearly, and patterns are set for the victories of the years to come." Here, then, are the Most Valuable Progressives of 2010 and the groundwork they're laying for 2011.
When Vermont's Bernie Sanders waged a nearly nine-hour December filibuster against extending tax breaks for the rich, he capped a year of not just taking the right stands but acting in a bolder—and invariably more effective—manner than any other senator. Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, but this year the emphasis was on independence. He parted with the White House and Congressional leaders to push harder and smarter on issues ranging from media consolidation and the defense of small farmers to healthcare reform and financial regulation. During the healthcare debate Sanders argued mightily for single-payer and a public option. He got neither, but he did secure a provision doubling the number of Federally Qualified Health Centers, which should increase the number of patients receiving primary care at these centers by at least 18 million during the coming decade. Later in the year he amended the final financial services reform bill to require the Federal Reserve to disclose its secret arrangements to aid the nation's largest banks. This "lifting the veil of secrecy at the Fed," as Sanders referred to it, revealed that big banks and multinational corporations collected an estimated $3.3 trillion in "emergency" loans and other assistance even as they refused to restructure mortgages or make loans to small businesses in Vermont and other states.
Principled and populist, yet practical enough to get things done, Sanders points the way for progressives in the next Congress by reminding them they can win if they address the stark reality that "there is a war going on in this country...a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful...against the working families of the United States of America, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class."
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Minnesota's Keith Ellison, a former civil rights lawyer and state legislator, is still identified as "the first Muslim elected to Congress." But the Congressman is making a name for himself as a progressive leader with global reach. Frequently called into action by the State Department (not just by Hillary Clinton but also by Condoleezza Rice), Ellison has a higher international profile than all but a few House members; he uses it to remind the global community—and Americans—that "religious tolerance has a much longer pedigree in America than some of the intolerance we've seen lately." His unprecedented visit to Gaza was followed this year by a call on President Obama to do more to ease the blockade of the Palestinian territory. Evenhanded and diplomatic in his approach, Ellison argued that "fulfilling the needs of civilians in Israel and Gaza are mutually reinforcing goals."
Despite his unique role when it comes to foreign policy, Ellison pulls no punches. In July he was one of thirty-eight House members who voted to direct the president to remove US armed forces from Pakistan; he also opposed Obama's Afghanistan surge, arguing that Congress should "reject the idea that our country can continue to spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on a decade of war, rather than investing in jobs, education and infrastructure for America's working families." That savvy balancing of international and domestic concerns will be one of many strengths Ellison brings to his new role as co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
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Its activist roots run four decades deep, but National People's Action came into its own after the financial meltdown, when it emerged as the boldest challenger of abuses by big banks, mortgage lenders, credit card companies and payday loan operations. With its "Showdown in America" campaign, the network of two dozen state and regional activist groups (including Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Grass Roots Organizing in Missouri and Denver's Rights for All People/Derechos Para Todos) has led the fight to prevent foreclosures on working families by banks that collected billions of federal bailout dollars. Committed to direct action, NPA takes victims of predatory lenders into the suites of corporations that prey on the poor. Unsettled by NPA's cries of "Make Wall Street Pay" and "People Before Profits," Glenn Beck decries it as a "dangerous group." Bill Moyers gets it right when he says NPA's "popular insurgency" is a modern manifestation of populism and renews "a grassroots movement for democracy."
"We're trying to teach Democrats how to fight," says Adam Green, co-founder (with Stephanie Taylor) of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which a year after its founding has shaken the Democratic establishment with unblinking demands that President Obama and Congressional leaders stand on principle rather than compromise. That's earned PCCC and its allies condemnation from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs (who gripes about the "professional left") and an expletive-laden dismissal from former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. But on issue after issue—healthcare, banking, the Obama/GOP tax-cut deal—the group has pushed Democrats to throw punches rather than throw in the towel. Bridging the enthusiasm gap, PCCC signed up 650,000 "bold progressives" on its e-mail list and backed its campaigning with TV ads. As with Progressive Democrats of America, PCCC's independence is its strength. At a time when it's clear what Republicans stand for, PCCC holds that Democrats can excite their base and win only if they are equally clear—and uncompromising on core values.
"I saw families broken apart, but yet we kept fighting!" shouts Carlos Saavedra, as the dynamic national coordinator of the United We Dream Network rallies backers of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The bill would have given undocumented students who graduate from US high schools an opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency and a chance to pursue higher education. In a year that saw outrageous anti-immigrant politicking, Saavedra kept hope alive for the DREAM Act, which in December passed the House with a bipartisan majority. (It stalled in the Senate, but even Republicans say a version of the measure should be included in any comprehensive reform.)
Born in Peru, Saavedra immigrated at age 12 and got his start as an organizer with the Student Immigrant Movement in Massachusetts, where he led campaigns to secure in-state tuition for immigrants, prevent deportations and register all ten Massachusetts Representatives as co-sponsors of the DREAM Act. As a national organizer, Saavedra mixes facts and emotion, recounting heartbreaking stories of dreams deferred, with links to civil rights struggles of the past and an unapologetic call to action: "We're undocumented and unafraid!"
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One of the most remarkable moments during the healthcare debate came when MSNBC's Ed Schultz interviewed Dennis Kucinich about his decision to vote for legislation the Ohio Democrat had condemned as a handout to big insurers. The give-and-take between Schultz and Kucinich, both backers of the single-payer "Medicare for All" approach rejected by the Obama administration, was electric, filled with emotion yet nuanced in its recognition of the moral and political pressures faced by progressives. Again and again in 2010, Schultz highlighted not just partisan divisions but the frustrations that surfaced as Democratic members of Congress wrestled with questions of when to support a Democratic president and when to object. The most populist of MSNBC's hosts, Schultz shows his anger not just with right-wing "psycho talk" but with Democratic double talk. A proudly independent "lefty," Schultz highlights members of Congress and activists who criticize compromises, especially on bread-and-butter issues. That makes his show energetic, and often newsworthy, as when Sanders raised the prospect of filibustering the tax deal on the program. Yet Schultz keeps things fun; his one-man crusade to hold Dick Cheney to account for political and corporate wrongdoing mocks the former vice president who famously wounded a hunting partner as "Shooter." Schultz does good television, and good politics.
On her Southern California public radio show, Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison takes apart complicated issues—tax policy, the mortgage crisis, net neutrality, food-borne illness—and rearranges them as accessible topics that citizens can debate and address. Morrison's two-hour daily program raises the quality of the discourse with savvy and unexpected guests, from student activists to IMF researchers to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Morrison is not afraid to stick with an issue as it evolves; her coverage of the DREAM Act debate in particular, and immigration issues in general, brought the skills of a beat reporter to radio. Of all the regional radio shows that should go national, this one tops the list.
Wendell Potter, former vice president of corporate communications with insurance giant CIGNA, now a fellow with the spin-busting Center for Media and Democracy, used media appearances and testimony before Congressional committees to expose the dark manipulations of fact that insurance firms use to preserve for-profit healthcare. Then he put it all on paper with a terrific book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans. The book revealed how the industry tried to discredit Michael Moore before the release of his film Sicko. One of the year's most powerful television moments came when Moore questioned Potter about it all on MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann.
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Great songs are being written about today's wars; just listen to Neil Young's poignant "Love and War" on the album Le Noise, or Dar Williams's rendering of "Empire" on her new collection, Many Great Companions. But the year's boldest musical project was Next Stop Is Vietnam, the stunning thirteen-CD collection of 334 songs and spoken-word tracks (many forgotten or never really known) that chronicles the war and its aftermath. The accompanying book includes a warm and thoughtful introduction by Country Joe McDonald and a moving oral history (by authors Doug Bradley and Craig Werner) with veterans discussing the power of song.
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Conservatives know the power of proposing constitutional amendments. Even when they don't succeed, amendment campaigns educate people about issues and get them engaged at the local, state and national levels. In recent years progressives have been cautious about the Constitution. But after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision freed corporations to use their immense resources to buy elections, two groups responded with aggressive challenges to the notion that businesses should enjoy the same rights as citizens. Free Speech for People, a campaign sponsored by Public Citizen, US PIRG, Voter Action, the Center for Corporate Policy and American Independent Business Alliance, seeks to counter the Court's move with "a constitutional amendment of our own that puts people ahead of corporations." (Representative Donna Edwards has introduced an amendment, with backing from outgoing Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers.) Another group, Move to Amend (with support from Progressive Democrats of America, the National Lawyers Guild and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, among others), proposes a broader "multi-year movement to amend the Constitution" that would use state legislative resolutions to force Congressional action on "democracy amendments" or schedule a constitutional convention. These campaigns are capturing the imaginations of activists. By year's end, Move to Amend had almost 100,000 signers.
Credit: Image from an October Backbone Campaign / Move to Amend action in Washington, DC, courtesy of Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images and backbonecampaign.org
Official Washington is obsessed with deficits. How should progressives respond? Oregon Congressman Pete DeFazio's got a notion: the "Let Wall Street Pay for the Restoration of Main Street Act." Backed by the AFL-CIO, consumer groups and top economists (including the New York Times's Paul Krugman), financial transaction tax proposals are not new. But DeFazio's plan is specific and well drawn; it would apply a small tax to stock transactions; "options" contracts that allow speculators to buy or sell particular assets; and credit default swaps, which bet on the failure of bonds and loans. Even with exemptions to protect average investors and pension funds, DeFazio's tax would generate $150 billion a year—half directed toward job creation, half to deficit reduction. DeFazio has attracted thirty-one House co-sponsors and a key Senate ally, Tom Harkin. That's a start. But when the next Congress takes shape, this measure should not just be reintroduced; it should be positioned as the smart alternative to destructive cuts proposed by new House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan.
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There are plenty of outspoken Arizona progressives, but few speak as loudly—or as boldly—as Sinema. In 2006 the openly bisexual legislator chaired Arizona Together, the first successful campaign to beat a state ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage; in 2008 she chaired Protect Arizona's Freedom, the coalition that defeated a ballot initiative to eliminate equal opportunity programs; in 2010 the former social worker in Phoenix immigrant and refugee communities emerged as a thoughtful critic of Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant legislation. Sinema dismissed the push for the state measure as a crude "strategy on the part of the right" and detailed how the law undermined civil liberties, made it harder for police to do their jobs and discouraged battered women from seeking help. The media-savvy Sinema warned national activists: "Be careful...your state could turn into Arizona very quickly." On her home turf, voters elected the term-limited state rep to the Arizona Senate.
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Activism to address global warming suffered when November election results gave increased power to climate-change deniers in Congress. But that isn't stopping progressive mayors from acting. Along with fellow members of the Mayors Innovation Project, Eugene, Oregon, Mayor Kitty Piercy has promoted the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, now backed by more than 800 local leaders. One of her first projects after her 2004 election was a Sustainable Business Initiative that encourages the growth of businesses that produce sustainable products while promoting green building, recycling, natural food, alternative fuel and alternative energy development. With purchases of hybrid vehicles and the use of biodiesel fuel, Eugene has decreased its city CO2 emissions by 10 percent, and the community recently developed a broader plan to cut carbon.
In addition to her environmental activism, Piercy champions LGBT rights, women's rights and child-welfare initiatives. Active with US Mayors for Peace and Women's Action for New Directions/Women Legislators' Lobby, she shows up at peace rallies to declare: "Some may scorn our local efforts to change national priorities, but I, like you, believe in the power of our city, the fierce grassroots power of our people to do what needs to be done."
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