In what has become a Nation tradition, John Nichols has drawn attention to the most valuable progressive activists and organizations of the year. For the first time this year, his list of picks appears in the magazine, but you can read selections from 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 online.
For a number of years now I have, with wise counsel from Nation colleagues, Washington watchdogs and grassroots activists around the country, worked up a year-end list of Most Valuable Progressives for TheNation.com. Begun during the Bush/Cheney era, the project initially highlighted dissenters against unnecessary wars, unfair economic policies and assaults on civil liberties. As the popularity of the online project grew, it expanded to recognize social and cultural interventions, especially those by activists and artists whose work was not as well-known as it should be.
Although the MVP list, which makes its print debut here, focuses on individuals and organizations, it is really about issues and ideas. As such, the point is not to identify perfect players so much as to make note of activists and activist groups that may not get enough recognition but that are having a demonstrable effect–in Washington and around the country. That’s even more important now that Bush and Cheney are gone and progressives are faced with the daunting task of assuring that Democrats govern with principle and an adventurous impulse.
Legend has it that Franklin Roosevelt told his allies in the early years of the New Deal that he agreed with their prescriptions for what ailed the Republic but that they would have to organize with an eye toward popularizing their ideas. “Go out and make me do it,” the president reportedly urged them. These are some of the people and groups who are trying to make a new Democratic administration and Congress “do it.”
Most Valuable Senator: Maria Cantwell
The Washington State Democrat, like previous honorees Bernie Sanders and Russ Feingold, has always taken on complicated issues. As a tech-savvy Congresswoman in 1993, for instance, Cantwell battled to assure that new technologies were not used to secretly expand government surveillance. She has come into her own, however, as Congress has wrestled with an internecine financial crisis. In October 2008 she was one of a handful of Democrats to oppose Wall Street bailout legislation, which she identified as fiscally unsound and lacking in accountability. “I am not for…turning the keys to the Treasury over to the private sector,” said Cantwell. Since then, the senator has doggedly challenged fellow Democrats–in Congress and the Obama administration–to get serious about financial services reform. She has attacked the Treasury Department for defending loopholes favored by Wall Street and declared in November that she was not sure why Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner still had his job. Cantwell condemned House Financial Services Committee “reforms” that failed to crack down on derivatives trading. And she joined Sanders in proposing to use state gambling laws to regulate the $600 trillion derivatives market. The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner calls Cantwell “the best informed and most relentless crusader” for reform of the financial system. Former Commodity Futures Trading Commission official Michael Greenberger says she is “going for the jugular” in her fight to end abuses that could cause a new financial crisis. They’re both right.
Most Valuable Representative: Peter DeFazio
After the Oregon Democrat opposed the stimulus bill last February because it did not do enough to create jobs, President Obama gibed, “Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother.” If Obama is keeping score, he should recognize by now that DeFazio has tended to be more right about real-economy concerns than any of the president’s advisers. A key player on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio is Congress’s most ardent advocate for spending more on job-creating construction projects and less on bank bailouts and distant wars. He was an early proponent of reclaiming TARP funds and using the money to address rising unemployment, an idea that caught on despite the fact that, as DeFazio noted, “the president has an adviser from Wall Street, Larry Summers, and a treasury secretary from Wall Street, Timmy Geithner, who don’t like that idea.” DeFazio earned headlines when he proposed firing Summers and Geithner with a declaration that Obama is “being failed by his economic team. We may have to sacrifice just two more jobs to get millions back for Americans.” But the Congressman’s finest contributions are his smart proposals (advanced with previous honoree Marcy Kaptur) to pay for investments in American communities with financial transactions taxes that steer money away from Wall Street speculation and toward Main Street renewal.
Most Valuable Federal Appointee: Elizabeth Warren
The Harvard professor, a scholar of the dwindling middle class who once palled around with Paul Wellstone and appeared frequently on PBS’s NOW and Bill Moyers Journal, has taken the chairmanship of the Congressional bank bailout oversight panel and turned it into a vehicle for generating more ideas–and more good policy–than the White House or the Congressional banking committees. It was Warren who took the lead in arguing for the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. If Congress actually creates it, the only choice for its administrator is… Elizabeth Warren. Better yet, make her treasury secretary.
Most Valuable State Official: Mark Ritchie
When this veteran activist ran for Minnesota Secretary of State, he argued that putting honest players in charge of counting votes was necessary to restore credibility to an electoral process that had been battered by Republican gaming of the 2000 presidential vote in Florida and the 2004 vote in Ohio. Ritchie won and two years later found himself managing the recount of one of the closest and most bitter Senate contests in American history. Attacked by right-wing media and faced with massive spending by national Republicans who did not want Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nominee Al Franken seated in a Senate where he would provide a critical sixtieth vote, Ritchie kept his cool. He ran a clean recount, emphasizing transparency and accountability, and delivered a credible result that survived legal challenges and gave the seat to the candidate who actually won the most votes.
Most Valuable Local Official: JoAnn Watson
A former aide to Congressman John Conyers, Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson bows to no boundary. She’s a neighborhood activist who has battled home foreclosures and environmental racism, a determined defender of her hometown who has blocked privatization of public services, and an ardent internationalist allied with the Institute for Policy Studies’s Cities for Peace and Cities for Progress initiatives. Watson has led fights for greater transparency and accountability in government, has gone after predatory lenders and has promoted a multifaceted Detroit Marshall Plan to revitalize her economically battered city. She’s proudly controversial and remarkably successful at getting local, state and national officials focused on fundamental issues. Like previous honoree Conyers, she is a passionate proponent of single-payer healthcare. But Watson is not waiting for Washington to heal Detroiters. When there was talk of closing hospitals in the city, she led the fight to require that they remain open “in perpetuity.” Re-elected to a second full term in November, Watson promises to bang on doors in Washington and say, “You’ve bailed out the auto industry. You’ve bailed out Wall Street. How about helping out Detroit in its time of need?”
Most Valuable National Advocacy Group: J Street
Founded in 2008 with the ambitious goal of changing “the direction of American policy in the Middle East” and establishing a muscular “pro-Israel, pro-peace movement” in the United States, J Street has shaken up the inside-the-Beltway debate and helped elect members of Congress who are genuinely committed to dialogue. Thirty-three House and Senate candidates won with J Street backing in 2008, including Maryland Representative Donna Edwards and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, and many of them attended its inaugural conference in October, where Gen. James Jones, the Obama administration’s national security adviser, promised the roughly 1,500 attendees, “You can be sure that this administration will be represented at all future conferences.” A few weeks later, Hannah Rosenthal, a J Street advisory council member and former executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was nominated to head the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. J Street’s growing influence, and its determined advocacy of the view that “a sustainable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is both a fundamental American interest and essential to the survival and security of Israel as a democracy and home for the Jewish people,” has drawn attacks from American neocons, who claim it is anti-Israel. But J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami counters with a letter from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who hails the group’s impressive “initiative to form a pro-Israeli-Palestinian and pro-Israeli-Arab peace organization.”
Most Valuable Grassroots Advocacy Group: Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement
For three decades, Iowa CCI has built and maintained remarkable rural-urban coalitions to fight factory farms, urban blight and abuses of Latino and Asian immigrants. In the current financial crisis, the group has ramped up its activism on behalf of banking reforms that free up credit for small farms, businesses and families while cracking down on payday loan operations. When the American Bankers Association held its annual convention in Chicago, National People’s Action called for protests that declared, “We didn’t break the banks–the big banks broke us!” Iowa CCI, long a backbone member of the NPA coalition, showed up in force. Viewers of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! got a flavor of the group’s in-your-face activism as Iowa farmer Larry Ginter brought activists from across the country to their feet with his cry, “If you are from rural America and tired of bank greed, stand up! If you are from urban America and you’re tired of bank greed, stand up! If you think it’s time to put people first and hold banks accountable, stand up!”
Most Valuable Agitator: Cleve Jones
This veteran activist was handed a new level of prominence by the recent film Milk, which highlighted his youthful activism at the side of pioneering gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk. Jones used it to champion the National Equality March, which urged the Obama administration to go beyond rhetoric and assure “full and equal protection for LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.” In a letter to Obama, Jones explained: “Equal rights are not a ‘gay’ issue. They are about our shared human rights: safety in our schools and jobs, equitable healthcare and housing, and protection for our families, to name a few. I compare our National Equality March with the Civil Rights March of 1963. Martin Luther King had a dream; we have a dream too. We share Dr. King’s belief in the dignity and equality of all peoples, and his commitment to nonviolence. And we share his faith that justice will prevail.”
Most Valuable Think Tank: The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
Under the leadership of outgoing director Kristina Wilfore, the center has emerged as the chief proponent of employing direct democracy (initiatives and referendums) to advance progressive policies. Instead of just opposing bad proposals drummed up by corporate front groups and the religious right, BISC has gotten progressives excited about using initiatives to promote fair taxation, environmental protection and LGBT equality. It has also prodded states to prevent abuses of the petitioning process by special interests. Its summer 2009 report, “Ballot Integrity: A Broken System in Need of Solutions,” inspired newspaper editorials, legal actions and legislative initiatives to crack down on fraudulent petitioning to place issues on state and local ballots. In Ohio, which got a “D” on BISC’s state-by-state report card, State Representative Jennifer Garrison developed a plan to require that companies that pay petition circulators be licensed by the state and obey rules barring misrepresentations regarding ballot issues. Garrison’s bill could become a national model for reforming the process, as more states respond to BISC’s savvy analysis, smart scrutiny and tough prodding. This is a think tank with good ideas and the wherewithal to get them implemented.
Most Valuable Union: California Nurses Association
Fiercely independent and combative–a magazine they fund for activist nurses is dubbed Revolution–CNA inserted itself into the 2009 healthcare debate as a steady proponent of a single-payer system along the Medicare for All lines supported by such groups as Physicians for a National Health Plan. When Congressional Democrats equivocated and pulled punches, CNA called them out and explained how big insurance companies might come out ahead under many of the “reform” proposals. CNA also came up with innovative ways to highlight the public health threat posed by barriers to care–for instance, when everyone was getting scared about the H1N1 virus, the union proposed suspending co-pays and deductibles as well as other financial barriers that prevent giving quick treatment to all swine flu victims. CNA ended the year by pulling together independent nurses’ groups from across the country into National Nurses United, which veteran CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro promised to build into “The RN Super Union.”
Most Valuable Rocker: James McMurtry
When George W. Bush moved back to Crawford, Texas, the locals organized a Welcome Home Bash for the ex-president featuring a Lone Star band that included drummer Josh Garner. During Secret Service background checks, Garner was asked, “What is your affiliation with James McMurtry?” It happened that Garner had played with McMurtry, the Austin-based rocker whom author Stephen King calls “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation” and whose searing songs blistered Bush and Bushism. McMurtry took the news in stride, celebrating the fact that he was “on the radar” and releasing a brilliant live album and a DVD featuring the sharpest of his Bush-battering tunes, “We Can’t Make It Here.”
Most Valuable Multimedia Activism: Rethink Afghanistan
No intervention with regard to the expanding war in Afghanistan did more to raise public awareness and opposition than the Rethink Afghanistan project of Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation. Greenwald, Jim Miller, Martha de Hoyos and their compatriots dispatched crews to Afghanistan, interviewed returning soldiers, tracked down retired CIA and Defense Department analysts and forged an ironclad case for bringing the troops home. President Obama did not listen, but nearly a million Americans viewed Rethink Afghanistan videos on the Internet, saw the movie in theaters or attended house parties and meetings where it was shown. Along with “A Tale of Two Quagmires,” the revelatory comparison of the US escalation in Vietnam with the escalation in Afghanistan on Bill Moyers Journal, the Rethink Afghanistan project changed minds, stiffened spines and renewed the movement for a sane foreign policy.
Most Valuable Nonfiction Book: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
“The history of disaster shows we are social animals who want to connect,” argues Rebecca Solnit in the most radical book of 2009. What makes A Paradise Built in Hell so radical is Solnit’s refusal to accept the official narrative about Hurricane Katrina and disasters going back to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Instead of buying into “common myths” that say our response to natural and human disaster is to become either “helpless or bestial,” the greatest public philosopher of this age argues not just convincingly but movingly that “when the superstructure of society crumbles” human beings are “freed to act on, most often, not the worst but the best within.” There is balm for romantic anarchists in this historically rich survey of how, for the most part, human beings respond to calamities with “more beauty than brutality.” But there is also a practical lesson for policy-makers: instead of fretting about looters, encouraging vigilantes and imposing curfews that make it a crime for neighbors to save neighbors, the response to disasters should be to empower and enhance that “civic temperament” that leads people to behave altruistically and creatively. This is a transformational principle with applications far beyond New Orleans and the other disaster zones about which Solnit writes with such authority, such vision and, above all, such insight into the better angels of our nature.
Most Valuable Fiction Book: Victor LaValle’s Big Machine
If you think America needs to have more serious and nuanced debates about race, religion and class, then a compelling point to begin it is with this remarkable story of a recovering junkie who, after receiving a mysterious note and a one-way bus pass to Vermont, asks himself: “What kind of black man accepts an unsigned invitation to the whitest state there is?” But relocate Ricky Rice does, to the state’s Northeast Kingdom, where he joins a group of “Unlikely Scholars” in a funny, terrifying and ultimately redemptive exploration of America’s most unresolved mysteries. If Thomas Paine and Stephen King had collaborated across time on a novel, they might well have produced this book. As it is, LaValle acknowledges both as inspirations, along with “my man Ambrose Bierce.”