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.”
MOST VALUABLE STATE LEGISLATOR: Wendy Davis
State Senator Wendy Davis captured the imagination not just of her fellow Texans but of the nation in June, when she put on her now-famous sneakers to filibuster for eleven hours against anti-choice legislation. Despite a massive “Stand With Wendy” outpouring of popular support, the Republicans eventually got their way, after Texas Governor Rick Perry and his allies called the legislature back into session. But perhaps not for long: Davis is running an insurgent Democratic campaign that says it’s time for the home state of Ann Richards to elect another pro-choice governor.
MOST VALUABLE MUNICIPAL RISING STAR: Tish James
Amid the excitement over Bill de Blasio’s landslide win as mayor of New York, little attention was paid to the fact that the citywide office of public advocate went to a woman who is at least as progressive as de Blasio. Newly elected Tish James is a former Legal Aid Society public defender who, as an assistant state attorney general, took on predatory lenders and assisted an investigation of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy. Elected to the City Council in 2003, James has battled developers and outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg on behalf of affordable housing and responsible policing. In 2011, she called on Bloomberg to investigate systemic corruption in the NYPD, and in her campaign for public advocate, James highlighted her role as one of four council members to sue the NYPD over its mistreatment of Occupy Wall Street activists. Taking Occupy themes to the campaign trail, James said New Yorkers “don’t need more billionaires…. What we need is to boost working families and create a middle class that’s built to last.” She won 84 percent of the vote, becoming the first woman of color to hold citywide office in the nation’s largest city.
MOST VALUABLE UNION: Seattle Education Association
When teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School refused to administer the Measures of Academic Progress test to ninth graders in January—with support from parents, students, rank-and-file activists from Seattle Equality Educators and local NAACP leaders—they put the issue of overtesting on the agenda. That boycott, and their broader challenge to the obsession with standardized testing, caught fire, spreading to other Seattle schools and inspiring actions across the country. The Seattle Education Association backed its members in the critical early stages of the struggle and pressed the issue until the superintendent announced in May that schools could opt out of the testing regimen and that test scores would no longer be a graduation requirement. Garfield teacher Jesse Hagopian says: “This movement is just beginning. It’s going to spread from school to school to school.” If it does, much of the credit should go to the courageous boycott initiated by Hagopian and his fellow teachers.
MOST VALUABLE BUDGET PLAN: Bernie Sanders’s Progressive Budget Blueprint
When the Vermont senator joined the select Senate and House budget committee after the GOP-led government shutdown, he did so as a steadfast opponent of cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But Sanders went further, producing a progressive budget blueprint that seeks to shift the debate from austerity and toward fairness. The Sanders budget would crack down on offshore tax shelters as part of a strategy to reduce the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade; tax capital gains and dividends in the same way we tax salaries and wages to raise over $500 billion; and repeal Bush’s tax cuts for the rich to reduce the deficit by $400 billion. It would raise hundreds of billions more by establishing a progressive estate tax; ending breaks and subsidies for big oil, gas and coal companies; and initiating a Wall Street speculation fee on the sale and purchase of credit default swaps, derivatives, stock options and futures. “When we are experiencing more wealth and income inequality than at any time since the 1920s, and when Wall Street and large corporations are enjoying record-breaking profits, I believe that we should be asking the very wealthiest people in this country to start paying their fair share,” says Sanders.
MOST VALUABLE PROGRAM: NPA’s Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy
It’s easy for activists to be so focused on day-to-day struggles against abuses of power that they never get around to saying what they are for. But National People’s Action, the network of grassroots organizations involved in direct-action challenges to economic and racial injustice, took the time in 2013 to consult economic fairness, civil rights and immigrant rights campaigners and develop a plan to “reimagine what’s possible.” With its focus on expanding democracy, the agenda charts a course toward a “just economy” with more public ownership and community control of capital. NPA’s agenda does not just attack “too big to fail” banking; it proposes moving money to infrastructure banks and state banks that invest in communities and people.
MOST VALUABLE EDUCATION OF CONGRESS: PDA’s “Letter Drops”
Working with Food & Water Watch (on fracking), Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (on the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and US Labor Against the War (on intervention and Pentagon spending), Progressive Democrats of America has organized monthly “Educate Congress” interventions. Activists have dropped by as many as 250 congressional district offices in a single day to deliver letters and talk with representatives and staffers. “Instead of lobbyists, members of Congress are hearing from constituents who want to talk about economic and social justice, environmental justice and peace,” says PDA director Tim Carpenter.
MOST VALUABLE PROTEST: Mountain Moral Monday
When up to 10,000 North Carolinians rallied August 5 on Mountain Moral Monday in Asheville, the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, announced: “This is no momentary hyperventilation and liberal screaming match. This is a movement.” The protests against legislative attacks on voting rights, public education and programs for low-income families began last spring at the state Capitol in Raleigh. But when the GOP-controlled legislature adjourned, the massive rally in Asheville signaled that the movement had spread. Barber declared that “from the mountains to the coast,” there is a movement for “a new South, a new North Carolina and a new future.”
MOST VALUABLE TRANSLATION OF THE POPE’S MESSAGE: Network
Pope Francis is Time’s “Person of the Year.” Why? Mainly because he’s reminded Catholics—and everyone else—not only of a duty to the poor, but of how the “tyranny of capitalism” impedes that duty. Now the question is whether the pope’s high-minded statements will translate into action. Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby, is trying to make the connection. The group that provided critical support for healthcare reform and challenged Paul Ryan’s budgets with its “Nuns on the Bus” tour issued a December appeal for Americans to “Join with Pope Francis to Pray and Act for an End to Hunger.” Network’s specific demand was that Congress protect food stamp funding. The broader message was a call for politicians to “prioritize people who are most vulnerable in our nation, remembering that the measure of our nation’s greatness is how we treat those who are struggling.”
MOST VALUABLE STATE INITIATIVE: Vermont’s Single-Payer Experiment
As everyone else wrangled over even the mildest Affordable Care Act reforms, Governor Peter Shumlin and his legislative allies were busy preparing a single-payer system for Vermont. Yes, they worked with federal officials to set up the Vermont Health Connect exchange as part of the ACA. But they also allocated resources to study development of a state-based single-payer system and prepared to seek the federal waiver required to implement it in 2017. It isn’t all studies and waivers, however; Shumlin is also building a constituency for what he calls “the most ambitious policy lift in Vermont history,” vowing “to gear up our staff and engage Vermonters from all walks of life.”
MOST VALUABLE MUSICAL PARTNERSHIP: Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello
When Springsteen added the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist to his touring band, two great rockers with progressive politics started making great music together. In November, Springsteen released a fabulous cover of the Havalinas’ “High Hopes” (“I wanna have some kids / I wanna look in their eyes and know they’ll stand a chance…”), crediting “Tom and his guitar” as “my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level.” Springsteen’s next album will have a political edge befitting the partnership; among the tracks is a new version of “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song about racial division and violence that he began dedicating to Trayvon Martin in his stage shows.
MOST VALUABLE BOOK: Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error
Yes, she really did serve as an assistant education secretary for George H.W. Bush, and yes, she once supported George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” But Ravitch refuses to cling to failed strategies, as she explains in her groundbreaking new book, subtitled The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Driven by experience and data, she demolishes the argument that rigid requirements and punishments will make schools better. Indeed, she argues, these schemes too frequently serve the interests of misguided foundations, ideologically driven billionaires and Wall Street speculators more interested in privatizing public education—with some of them profiting in the process—than in helping children, parents and communities. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis says, “Diane is a fierce warrior against the so-called reformers whose ideology exacerbates the problems of poverty and inequity.”
MOST VALUABLE RADIO PROGRAM: The Marc Steiner Show
No one who has listened to veteran activist Marc Steiner’s morning show on Morgan State University’s WEAA can figure out why this guy hasn’t gone national. Yet Steiner is so into his hometown of Baltimore that it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else. This is what public affairs radio should be: informed, nuanced, interested in a range of opinions, yet clear and unequivocal in its passion for democracy and social justice. Steiner is exceptionally well prepared for every interview, determined to foster dialogue and so respected that state and national political figures are frequent guests. What makes his show remarkable, however, is Steiner’s respect for his listeners. He knows they will engage with discussions about poverty in Baltimore and poverty in Palestine, about the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And the Peabody Award–winning broadcaster’s “Day in History” review explores the cultural and political landscape with thrilling depth and reach.
MOST VALUABLE TV COVERAGE: Democracy Now! on Syria
When President Obama started talking about launching airstrikes, Amy Goodman, Juan González and the DN! team aired shows that highlighted the voices of Syrians, giving a human face to stories from inside the country. They focused on what international leaders were saying long before Vladimir Putin argued in a New York Times op-ed that airstrikes would undermine the UN. They opened up deep discussions about America’s role in the world with the likes of historian Andrew Bacevich—who appeared with Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. And they aired dissent from Americans like Representative Alan Grayson, who said: “I’m very disturbed by this general idea…that every time we see something bad in the world, we should bomb it.” That dissent—highlighted by a handful of other radio and cable TV hosts like Ed Schultz and Thom Hartmann—was in tune with the American people, and the seriousness with which it was presented added credibility to the calls for an alternative to war.
MOST VALUABLE NEWSPAPER: The Stranger
Newspaper endorsements aren’t supposed to matter much in our digital age. But papers that take bold stands and back them up with all they’ve got can still have a dramatic impact. When The Stranger, a news and culture weekly that bills itself as “Seattle’s Only Newspaper,” backed socialist Kshama Sawant’s successful campaign for a citywide Council seat, it went all in, featuring the community college professor and Occupy Seattle activist on the cover and challenging the assumption that radicals can’t win. “If you are still laughing at the electoral prospects of Socialist Alternative Party city council candidate Kshama Sawant, the joke is on you. Sawant is the real deal. She kicks ass. And she could actually win in November,” read one piece, while another was subtitled “Why You Must Vote for a Real, Genuine Socialist.” Sawant ran a smart campaign that focused on her call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but The Stranger’s full-frontal assault on politics as usual was a reminder that there are still newspapers—The San Francisco Bay Guardian is another—that can shake up the status quo.