What a difference a year makes! Last year The Nation’s Honor Roll recognized courageous, if often lonely, battlers against an austerity agenda, an ascendant Tea Party and a Republican electoral wave that had put Democrats, working folks and the unions that represent them on the defensive nationwide. This year we celebrate the remarkable movements that have arisen not just to stem the conservative tide but to build a new vision of progressivism for the twenty-first century. How much has changed? As 2011 finished, even Barack Obama was sounding populist themes. And progressives were organizing, fighting and winning critical battles on the streets, in the polling places and in the media. The events of 2011 did not transform America. But they did confirm that millions of Americans are ready to fight for the 99 percent.
MOST VALUABLE SENATOR: Sherrod Brown
Faced with what was supposed to be a tough re-election race in 2012, Brown could have taken the easy way out when Ohio Governor John Kasich signed legislation attacking the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Instead, Brown leapt into the fight, speaking and rallying with the workers of Ohio and even turning what had been his campaign website into a vehicle for the movement to overturn the antilabor law. It was a gutsy move, but it paid off. Brown’s poll numbers soared as Kasich’s plummeted. Brown threw himself into the successful campaign to overturn Ohio’s law in a November referendum. At the same time, he was fighting in Washington against flawed free-trade deals that shutter US factories while failing to bring prosperity to foreign lands. Brown, a leader in the push to address poverty and disease in developing countries, is anything but an isolationist. He’s an internationalist who understands the need for global resistance to policies that privilege corporations over workers from Cleveland to Chongqing. In 2011 he linked those struggles more effectively than any other senator.
MOST VALUABLE REPRESENTATIVE: Raúl Grijalva
Few members of the House have been so consistently progressive as Arizona Democrat Grijalva, who has a history of challenging Republican, and Democratic, administrations on issues of economic justice, civil rights, and war and peace. Grijalva made headlines when—in the face of death threats—he opposed Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant laws. He has been just as outspoken at the federal level, working closely with his Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair, Keith Ellison, against the GOP austerity agenda while prodding the Obama administration to support a dramatically bolder jobs agenda. Grijalva’s no-punches-pulled progressivism is all the more impressive because he represents a district where in 2010 he faced a serious re-election fight. He saw off that challenge, proving that even in the toughest years it is possible, perhaps even necessary, to run left to win.
MOST VALUABLE STATE SENATOR: Nina Turner
“An apology! An apology! I want an apology!” announced Turner, a Cleveland Democrat, as thousands cheered the defeat of Governor Kasich’s antilabor legislation. Appearing on Ed Schultz’s MSNBC broadcast from Columbus on the night of Ohio’s historic November 8 vote, Turner was every bit as energetic and every bit as unyielding as she had been throughout the long campaign to defend the rights of public sector workers. Kasich “owes Ohioans an apology for not working on the No. 1 issue, which is jobs!” said Turner. While many Washington representatives disappointed in 2011, state legislators stepped up as champions for labor rights, the public sector and economic justice. Turner wasn’t the only smart, passionate legislator to take the national stage, but the breadth of her agenda stood out. As she was standing up for workers’ rights, Turner was also taking the lead on an array of economic development, voting rights and social justice issues.