05/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Courage of Our Convictions

My grandparents came to America in the first half of the last century. They came without any money or political connections. They came for the same reason so many people do -- to create a better life for themselves and their children.

My father's parents opened a small grocery store in Schenectady, New York; they lived in an apartment above it while my dad was growing up. Hundreds of fellow immigrants found their way to Romanoff's Delicatessen. My grandfather Herman (a softer touch than his wife Annie) fed many customers for free during the war.

My mother's parents moved to Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. My grandmother Rose worked as a bookkeeper and a secretary. She also found time to raise money for Project Hope, whose ships sent doctors -- including my grandfather Ben -- to treat children around the world. Dr. Ben opened a medical practice in the poorest part of town. I remember the big black bag he used to carry as he made house calls. The people he treated often couldn't afford to pay him with cash, so they would offer him food instead, or sometimes just their thanks.

My grandparents are gone now, but their memory shapes my life every day. They inspired my mother to become a social worker. They've inspired my work as well -- from the Southern Poverty Law Center to a state civil rights agency to the villages of Central America.

I first ran for the state legislature in 2000. I served there for eight years, taking up causes that needed a champion. I fought for kids in rural Colorado, so that they could go to school in buildings where the roof wasn't caving in and the floorboards weren't rotting. I fought for people with mental illness, so that their diseases wouldn't condemn them to the shadows of an underpass or a prison cell or a cemetery. I fought for the victims of domestic violence, so that they wouldn't have to forfeit their jobs or spend every night in hiding, in fear of a predator who might find out where they lived.

My colleagues elected me as minority leader in 2003 and as speaker of the House in 2005. I led the first Democratic majority in 30 years and our first back-to-back majorities in more than 40 years. I authored an Economic Recovery Plan and helped build the widest coalition in modern memory to pass it. I put together the most significant investment in school construction in state history.

I'm proud of the progress we made in Colorado. But the problems that afflict us today are too broad and too deep for a state to solve on its own. Too many Americans are losing their jobs or watching their savings slip away. Too many are paying too much for health insurance that covers too little, and too many don't have any coverage at all. And too many nations, including our own, are unable to break their addiction to fossil fuel.

Unfortunately, Washington has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the industries it's supposed to be regulating. Too many politicians seem more interested in their own job security than in ours. Too many have become seduced by the special interests that bankroll their campaigns.

That's why some of the biggest gamblers in the world, the speculators on Wall Street, not only jeopardized our pensions and capsized our economy, they got rewarded with taxpayer-funded bonuses. That's why the nation's largest insurers and pharmaceutical companies have succeeded in protecting their profits, at our expense. And that's why polluters continue to desecrate our environment, disrupt our climate, and gut the laws that might stop them.

We can do better. We can invest in training and education, instead of leveraging our economy on financial gimmicks and foreign debt. We can cut the cost of health care and bring basic coverage within reach of every American, so that medical expenses no longer eat up our savings or force us into bankruptcy or send us to an early grave. And we can make our country less reliant on foreign oil, so that we no longer have to spill our blood or spoil our skies in order to power our planet.

None of these reforms will come to pass until we free Congress from the grip of its corporate contributors. I refuse to accept money from special-interest groups. And I will turn down federal health benefits until every citizen can get coverage.

Americans are not short on conviction. What we need are leaders with the courage to match.

To join our cause or learn more, please visit I look forward to sharing more thoughts in the months ahead -- and to hearing yours.