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The Year of the Populist Woman

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With the middle class being beaten down, Wall Street and the top 1 percent still riding way too high, the Occupy and progressive movements finding new ways to make economic issues resonate in the media, a left-of-center populism is clearly on the rise. Even the famously restrained and centrist President Obama is kicking some serious populist ass. (Did you see the speech to the UAW he delivered on Tuesday? Amazing. I think it is my favorite Obama speech ever.)

One of the most interesting trends I am observing about 2012 era economic populism, though, is how much of it is being carried by women candidates. The original Populist movement back in the 1890s had some great women leaders like Mary Elizabeth Lease and Mother Jones, but in more recent decades most of the politicians one tends to think of as populists have been men -- people like Jim Hightower, Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone, Jesse Jackson, John Edwards, Brian Schweitzer and Sherrod Brown, for example. In this election cycle, though, the number of terrific economic populists who are women candidates is a new trend. There are a bunch of them in the House (including Darcy Burner in Washington, Sue Thorn in West Virginia, and Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio), but I'll just focus on the Senate today.

We can start of course with the inimitable Elizabeth Warren. She came on the national radar screen after being appointed by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to be the chair of the TARP oversight board, and she thrilled people by doing the unthinkable: she actually held officials from both political parties and the big Wall Street banks accountable. She has shown an uncanny ability to articulate in an understandable way how Wall Street messed up the economy, and is the most genuine and passionate advocate for the middle class that this country has seen in years. Full disclosure: she is a dear friend, so I am admittedly biased, but I think I speak for most progressives in saying she is one of the most exciting candidates for public office we have ever had run.

Here's the deal, though: as good as Warren is, some of these other women candidates running for Senate this year, while not as well known, are in the same league as her. Take Tammy Baldwin, for example, one of the great, unsung workhorse heroes of the House. She has quietly built a reputation as a tremendously effective fighter on one progressive issue after another, and has been a true leader on economic issues. For example, it was Baldwin who took the lead in sponsoring a resolution in the House arguing against a weak settlement with the big banks on robo-signing fraud at a time when the issue was hardly on the radar screen for most members of Congress. With the Scott Walker and state Senate recall elections and Baldwin's Senate race (along with being an important target state for Obama and having some other key races up and down the ballot), Wisconsin is ground zero for trying to win progressive victories this year.

Another likely Senate candidate with the news of Olympia Snowe's retirement is Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. I have known Pingree since the mid-1990s when she was the state Senate Majority leader, and she has been a strong progressive leader throughout her career, including a stint as president of Common Cause before she ran for Congress. She will run a strongly populist progressive race going after the wealthy corporate special interests that are strangling the economy, and will be a tremendous advocate for the working class voters in Maine who have been hammered by this economy.

Another candidate that I am very excited about is Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Being an old-school Midwestern populist from Nebraska, I love small state races like this one where the costs are cheap and person-to-person campaigning is the single most important factor. Heitkamp is a serious populist who took on the tobacco industry and other big business interests as attorney general. She is far more like Byron Dorgan, the great North Dakota populist who retired in 2010, who had led the fight against the repeal of Glass-Steagall and for eliminating corporate tax loopholes, than she is like Kent Conrad, who is a decidedly more pro-corporate Senator.

In the Hawaii Senate race, I hear great things about Mazie Hirono. Hawaii's politics are very different culturally from those on the mainland, so traditional heartland populist language isn't always in vogue, but Hirono is clearly running as an unabashed progressive on a wide range of economic issues, and has established herself as the clear front runner in both the primary and general elections.

Finally, in Nevada, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley is running a populist race for Senate against far right-wing Congressman Dean Heller, whose vicious attacks on policies like the DREAM Act put him in a category with Sharron Angle. Berkley is also into taking on the big banks to help the 60 percent of Nevada homeowners whose mortgages are underwater. She is putting the fight for homeowners and strong, comprehensive immigration reform at the center of her campaign. And there is no one more quintessentially Vegas than Berkley, who knows and loves her hometown and the people in it with a passion.

These six women are all great candidates, and all are running on classically populist themes in talking about the economy. Elizabeth Warren has gotten most of the attention, and no one could be more excited about her race than me, but these other races are important as well. Baldwin would be the best senator Wisconsin ever elected, even better than Russ Feingold in my view because of her effectiveness as a legislator. Pingree would immediately vault to a leadership position on the money in politics issue, which with Feingold gone needs a strong Senate leader. Heitkamp would bring back some much needed populism from the plains states, Hirono would be the most progressive senator Hawaii ever had, and Berkley would bring passion to the fight for Wall Street accountability on housing. Each of the six are strong candidates, either ahead in the polling or well within range of pulling out a win.

If all or even most of this class of women senators were to win in 2012, it would be historic, easily the highest quality group of new women senators ever. Progressives should do everything we can to rally behind them and help carry them to victory.

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