Nothing glazes the eye like a fundraising dinner. No matter how noble the cause, it is an effort for those who are professionally busy and short of leisure time. But occasionally, one will blaze up into something demanding our full attention.
So it was last week when Demos, the progressive think tank, held its annual hoo-hah in New York City (full disclosure: I'm a Senior Fellow at Demos). It's a worthy organization, which is a subject for a different time. What was striking were the speeches of the three honorees.
Like all Americans, my observations of public issues and public people are filtered through the print and electronic media. What made this event so eye-opening was how clearly the honorees laid out the limitations and failures of our political system and replaced them with a tough-minded but humane vision of America's future. What inevitably comes across TV screens and printed pages as muddy and remote was given a sparkling clarity by an unlikely trio of honorees. Demos honored Republican former FDIC chief Sheila Bair, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance Ai-Jen Poo, and United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard. You shoulda been there.
Shelia Bair, Republican former FDIC chief, is the proverbial tough cookie, Republican maverick in the tradition of New York's Charlie Goodell, Vermont's George Aiken, or Connecticut's Lowell Weicker. She stood right up during recent mortgage and banking crises and made the case for government's role protecting the economy and citizenry. Using anecdotes from her experience banging heads with out-of-touch mortgage bankers, Bair made you understand how power works in a democracy, about when you pound the table and when you take what you can get. By looking and listening at the event, you grasped what a smart, committed government regulator can mean to a decent society. It was funny, and a polite reminder about the possibilities of bipartisanship and competence in public life.
Ai-Jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance is not a tough cookie, or so it would seem. She's gracious and warm-hearted. Do not mistake that for the absence of a steel core of convictions. She saw the kind of historical injustice the left forced upon the American conscience, organized around it, and created an organization of domestic workers that fights for the kind of wages and conditions that other Americans take for granted. They were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act as FDR's concession to Southern Senators, and no one gave a damn enough to right that wrong to this day. The systematic mistreatment of those who raise American families, clean American homes, and care for sick Americans was an accomplished fact. She pounded no table, nor raised her voice, nor accused with anger. She proclaimed the common dignity of people and of work. It was those skills and values that guided the New York Legislature into enacting the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (Full disclosure 2: I served in the New York Assembly and was active in the successful vote). The spirits of Jane Adams and Joe Hill hovered above the podium when she spoke.
Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President, isn't a tough cookie, either: He's a steel hammer. A labor leader in the tradition of John L. Lewis, he gives no quarter nor asks for any. In a tub-thumping, finger-pointing, outrage-demanding, energy-filled six minutes, he ran the litany of today's absurdities from Florida vote suppression to corporate dominance of the Wisconsin recall election to the erosion of the middle class. He lit up the room. Lest you think he lacks a plan, note that Gerard has begun to affiliate the Steelworkers with unions across the world from Mexico to Europe. The only way to confront the power of multi-national corporations is a multi-national union, says Leo. Joe Hill stayed for his speech as well.
The final touch was the benediction offered by Demos head Miles Rapoport, the former Connecticut Secretary of the State and long-time progressive. In a disarming and understated speech Rapoport offered hope that jobs numbers and Fox News aside, the right-wing narrative that has shaped American politics for 30 years is ending and that people like Bair, Poo, and Gerard are, to mix a metaphor, concrete examples of the blooming movements that will replace it. Those are my own politics to be sure, and I hope he's right.
But even more powerful than his speech was the chance to watch first-hand the people who are committed to a society of justice and liberty, the kind that has receded in American politics, that often is reduced to slogans by the chattering class, but which remains America's best hope. It was an evening well spent.