15 Wins for the Progressive Movement in 2013

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Demonstrators protesting for $15/hour wages and proper treatment for fast-food workers march in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Demonstrators protesting low wages and improper treatment for fast-food workers march in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

In politics, as in sports, you can’t win ‘em all. With a divided government and a House of Representatives firmly in the control of tea partiers, it was a tough year for progressives in Washington – one marked by the painful cuts of sequestration and austerity’s continued drag on an already anemic recovery.

But there were also some victories for progressives in 2013, especially in state and local politics. While Washington was stuck in the grip of the politics of obstruction, grass-roots activists did their part, scoring some major wins for economic justice, civil liberties and democracy.

As we near the end of the year, here are some of the biggest progressive wins we saw. They’re in no particular order, but you can rank them in the comments.

1. Wounding ALEC …  

They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that proved true this year as activists continued to expose the previously shadowy workings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The group took a big hit in 2012 when controversy over Florida’s Shoot First law, also known as “stand your ground,” peaked after the killing of Trayvon Martin and ALEC’s fingerprints on the legislation came to light. ALEC’s hand in pushing voter disenfranchisement laws was also revealed before the 2012 election. And earlier this year, ALEC got more bad press for pushing model legislation that would require science teachers to include pseudoscientific rebuttals to the data on climate change in their curricula.

While ALEC’s corporate sponsors were happy to back the group’s efforts to secure lower taxes and less regulation, they didn’t want to share the heat associated with these other issues. State lawmakers who had enjoyed ALEC’s luxurious junkets also came under pressure to cut ties with the organization. As a result, The Guardian reported that, “by Alec’s own reckoning the network has lost almost 400 state legislators from its membership over the past two years, as well as more than 60 corporations that form the core of its funding. In the first six months of this year it suffered a hole in its budget of more than a third of its projected income.”

2. Love wins …

Last New Year’s Eve, gay Americans could legally marry in 10 states. When the ball drops this year, they’ll have that right in 18 states.

2013 also saw the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) overturned by the Supreme Court, a victory that was years in the making.

3. Progressive cities …

In New York City and Los Angeles – two of the most influential cities in the world – unapologetically populist candidates backed by grass-roots community groups organized labor and scored decisive wins over more centrist rivals.

These weren’t partisan battles – in LA, two Democrats, Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, made it through the runoff to face each other in the final election, and in New York, the real battle was in the Democratic primary as polls showed that any of the three leading Dems would have beaten Republican Joe Lhota in the general election.

They were contests of ideas. Garcetti ran a campaign focused on restoring public services that had been cut and attacking Greuel for relying on heavy spending by outside groups. Greuel, who had earned plaudits from the Chamber of Commerce for slashing corporate taxes in LA as councilwoman, lost to Garcetti by eight points.

In New York, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio rose from the bottom of the pack to win the nomination – and then trounce Lhota – by relentlessly campaigning against the city’s sky-high levels of inequality. He also condemned the NYPD’s controversial ‘stop-and-frisk’ policies and promised reform. Democratic City Council President Christine Quinn, outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s preferred successor and the front-runner going into the race, had wounded her reputation by blocking paid sick leave legislation – while raking in contributions from business groups opposed to the measure – and came in third in the primary. Peter Dreier and John Atlas wrote in The Nation that de Blasio’s victory wouldn’t have been possible without years of progressive grass-roots organizing in the City that Never Sleeps.

4. Stop-and-Frisk checked …

Even before the mayoral race, community groups and civil libertarians had made real progress reining in what they viewed as the NYPD’s rampant racial profiling. Not only did they shine a light on the practice, with the help of excellent reporting from NYC’s NPR affiliate, but they also helped win passage of the Community Safety Act, which established a civil liberties watchdog for the NYPD and made it easier to sue the department for incidents of racial profiling. In August, the City Council overrode Michael Bloomberg’s veto of the law.

5. Predatory lending checked …

In November, regulators enacted tough restrictions on predatory lending by  banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Sally Kohn reported that the rules were largely the fruit of a two-year campaign by National People’s Action, “a national network of grass-roots organizations with more than 200 organizers in cities and states across the country.”

6. People got raises … and sick days

On January 1, 2014, working people in 13 states will see their minimum wages increase, according to the National Employment Law Project.

New Jersey not only raised its minimum wage by a dollar, but its citizens also approved a constitutional amendment that ties future hikes to the rate of inflation. Connecticut is raising its minimum to $9 per hour by 2015. A regional block consisting of Washington, DC, and two of its suburban counties in suburban Maryland are on the cusp of enacting an $11.50 living wage that will cover 2.5 million residents.  In Massachusetts, the state Senate approved a measure that will enact a living wage of $11 per hour over the next two years – and double the minimum for tipped workers. The Assembly is expected to take up the bill next year. And in Sea-Tac, Wash., voters narrowly approved a $15 wage that is expected to be matched by Seattle next year.

Also this year, NYC and Portland, Ore., became the fifth and sixth major cities to require employers to offer workers paid sick days. Washington, DC, will soon become the seventh. And the fight continues: According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “legislators and advocates continue to advance proposals in Congress and about 20 other states and cities.”

7. Larry Summers derailed …

Progressive Democrats in the Senate, led by Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Jeff Merkeley (Ore.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) — and pressure from reform-minded activists — forced Larry Summers to withdraw his nomination for Federal Reserve chairman in favor of Janet Yellen, who was generally expected to be much tougher in terms of regulating Wall Street.

Summers, who served as Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary before a controversial tenure as president of Harvard University, was widely respected for his knowledge and backed by President Obama. But he was also associated with financial deregulation in the 1990s, had pushed a tepid response to the 2008 crisis and helped keep millions of homeowners underwater by refusing to endorse allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce what struggling homeowners owed to their lenders.

8. Fili-busted …

After facing unprecedented obstruction that ground the institution to a halt, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) finally killed the filibuster for most executive branch nominations. As CNN noted, a handful of progressive bloggers, led by Daily Kos writer David Waldman, deserve a huge amount of credit for the change, having spent eight years writing about and organizing around the issue.

9. Gun safety …

Bizarrely, some states and localities responded to the nightmarish shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School by loosening restrictions on firearms. But that doesn’t negate the fact that, as Mother Jones reported, “41 new laws in 22 states made it harder for people to own guns, hard for people to carry them in public and enhanced the government’s ability to track guns.”  Seven states passed legislation requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.

10. A march to war was stopped …

Progressives can’t take all of the credit for blocking the Obama administration’s path to entering Syria’s bloody civil war, but they deserve a good amount of it. Highly energetic opposition from the American left let Democrats in Congress know that they would pay a price if they uncritically supported the president’s planned attack.

11. Domestic workers got some dignity …

This year, Hawaii and California became the second and third states to enact a bill of rights law for domestic workers (New York led the way in 2010). The laws guarantee workers overtime pay and some days off and offer protections against sexual abuse and other workplace violations.

12. A global fight in a Washington county…

Whatcom County elections aren’t usually a subject of national attention. But this year, a slate of four progressive candidates for the county council, backed by grass-roots activists and environmental groups, beat back a group of business-backed rivals. As Joel Connelly reported for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the results of the race will likely kill the development of the massive, $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would export as much as 48 million tons of climate-changing coal to China every year.

13. California expands access to reproductive health care …

While many red states were passing overly burdensome regulations on abortion providers – which pro-choice activists say amount to “back door” bans on the procedure – California went the other way. A law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October permits more health care providers — trained nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurse midwives – to perform abortions in the first trimester. According to Washington Post health reporter Sarah Kliff, it was the first time a state had expanded abortion access since 2006.

14. Homeowners got some protection against foreclosures …

Homeowners’ bill of rights legislation passed in Minnesota and Nevada and went into effect in California this year.  Among other protections, these laws banned so-called “dual-tracking,” when lenders foreclose on a homeowner who has an application pending for a loan modification. During the first month the law was in effect in Nevada, foreclosure-related filings fell by almost 40 percent.

15. Immigrant rights activists win a couple in Connecticut …

If immigration reform isn’t dead in the nation’s capitol, it’s gravely ill and on life support. But in Connecticut and California, lawmakers decided that public safety was more important than anti-immigrant sentiment. Those states joined a growing number that allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses after passing a background check and the necessary written tests and driving exams.

Connecticut also passed the TRUST Act, which gives law enforcement officers discretion regarding whether or not to hold individuals for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The intent of the law is to encourage the undocumented to report crimes and cooperate with police without fear of deportation.


Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Sheila Lauder

    So much of this is heartening. And how nice to read of such positive accomplishments.

  • Anonymous

    Great piece, and great news!!

  • Justin King

    Much of this news is negated with misinformation from Fox News.
    Obama admin needs to finally step-up through Carney’s press conferences, and start to take Ed Henry & others apart.
    Why does Carney and others in this admin put-up with Fox ??
    Being TOO ALOOF can beat you.

  • Steve Purnell

    GOOD NEWS…. thanks to everyone that made this happen, great story to top the year off.

  • David Farrar

    I have finally decided that our biggest mistake was to question the inherent wisdom of the founders and framers of the US Constitution in adopting the 17th Amendment in 1913. We should have never done that.

    Democracy, as it turns out, was our biggest mistake.

    ex animo

  • Terence

    No War Of Independence. Be like Australia, Canada, New Zealand et al.

  • Jeff Blanks

    Um, exactly *how*??

  • Anonymous

    Only $15 dollars an hour minimum wage?!? Pikers. Let’s really cure poverty and make the minimum wage $100 an hour! Why not? Everyone progressive knows that minimum wage hikes don’t cause additional unemployment. That’s just reactionary, folks.

    SInce the Federal Reserve System has created several tens of trillions of new dollars for banksters and plutocrats to spend (making the amount of money spent by the Federal government irrelevant by comparison),… why not just repeal the currency counterfeiting laws and let everyone (especially poor folks who really do need the help) create new money to spend out of thin air. If it’s okay for billionaires,… why not for you and me? What does it mean to ‘pay back’ money that was created out of thin air anyway? When the Federal Reserve System creates new money for the government to spend,… why do they get to charge new interest on it besides? Maybe an even better idea would be to return to the people the common law right to specify gold and/or silver in payment of private debt,… rather than having no choice in accepting the government’s constantly depreciating fiat currencies.

    Just curious here,… but what happened to all those anti-war progressive war protesters who stayed outside the White House for the eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration, when Obama got elected? Are dead children less precious when killed by Progressive Presidents than by Neo-cons? Do Progressives support whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden? All I hear are crickets.

  • sawdust

    During America’s Great Depression, created by the same crooked Wall Street we suffer now, people found many ways to make money and one was the “flea circus”. A guy would train fleas to jump at different heights by placing them under different sized glass jars limiting the fleas jump. Soon, a flea that could easily jump 15′, would learn to jump only to the height of the jar.

    “We the people…” have to stop limiting what is our own right. The very notion of a “minimum wage” is insulting. It is a conditioning unworthy of consideration. Stop asking and start demanding equality and nothing less.

  • David Farrar

    Liberty is the easiest lost in a democracy. All it takes is a mislead electorate.

    ex animo

  • Jeff Blanks

    Would you prefer a system where the people were *not* the ultimate source of authority? The law? Who will institute the law? Who will choose the people who institute the law? Who shall they answer to if not the people in general?

  • Jeff Blanks

    Well, exact equality for everyone just isn’t happening. I mean, we do generally want to create some sort of incentive, and that can’t happen when all wages are exactly equal. If you’re not talking about that, what are you talking about?

  • Jeff Blanks

    You’re not listening very hard, are you??

  • David Farrar

    No one is talking about the ultimate source of authority, only the last source. But far more importantly, so did the founders, framers and ratifiers of the US Const.

    ex animo

  • Anonymous

    What’s so progressive about shielding unauthorized foreign nationals from accountability and repatriation?

  • Jeff Blanks

    You mean the guys who put “WE THE PEOPLE” in really big letters at the very head of their document? *Those* founders and framers?? (BTW, “ultimate” is derived from a Latin word meaning “last”. What do you mean by “the last source”?)

    And for that matter, “so did” they *what*?? And how will a *misled* electorate result in the loss of liberty? Do you mean things like the PATRIOT Act?? You still haven’t answered any of my questions. What system of government do you prefer?