Baran: Two leaders to emulate

Last week saw Congressional Democrats make several sad and unfortunate compromises in the effort to pass President Obama’s urgent economic stimulus package.

After nearly every Republican in Congress refused to support the bill, Democrats had to bargain with three Republicans to win enough votes for passage of the bill. They even appointed them to the Senate’s negotiating committee with the House. In the process, Americans lost many important provisions that were in the original package President Obama proposed. All this led Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to tell CNN that he feared the stimulus package “will be enough to slow but not stop our descent into a real depression.”

In particular, the huge cut in emergency funding for states will have a devastating impact on communities across the country, as states are forced to cut back vital social services. We are seeing that play out right here in Connecticut, as Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposes merging or eliminating 23 state agencies.

So with our hopes for change from Washington being impeded by the Republicans — and by some Democrats not willing to push them harder — it’s time we think more about how we’re all going to make change possible and work our way out of these times of economic crisis.

As I wrote two weeks ago, we need to elect leaders at every level of government — from the Board of Aldermen in New Haven on up — who have been engaged in their communities and understand the challenges we face, and who are thinking in big, bold ways about how government can make people’s lives better. Fortunately, in other parts of the country two such leaders have stepped forward. Neither are career politicians; both are lifelong activists, inspiring examples of the change that we continue to need.

In Chicago, labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan is running for the open Congressional seat vacated by President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Geoghegan has fought for working people for over 30 years, even as the law’s protections and our social safety net have shrunk more and more. Unlike other candidates in the race, Geoghegan is calling for a new vision of government as a guarantor of the fundamental economic security of every American from birth to death. He wants, among other things, to overhaul the pension and Social Security systems to avoid what seems to be on the horizon: the complete collapse of our already broken retirement system.

Students for a New American Politics PAC, of which I am the executive director, has endorsed Geoghegan’s candidacy and funded a full-time field organizer along with some students in Chicago to work for him. In addition, students here on campus are mobilizing to help Geoghegan in the weeks leading up to the election on March 3.

In New Orleans, fair housing advocate James Perry has begun a bid for mayor. Perry — who will be on campus later this week for a Master’s Tea — has worked on housing issues in the city since before Katrina, though his work didn’t stop then, and his involvement in the recovery efforts gives him a unique perspective on what has happened since the storm. He has testified in front of Congress numerous times and led fights to provide housing to all New Orleans residents.

He’s now running for mayor to be a strong partner for President Obama in rebuilding New Orleans. And he’s hoping to send a message that even when faced with the hardest of challenges, both natural and man-made, we can overcome and stand up for the most vulnerable in our society while encouraging new and innovative best practices for cities across the country.

Let’s hope more leaders like Tom Geoghegan and James Perry continue to step forward to challenge our paradigms and help us see the possibilities of government with fresh eyes — and to take action in our own community — in these extraordinarily difficult yet hope-filled times.

Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.

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