Will this progressive movement die?

You may have noticed a bit of blog chatter last week about a woman named Maria Leavey, who died suddenly of a heart problem.  While you may not have known her, you do know of someone like her, because Maria was the person who just made stuff work.  Go read Cenk at the Huffington Post to get a sense of her warmth and generosity of spirit.  What I want to do is try to explain why her death is important to the progressive movement, and to all of you.  Here's her obit in the Washington Post.

Maria Leavey, a behind-the-scenes media force for liberal causes who had an uncanny ability to bring opinion makers together with Washington's political elite, died of heart disease Dec. 31 at her apartment in Arlington. On Jan. 1 she would have turned 53.

Ms. Leavey arrived in Washington in 1993 but, unlike other well-placed media figures, she never held a staff position with a major newspaper, television or radio outlet. Nonetheless, while working out of a small apartment in Crystal City with an outmoded computer, she managed to build contacts at the highest ranks of Washington's political circles...

It wasn't always clear how Ms. Leavey became so well connected, since she worked independently and had no money to spread around. Lacking a full-time job, she had no health insurance.

"If I needed to talk to somebody in the Senate, she could put me in touch," said Joe Conason, a columnist with the New York Observer. "She actually knew these guys very well."

"I knew Maria Leavey as my friend," Reid said in a statement. "With her total selflessness and her humble commitment to the common good, Maria's life stands as an example for us all."

Maria didn't seek attention or credit, she was in politics because she was a liberal and believed in our movement.  She did favors for anyone who asked, and talked to liberal activists and Senators with an equal amount of respect.  That's how she became immensely well-connected, by treating all people well and working selflessly to help advance liberal ideas.  She knew and 'got' radio and blogs in a way that few insiders did - her death has hit the liberal radio circuit very hard.  Few organizations and groups paid Maria, and she didn't have health insurance.  For instance, the Democracy Alliance, that group of wealthy progressives, sought her help and advice constantly, and she got almost nothing back in return.

That lack of health insurance is probably why she died, suddenly, at age 53.  Her family had a prior history of heart problems, but I assume she couldn't get the regular check-ups that are necessary in such a situation. Maria wasn't the type of person who would demand something for herself; she just sacrificed rather than put her allies in an uncomfortable situation. This was the case even with health insurance. She had many invaluable skills, but getting progressives to value her wasn't one of them.

It is the disrespect towards people like Maria, a willingness to toss our best allies aside like unnecessary conveniences, that is our biggest moral flaw.  I don't know if the new progressive movement matters, or if we're going to succeed.  But what is very clear is that what we are doing is built on the willingness of people to sacrifice their lives and their time to work for change.  

In looking at the left in the 1960s, the biggest strategic flaw was that the movement never created a way to take of its people.  In the early 1970s, lots of them just went away to start their 'real careers'.  With Maria, it's pretty obvious why that is.  Despite immense influence and importance, despite the leverage and love she created for progressives, she lived alone in an apartment with a crappy computer and no health insurance.  She literally died because progressive elites decided they needn't bother to value her.

Our priorities are really messed up.  When our organizations and groups allow people like Maria to die for their lack of health care, while at the same time funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into TV commercials, it's really bad.  If it continues, we will fail.  It's that simple.

Maria Leavey was a wonderful person who not only treated the movement well, but treated the people within it with immense respect and love.  I don't usually do the new year's resolution thing, but in this case, I hope we can all resolve to treat our movement people as people.  I hope that we can begin to move beyond the star system we have, and get some credit and funding to those who work behind the scenes, filling in the gaps, and baking cookies for those who need a boost of extra confidence.

I'm going to miss you, Maria.  And I'm really sorry that we didn't do right by you.

Tags: Maria Leavey (all tags)

Comments

29 Comments

Re: Will this progressive movement die?

You're right Matt, re: leaving progressives to wither.  

I have a "career", but were I your age and were there a track available other than slogging through the Hill, or going to the JFK school and going up that ladder, I might choose it.  

The problem, as has been commented before, is that only children of privilege can stick out such a work life, dedicated to serving causes.  (Unless you live in a cheap -- i.e. economically limited -- area of the country).  We do need to figure out how to change that.

There must be ways that foundations can mimic the conservative movement's leadership pathway development.    Hope you do it.

by Andmoreagain 2007-01-08 07:49AM | 0 recs
I couldn't agree more

Of course this point was addressed very well by Jerome and Markos in CTG.  I only wish their analysis had gotten more attention.  Allowing people to have reasonable careers in the progressive movement needs to be a top priority for a variety of reasons, including preventing future untimely deaths of activists, but also preventing high turnover and the class bias that seeps in when only those who are already well off can afford to work in progressive organizations.

by Colorado Luis 2007-01-08 08:00AM | 0 recs
I agree with your general point....

...but did they know Maria's situation? If someone doesn't ask for help I assume they are fine.

Regardless if you become a progressive, hardcore activist and organizer etc. it should be par for the course that we not only care about you (as we care for others) but that we strengthen you to strengthen ourselves.

Even if only for self-interest, the progressive movement and the establishment should take care of these people.

by MNPundit 2007-01-08 08:07AM | 0 recs
Re: I agree with your general point....

...but did they know Maria's situation? If someone doesn't ask for help I assume they are fine.

Some people who are very skilled in some areas are remarkably unskilled in getting what others owe them.  A healthy political ecosystem takes care of these people.

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-08 09:20AM | 0 recs
Re: I agree with your general point....

The same goes for you guys.  Do you, Chris and Jerome have health insurance?

by Adam B 2007-01-08 09:57AM | 0 recs
Re: I agree with your general point....

That sounds like a netroots project.

Seriously.

Group coverage is much, much cheaper than individual coverage. There's beginning to be a large enough group that it might make sense for you guys to consider arranging group coverage.  If there was a way for full time bloggers, and campaign staff to opt in to a group plan it could probably drop your rates considerably.

Something to think about.

by ManfromMiddletown 2007-01-08 11:26AM | 0 recs
Re: I agree with your general point....

This is an excellent point and it eventually becomes a self-sustaining system. The young blood that is taken care of not only survives to become the "old blood" but understands the importance of doing the same to the next generation.

by MNPundit 2007-01-08 10:01AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

One way might be for more liberal equivalents to the Goldman Prize in the environmental area and the MacArthur Fellowships.  They needn't be so large--$40,000 would enable someone to live reasonably well in an urban area for a year--but there should be more of them, and for more than a year.  Those with the means to make things happen but not the ideas themselves could fund the people who know how to do the work, Maria being a prime example, but there are many more.

And universal health care of some sort, of course.

by Mimikatz 2007-01-08 08:08AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

"$40,000 would enable someone to live reasonably well in an urban area for a year"

This is the problem.  Someone talented and skilled will be paid MUCH more than $40,000 in an urban area if they work in the private sector.  Just for comparison, the average starting salary out of school for an MBA or lawyer is now over $90K not counting benefits.

Why should people who want to help out the progressive cause have to choose between doing that and having a car or a house or even a family?  Not to mention health insurance and other benefits.

So we wind up with talented people forced to move on to "real" jobs.  

If you look at many progressive organizations there are people who are really, really overwhelmed and burning out because they are a competent person willing to work for so little.  I see this everywhere.

by davej 2007-01-08 02:26PM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

Apology.  I realize I sound like I'm criticizing you and I apologize.  It's not you and you are to be commended for suggesting the Goldman Prize idea.  

I'm reacting to Maria's situation and also to this Digby post about bloggers giving it up.  I've been writing for some time about the need for progressive funders to step up to the plate and help fund the progressive movement and growing weary of it.

by davej 2007-01-08 02:32PM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

Absolutely... I'd love to be a professional liberal (although I'm not a people person like Maria apparently was) minion/shill/whatever, but I never had the financial security (i.e., parental safety net) to live on small stipends or slave wages.  My degree's in the arts and I really wasn't secure enough to pursue that wholeheartedly, either, so I'm making less at a nonprofit than I might in the private sector-- but far more than I'd make trying to break into politics at this point in my life-- without having to be unprincipled.  

We can all admire Ms. Leavey's commitment, because it's obviously greater than, say, mine, but she shouldn't have ever had to pay such a high price for it.  

by latts 2007-01-08 08:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

Hold on.  Did Ms. Leavey tell anyone of her financial predicament, or ask for any help?  If so, then shame squared on those who did nothing.  But if not, you're defiling her memory by turning it into a cheap shot at the elites.

If I'd been contacted by a presentable, articulate, 53-year-old woman possessing a telephone and a computer, and having some web savvy and an immense amount of political savvy, I'd have assumed that she had some means of support, including health insurance -- most of us would have guessed "husband" or "social security" if we thought about it at all.  If she didn't bring the subject up, I never would have been so rude as to do so unless I saw some overt sign of poverty or bad health.

You or Atrios or Digby could be mired in hopeless poverty, as far as I know, except for stray remarks on your sites about puppies, laptops or nights on the town.  When in need, some of you ask for money, as Atrios did to fund his time in Connecticut campaigning for Ned Lamont.  Other sites, like the Smirking Chimp or BuzzFlash, routinely ask for cash to maintain their sites.  If you don't ask, I won't insult you by giving.  

Would you really have wanted Joe Conason or the Democracy Alliance to offer her payment, when she asked for none, without some reason to believe she was in need?  To turn her activism into a cash transaction?  

We're ennobled by helping each other when in need, but we're demeaned when we treat the passionate as the mercenary.  That's for the GOP.  It's what they use for ethics.

by drlimerick 2007-01-08 08:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

Did Ms. Leavey tell anyone of her financial predicament, or ask for any help?

Yes.  And she often billed groups that just didn't pay her what they had promised.

As for asking for money, well, I asked for money to go to CT, not Atrios, and thanks for funding me.  But that still doesn't pay the bills, and it doesn't pay the bills for all the people like Maria, and lots of others who don't have a large megaphone like MyDD.

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-08 09:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

"I'd have assumed that she had some means of support, including health insurance -- most of us would have guessed "husband" or "social security" if we thought about it at all."

 That pretty much sums up the point- there's no sense of communal obligation, just willfully negligent, pragmatic narcissism.
   Any individual who doesn't conform to expectation, say by not having a husband or liking to take handouts, then screw them cause we all know what the rules are.
  I'm really sorry, Matt- that's heartbreaking. Thankfully, the health car issue has def. reached a political breaking point. There's too much momentum now, thank god; hopefully, we'll all keep fighting to make sure the changes are real and substantive and effective.

by sb 2007-01-08 09:21AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

As to spending millions on advertising, this is another instance of buying into the other side's frame.  The fact that political marketing works--it should be absolutely ineffective--is a symptom.  We ought to treat the mere notion that political marketing might work as unthinkable, the final absurdity.

by wilhoit 2007-01-08 08:45AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

All things die; it's a question of how effective we make the life of this movement.  But we do need to endow institutions that are at least nominally equivalent to the welfare system that the right supports.  These "think tanks" and "media centers" and "publishing houses" work to subsidize their movement apparatchiks in a way that makes their bloviating sustainable.  You can imagine that Ann Coulter has several venues through which to secure health insurance (Fox News, Regnery, etc. would be more than happy to toss her into the company insurance pool).  We do not have that; nor do we have families such as the Melon-Scaiffes and Busches in order to fund such things.

What we do have, however, is a much much larger pool of small donors.  Perhaps there should be a drive now that we are in a lull between elections to ask the progressive blogosphere (and larger) to make small donations toward endowing institutions that can offer health care and stable pay to such vital assets as Ms. Leavey?  We managed a couple of million last election cycle; Firedoglake got a book published; perhaps together we can try to right these wrongs by mimicking the right wing at least institutionally?

by electricgrendel 2007-01-08 09:10AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

What we do have, however, is a much much larger pool of small donors.  Perhaps there should be a drive now that we are in a lull between elections to ask the progressive blogosphere (and larger) to make small donations toward endowing institutions that can offer health care and stable pay to such vital assets as Ms. Leavey?  We managed a couple of million last election cycle; Firedoglake got a book published; perhaps together we can try to right these wrongs by mimicking the right wing at least institutionally?

I would hope we can do this.

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-08 09:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

So how do you do it?  I mean- it seems to be a problem endemic to our side of the blogosphere.  You've previously mentioned the need to be funded in order to go to CT.  Glenn Greenwald has spoken several times about the difficulties he has faced in trying to make his blog self-sustaining; I can imagine you have similar stories.

It would seem to me that if the various fiefdoms of Left Blogistan would come together to jointly ask their readership for donations (such as MyDD, Daily Kos, Firedoglake, Atrios, etc.) then we could possibly get a large enough initial endowment to start approaching progressive individuals and institutions with serious cash.  

There would also have to be a product in order to keep the place running.  An endowment of such size to generate enough yearly interest to support multiple people would have to be quite large.  Though a marketing campaign to brand the institute as integral to many outlets of the blogosphere would ensure that whatever product was generated (books, media critique, videos, etc.) would have a large consumer base built in.

Just some thoughts on it; I think that it is possible for our side of the internet to start generating institutions in order to perpetuate our message and to support our messengers.

by electricgrendel 2007-01-08 10:14AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

The refusal by progressives to support the ideas of other progressives is what is most disrespectful to the memory of Maria Leavey, and is also what is most likely to be the cause of death of the progressive movement.

The fact that progressive donors don't support those who promote progressive ideas is the cause of Ms. Leavey's death.

Carolyn Kay
MakeThemAccountable.com

by Caro 2007-01-08 09:23AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

I've been a long time lurker on mydd, Matt, and it was this post that made me get an account and add a comment.

I've been doing social justice organizing in some form or another for the past decade or so, starting with campus organizing and doing political work for the local Central Labor Council.  I've watched as huge numbers of talented organizers have left the work because it was killing them. The hours, the lack of benefits, when are we going to wake up to the fact that there are smart, hardworking organizers who don't want to choose between starting a family and "the work" but seem stuck doing one or the other?  And I'm one of hundreds who's going to have to make that choice very soon.

by Ruby K 2007-01-08 10:30AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

Just some thoughts from someone who spent time in the trenches - and does so non-professionally now...

I worked for two years out of college at basically poverty-level wages to do grassroots political organizing.  I got pretty darn good at it.  But I had to leave because I wasn't really ekeing out a living.  Now I work for a (very socially responsible, progressive) corporation doing work that tangentially touches on politics and public policy.  In my spare time from working 60-70 hour weeks, I do a lot of political activism from organizing the Democratic Party to constructing political research documents and tools to providing strategic and messaging "consulting" to local campaigns to just plain old door-knocking and canvassing.

I could do a lot of useful work were I doing it fulltime.  But the fact is that I can't make a living doing it.  Yet.  

Were there some organizations that could pay me a livable wage that allowed me to have a professional career that could support a family, I'd probably jump back in just longer than a heartbeat.

For all our passion, our talent, and the "rightness" of our stances, the progressive movement's biggest fatal flaw right now is this structural lack of infrastructure support.

by Peter from WI 2007-01-08 03:57PM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

It seems to me that this thread talks a lot about what how the system is messed up, and it certainly is as this very sad story shows. The question becomes, "What are we doing about it?"

It is very easy to say that a system needs to be developed to support people who devote their lives to our causes, and I agree that such a system needs to be in place (at the very least one that makes it viable for those of us who wish to find a career in the field to get started without rich parents or incredible luck.) However, it isn't the easiest thing to develop.

Matt is on the right track with his suggestion a few posts up. It would be a question of more than raising money, but of creating something that would a.) be capable of rasing money and b.) offer a meaningful product/service.

I for one would be very interested in creating such a project, I am not sure how viable it is but I have spent the last two years working on the unviable.  

by JDF 2007-01-08 10:34AM | 0 recs
Matching skill to need ...

Well, to state the obvious, universal health care administered by nonCriminals would have helped.  But then, that's probably why there isn't any.

To some degree we have an institution and needs matching issue here.  For example, we probably constitute a big enough group to create a decent insurance pool.  If we could find a reader or member with insurance skills it would probably be possible to put together a plan whose profits funded causes we care for, along the lines of perhaps Working Assets in the Telco arena.  They're a reseller you know ... not necessary to originate the service.

Any skills out there?

Which brings me to the second point.  We have a problem identifying skills and matching them to need.  Clearly Ms. Leavey (who I only learned about this morning in the WaPo even though I live in DC) was an expert at this.

Seems to me the best thing we can do for her now is carry her skills forward.

Point in example ... moi and others like me.  I build large commercial computer systems for a living.  It would make me very happy to do some of this short skilled highly paid work for causes I believe in, in my not-so-copious spare time.

Two barriers - supply side and demand side.  On the supply side (moi), I want to give but don't want to be used.  There are limits on my time, and  priorities in my politics.  Yeah, I know, picky picky.  But there it is.

On the demand side, the times I've volunteered help (MoveOn comes to mind), there was no way to bring to anyone's attention the facts that I could do some very difficult and dare I say expensive things for them without getting into some kind of unseemly bragging match with full time staffers.  No real skills matching that is to say, and no way to validate the fact that the offerer has the skills they claim.

Result?  I answered phones and did the help desk.  Glad to do it, but could have done more.

Anybody interested in the business aspects of putting together a Progressive Skills Bank?  I can do the technical end (grin)

by robinpc 2007-01-08 10:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Matching skill to need ...


 So we just aquiesce on universal health care because the "criminals" are too powerful?
 I'm slightly offended by the logic that seems to be  
emerging on this thread- that, in the name of pragmatism we should set up more institutions that say some people are worthwhile and others aren't.

That's quite the disheartening, Clinton-esque cop-out.
 

by sb 2007-01-08 11:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Matching skill to need ...

On another note, I don't think Robin was suggesting that we should forget about Universal Healthcare. What she WAS suggesting were two things we can do in the mean time that will help us do what we do better.

by JDF 2007-01-08 11:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

I don't think it is a question of saying some people are worth while and some people aren't. But the reality is that you have to win before you get to make the rules. We started winning in 2006 but we have to do more to continue that process in 2008 and beyond.

It also ins't a question of accepting that there are too many criminals for us to get universal health care. The reality of that situation is that we tried once and lost. Now we have to try again, but trying involves raising more money, recruiting more GOOD candidates, and winning more races.

by JDF 2007-01-08 11:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?
I didn't know about this woman either, and I am glad to learn of one more person who gave much of herself to her convictions; perhaps all of herself.  Yes, it seems clear she should have been paid by people who owed her--isn't that true in any case?  And as most comments echo, health care should be affordable for everyone.
However,  at the risk of sounding unsympathetic to this woman--almost my exact age, also on her own--I want to take exception to the tone of some of these comments, and to Matt too.  The image of Maria evolving here--not necessarily correct--is of the lone ranger activist who gives up everything, even care for themselves, to give to "the movement."  And burns out. Or up, or something.  I sense admiration not just for her work, but for her suffering, which makes me cringe.
I'm frankly dubious of full-time activism; it's not always a bad thing, but it can corrupt perspective, especially of oneself (again, not saying this about Maria, but more about the feel I get from these comments).  Yes, we all want to be able to spend all our time doing what we love and care most about.  And some can, and should, and deserve support, and it's not there. We need people like Matt and Jerome and Kos and lots of others to be able to do what they do every day. It's a conundrum.  But it is not healthy to encourage people to deny their needs so they can give everything away to the movement.  The result is an extremely unhealthy movement.  We learned that one decades ago, and don't need to live it over.
by blossom 2007-01-08 04:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

What about creating a Maria Leavey Fellowship Fund to honor her work and provide support for progressives following in her footsteps?

For example, funders such as the Democracy Alliance or Skyline Public Works could create an endowment that would award multi-year grants to support the fulltime work of lone progressives working without institutional support.

by Nancy Bordier 2007-01-08 05:59PM | 0 recs
Re: Will this progressive movement die?

I hope all of you who are interested in changing the ridiculous lack of funding on the left will get in touch with me at the address below:

caro@makethemaccountable.com

Carolyn Kay
MakeThemAccountable.com

by Caro 2007-01-09 10:19AM | 0 recs

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