Most people know Progressive Insurance from its quirky commercials, starring a character named Flo who staffs the checkout counter at an supermarket that sells insurance in neatly labeled boxes. But the leaders of the nation's leading progressive activist organizations know Progressive Insurance's chairman of the board, Peter B. Lewis, for another kind of insurance: vital financial support for the kind of activism that enables the movement to fight the right in Washington and beyond.
It was that support that earned Lewis the Campaign for America's Future Lifetime Leadership Award at the organization's Gala Dinner Tuesday night. Lewis joined two other honorees at the dinner: James Rucker of Color of Change, winner of the Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award, and Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, winner of the Progressive Champion Award.
Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called Lewis "someone who invests in social justice," and those investments have supported the creation of the Center for American Progress, Media Matters for America and the Democracy Alliance, which supports the work of Campaign for America's Future.
In accepting the award, Lewis said that the progressive movement had made significant progress since 2004, when he created the organization called Americans Coming Together with George Soros in an effort to defeat President Bush. "But we haven't done nearly enough," he said, reflecting both the political and social policy challenges ahead and his own perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo.
"I am obsessed by doing things well and never being satisfied by how well you're doing them," he said.
Lewis also touched on the oil catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, saying that he wanted the event to prompt radical change away from the use of fossil fuels. "I hope that the oil spill is the disaster that is catalytic, that lets us know that we've got to do something and do it soon," he said. And he put in a plug for one of his pet causes, ending what he called "the irrational prohibition of the use of marijuana."
Earlier, Rucker was introduced by green energy activist and, for a short time, Obama administration official Van Jones. "Sometimes you need somebody who's a little bit weird," Jones said of Rucker, someone to "come into a movement and shake it up."
Rucker founded Color of Change after working with MoveOn.org and gained national prominence for his work as an advocate for New Orleans residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and for the freedom of the Jena 6, young black youths who received discriminatory treatment in connection with the beating of a white student. Color of Change also worked to police voting rights issues in the 2008 election.
The success of Color of Change is based on the belief that the real power of the progressive movement is in the grassroots, Rucker said, and that is from where the movement's direction should come. As a movement, he added, "we will fail if we wait for politicians and advocacy organizations to set the agenda and invite the grassroots to come along," he said.
Edwards accepted her award on crutches, having suffered from a knee injury. Referring to her ideological foes on the right in Congress, Edwards said, "you've really got to kick them hard and sometimes you get it in the knee."
Recalling her own struggle as a low-income single mother, Edwards encouraged the activists at the dinner to support leaders who come from humble backgrounds and share the struggles of working-class families.
"The American people want to know we are on their side," she said.
She ended her short remarks by saying, "Now I'm going to walk very slowly so I don't injure this other knee because I need both knees to fight this fight." The audience gave her sustained applause as master of ceremonies Lizz Winstead, commentator and former comedy writer for The Daily Show, helped her limp off the stage.