The progressive community doesn't seem particularly worried about its future, though. There are a lot of options for future leaders, they say, and especially younger women of color.
Paradoxically, not having one clear leader right now may be a good thing for the movement, said Sayu Bhojwani, president and founder of the New American Leaders project, which advocates for more first-and second-generation immigrants in politics.
"Focusing too much on the individual -- that's one of our challenges as a progressive movement," Bhojwani said. "We don't plant enough seeds, and then when one seed grows and we don't like it, we're stuck."
The Fix spoke with a half-dozen people involved in various ways and levels of the progressive movement to get their thoughts on who might be their next national leader -- or one of several leaders. We'll name names in a minute. First, though, it's perhaps more instructive to start by listing the qualities progressives want to see in their next leader. Consider this a kind of job description from the progressive community:
- Someone outside the establishment (and preferably Washington altogether): "People who have a real and deep organic connection to the voting base and are less worried about the donor class," said Daniel Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party.
- Someone willing to stick it to the establishment: "One of the ways you demonstrate real leadership in the progressive movement is a willingness to confront power," like Wall Street, yes, says Neil Sroka, the communications director for the Howard Dean-aligned Democracy for America, "but also leaders in your own party when necessary."
- Someone with a diverse background: Or at least an understanding of various diverse backgrounds. Women and people of color are pluses.
- Someone who has a following already: It doesn't have to be Bernie Sanders big, but it does need to be someone who has proven s/he can rev up a crowd. "They become a pulled attraction," said RoseAnn DeMoro, director of National Nurses United, which was one of the first unions to endorse Sanders. DeMoro even threw out movie stars/Sanders supporters like Rosario Dawson and Mark Ruffalo as possibilities.
It's perhaps just as instructive to understand some of the qualities progressives are NOT necessarily requiring in their next leader:
- Someone who lines up perfectly on the ideological spectrum with Sanders and Warren: It's okay if the next leader is a little to the left of them, some said. And others said it'd be okay -- even ideal -- if the next leader was a little more centrist. But nearly everyone indicated that a politician's ability to draw attention to the issues -- and then govern on them -- matters more than the specific individual's beliefs. Plus, the progressive movement needs a larger bench, and when you expand outward, you naturally get different viewpoints.
- Just one leader: Yes, movements need leaders. But there doesn't have to be just one, nor does someone have to be stage left the second Sanders and Warren step off the stage. DeMoro of National Nurses United said: "If Bernie fell in line behind Clinton tomorrow, the movement continues."
As I said, there's no one person in the progressive movement right now who would seem to fit that job description perfectly. But there were a few names that came up in almost every interview, almost all of them women of color, and not all of them with a national profile -- yet. Here they are, in no particular order:
Jayapal is a state senator running for Congress in Washington's 7th district, a Seattle-area seat being vacated by Rep. Jim McDermott (D). She's got the activist part down: The Indian American founded Hate Free Zone (now OneAmerica) in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to buffer against anti-Muslim sentiment. She announced her run for Congress at the former home of Occupy Seattle. And she speaks a lot about gentrification, class disparity and the dangers of the rising "1 percent."
But first she's got to win a nine-way primary, including against a guy whose last name is the same as retiring McDermott and first name also begins with "J" (no relation). (Jayapal is considered one of the front-runners in Washington's primary system, which gives the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, a ticket to the general election.)
Turner is perhaps one of Sanders's best-known surrogates. She's a former Ohio state senator who has made her name advocating for voting rights. In November, Turner switched her support from Hillary Clinton to Sanders, saying she was "attracted by his message." She's now a regular on cable news, and several progressives I talked to were attracted by her fiery defense of their causes. "Talk about electrifying a crowd," Sroka said of hearing her speak at Netroots Nation in 2015. But whatever hopes progressives had for her were seriously damaged in 2014, when she lost to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted by a stunning 24 points. Holding big-time office, after all, helps.
California's state attorney general is pitching herself as "a crusader for the down-and-out," as she's become the front-runner in the crowded race for a Senate seat -- a race that could shape up to be between two women of color. Harris would be the only black woman in the Senate, while her possible general-election opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D), would be one of the first Latinas. (California has a primary system where the top two vote-getters compete in the general election, regardless of party.) But Harris may be that rare politician who can straddle the line between the progressive and establishment wings of the Democratic Party. She's endorsed Clinton and has the support of California's governor, Jerry Brown. And yet Warren stars in a new campaign ad for her, calling Harris "fearless."
If Harris is a peacemaker in the Democratic Party, then Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The first American Samoan, the first Hindu and one of two female combat veterans elected to Congress in 2013 was a rising star in the Democratic Party who quickly joined party leadership. But in February she basically defected by stepping down from her post as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee (a job that required her to be neutral in the primary) to endorse Sanders. Some in the Democratic establishment were frankly happy to see her go; she engaged in a nasty back and forth with the DNC this fall over presidential debates and was clearly at-odds with party leadership. Progressives seem equally happy to receive Gabbard, despite her sometimes hawkish tendencies.
Like most of the women on this list, former state lawmaker and current congressional candidate Lucy Flores has a compelling personal story. She's a former Las Vegas gang member and high school dropout. Plus she has been very up-front about her story. "At 16, I got an abortion," she has said. "I don't regret it." Like Turner, though, Flores isn't exactly riding high right now; she ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 and lost overwhelmingly, by 26 points. Some of the more established Nevada Democrats blamed her for it. Now she's in a crowded Democratic primary for the right to unseat one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country, Rep. Cresent Hardy, to represent a Las Vegas-area seat.
Academic, author and activist Teachout has a track record of challenging the establishment. In 2014, the Howard Dean campaign alumna challenged incumbent Andrew Cuomo in a primary in New York's governor race because, she and other progressives said, he was too cozy with the wheeling and dealing in Albany. She did better than anyone expected, winning 34 percent of the vote, wrote The Post's David Weigel. Now she's running for an open House seat in Hudson Valley, a region where she dominated Cuomo. She's got a fellow progressive primary opponent, Livingston Council member Will Yandik, who could be competitive, and even if she makes it to the general election, it's not a given this swing district will go Democratic. But already, the comparisons to Warren are inevitably pouring in. "Like Warren, Teachout was a respected academic and progressive activist long before she entered politics," wrote Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation and a Washington Post columnist. In fact, vanden Heuvel's magazine recently called Teachout, Flores and Jayapal all "the next Elizabeth Warrens."
They may not know who their actual next Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders will be, but progressives are generally pretty confident they'll have a leader when they need one.