Sometime during the hours before the advent of the new year, alone in a modest apartment in Arlington, Va., a woman named Maria Leavey died of heart failure. Had she lived until the morning of Jan. 1, 2007, she would have been able to celebrate her 53rd birthday.
Though very few of those now reading this column have ever heard of her, Maria was a highly effective advocate of progressive causes, a consultant and confidant to important Democratic political leaders, and an encouraging mentor to many young activists and writers on the left. Over the past two weeks, on the Huffington Post and many other sites small and large in the progressive blogosphere, as well as on private e-mail lists, her mourning admirers and acquaintances have poured out memories of an extraordinary person who really cared more about social progress than personal ambition.
An old joke about left-wingers is that they love humankind with all their hearts but just don't like people all that much. Maria confounded that stereotype with startling acts of kindness to people she had never even met. Born in Pisa, Italy, where her father was then stationed in the U.S. Army, and raised in an Irish Catholic clan in Queens, N.Y., she was old-fashioned in the best sense. She baked cookies, worried a lot about other people, and was appalled by the crass and the selfish.
In those ways, she certainly stood out from the pack of Beltway consultants and other hustlers who make a very good living in the orbit of the Democratic Party. Whip-smart but polite and soft-spoken, she didn't fit in among the self-important loudmouths who have banked millions of dollars while losing for their clients one election after another.
She would never consider selling her talents to lobby for a tobacco company, a software monopoly, a foreign despot or an insurance corporation, as so many of her "progressive" peers have done to supplement their enormous incomes. (Those tend to be the famous Democratic "strategists" who appear on cable TV.) She preferred to work on her own rather than in a firm or a partnership. She could be quirky and difficult, but she also had enormous integrity.
I know all this because for the past nine years, she was also a good friend of mine.
While Maria led an exemplary life in many respects, however, there is also something to be learned from her early death. As the Washington Post noted in a sensitive obituary on Jan. 6, she managed to connect with important figures on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in addition to her media contacts, despite the fact that she "had no money to spread around." And as the Post obit also mentioned, as someone who worked independently, "she had no health insurance."
She had no health insurance -- which meant that the hereditary heart condition that killed her probably went undiagnosed and untreated. That almost certainly killed her, as the lack of regular care prematurely kills thousands of other Americans every year. And while she was acutely aware of how that problem affected her fellow citizens, and worked hard every day to change that injustice, she was unable, like so many who work freelance and in small business, to help herself.
If her many friends among the great and the good in Congress need any further motivation to fight for universal healthcare, then Maria's untimely and perhaps unnecessary death should be enough. She had no illusions about the Democrats, but she toiled for years to return them to power in the hope that they would fulfill such promises.
Meanwhile, what happened to her ought to chasten the progressive community, such as it is. She often worked for free -- or got stiffed on her very reasonable bills -- while the nonprofit executives and politicos who exploited her talents took down big salaries. Laboring behind the scenes, frazzled and distracted by her many commitments, and too proud to complain publicly, she wasn't very good at fighting on her own behalf.
The larger issue is an enduring mind-set on the left that values programs over people and expects everyone (except the donors and those at the top of the career ladder) to live like monks. This is stupid as well as mean. The irony is that conservative groups, whose leaders are often stereotyped as stingy and heartless, tend to provide far better conditions for their troops than progressive organizations do. The right may or may not have more money, but it has used what it has to provide a living for the people who build its institutions, which have thrived as a result.
Maria deserved much better -- and so do the many like her who accept low wages to uphold their ideals. Being able to pay the rent, get health insurance and even take a vacation would not corrupt them.