Hillary, Jeb!...and the people who are actually saving America

Wiping away a tear, Sarina Santos of Frankford tells a recent Center City rally that her advocacy for higher wages cost her her job as a baggage handler. (MICHAEL PRONZATO/Staff Photographer)

I have to confess feeling more alienated than ever about American presidential politics these days...most of it, anyway. And it feels strange for a guy who, as a 13-year-old kid, stayed up past midnight in a summer vacation cottage listening to the 1972 Democratic convention on a scratchy transistor radio, and who never thought seriously about a career in anything besides journalism after reading "The Boys on the Bus" about that year's White House campaign.

This week's World Series of campaign kickoffs -- a Murderer's Row (oops...wrong Bush) of Hillary Clinton, Jeb! Bush and clown prince Donald Trump -- was a dose of weak methadone for this lifelong political junkie. I could only force myself to "watch" the announcements on Twitter, if at all. I didn't even have anything clever to add to the social-media snarkfest record about Trump, maybe because I couldn't think of anything funnier to say than, "Donald Trump is running for president."

Clinton presented a solidly bland liberal agenda, minus anything so liberal that it might strike her backers on Wall Street as too rabble-rousing. The former Secretary of State now seems completely uninterested in foreign policy, including a trade agreement that she pushed for before learning that every Democrat (and most everyone else, too) doesn't want it. Jeb! is already something of a laughingstock with an exclamation point!...unaware of who caused global warming or of how many living Americans will never again vote for someone named "Bush" (or "Jeb!" for that matter). Trump forgets who won World War II.

It would be easy to say that none of it matters, but that's a little too cynical, even for me. What happened after the 2000 election, after all, is the danger of seeing the major candidates as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-Dee. And curmudgeonly truth-teller Bernie Sanders has made the 2016 race more interesting than it seemed just a couple months ago. But while there are real differences between Hillary and Jeb (I'm sorry...I can't do the exclamation point anymore), there's no real excitement. Maybe that's because it was reported in Politico not long ago that the ultimate Wall Street titan, Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein "has indicated he would be fine with either a Bush or Clinton presidency." Sounds about right.

Where are the profiles in courage in 2015 and '16? Not on the focus-group-fueled podiums of presidential campaign announcements. Look instead to the streets, where people are now fighting when they have nothing, or perhaps everything, to lose. If anyone I've watched in the public arena in the last month deserves an exclamation point, it's not Jeb...but Sarina!

Sarina Santos was a baggage handler at Philadelphia International Airport -- a 30-year-old Frankford woman trying to raise 4 kids on the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. But like most low-wage workers, her meager check was still needed to put any food on the table at all. When her employer -- a subcontractor at the airport -- labored to throw up roadblocks to a $12 living wage that the city has been seeking to mandate since last year, the easiest thing would have been to keep silent.

But Sarina Santos did not do the easy thing. She spoke up to anyone who would listen, including an aide to Pope Francis who was here ahead of September's papal visit. Not long after that meeting, the family breadwinner was fired from her job for reasons that are in dispute, although she believes the real cause was her labor activism.

"Living is even harder now than it was before," Santos wrote in the Daily News earlier this month. "The bills don't stop coming because I'm not working. The kids will need watching now that school is out. Why should workers like me bear this kind of burden? We want to do better, but subcontractors at the airport have stripped us of our dignity and respect. I fight because I have friends at the airport with young children who are struggling."

But in the midst of a desperate situation, something remarkable happened. Ministers and others rallied -- literally -- to support Santos and her cause. City Council used its leasing powers as a political weapon on behalf of the low-wage workers, and last week the workers won, gaining an agreement that will make the $12 wage a reality and allow employees a chance to unionize.

That's the result of real courage -- but it's been a missing ingredient during the last few decades of what author Steve Fraser has rightfully pegged in his recent book as an American "Age of Acquiescence." Look at the growing number of cities taking giant strides for employees, from the $15 wage to mandatory sick leave. The victories didn't start with politicos on the top, but from regular folk putting their bodies on the line -- taking great risks, but also finding solidarity.

The 1 Percent still conquers by dividing everyone else. But they call the rest of us the 99 Percent for a reason...we need to realize that we're all in the same large boat. The fast-food workers walking off their jobs against wage theft ARE the white collar workers asked to stick around and train their foreign replacement. The professional who has to battle to protect health insurance for his or her family IS the home health-care aide or the security guard seeking a paycheck large enough to get off food stamps.

But the biggest thing we need to realize is that we need not so much to listen, but to act. To become not just voters every four years, but activists every day. Maybe it's this late spring heat wave talking, but the political blandishments coming out of Miami, or Roosevelt Island, or Donald Trump's fright wig all feel like so much hot air right now.