News & Politics

Tucson Hero Daniel Hernandez: This Is What a Progressive Looks Like

Daniel Hernandez' heroism in the Tucson shootings has its roots in his progressive values. Will the right celebrate this gay Latino hero?

Americans listening for a still, small voice of reason amid the rhetorical firestorm that followed the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 17 others earlier this month, found it in Daniel Hernandez Jr. The congressional intern received credit for saving Giffords' life when her Saturday morning meet-and-greet outside a suburban Safeway turned into a killing spree.

Hernandez' emergence is a revealing moment for America. The openly gay son of a mother from northern Mexico and a native-born father whose name he shares, Hernandez is a profile in courage for three groups that have felt the sting of scapegoating in recent political debate in Arizona and the nation: LGBT people, immigrants and public servants.

More than a humane corrective to dehumanizing stereotypes, Hernandez puts a face on the emerging leaders who define a new era of Democratic advocacy. His courage, his ethic of care, and his training and engagement in liberal causes are inextricably tied together. Daniel Hernandez Jr. is what a progressive looks like.

Turning 21 this month, Hernandez comes away from the horrific attack as a reluctant hero. Just five days into his internship when the shots rang out, he sensed his boss was the target of fire, moved through the melee to assist her, helped stop the hemorrhage from her head wound, prevented her from choking on her own blood, and held her as medics carried her by ambulance to the emergency room, all as he communicated with her through hand clenches and coolly conveyed vital information to others.

Hernandez continues to shun the label of hero while exuding the mix of altruism, bravery and calm that defines the term and redeems it from lazy misuse. In his brief but poignant speech at the nationally televised memorial service addressed by President Obama to an overflow crowd of 14,000 at the University of Arizona four days after the shootings, Hernandez stood behind a lectern bearing the presidential seal and before an audience including both Obamas, federal and state dignitaries, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Those who deserve the label of hero, he said, are "public servants, first responders, and the people who've…dedicated their life to taking care of others."

So thoroughly does Hernandez defy the demonizing images used to carry on the decades-long denigration of gays, immigrants and professionals who serve others through government that his emergence marks a cultural turning point.

His name has already become a rhetorical, if not a mental, stumbling block to the campaigns directed at these three groups in our society. It is a telling sign when even Rush Limbaugh glossed over Hernandez' exploits while railing against the memorial assembly and the president's message of unity and resilience.

Hernandez' message cannot be ignored, even by self-described moderates who reject extremists' arguments but pursue some of their legislative goals. Just last month, Senator John McCain was leading the fight against allowing gay people to serve honestly in the military. He also voted to block Senate passage of a bill to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented college students or soldiers carried to the U.S. as kids. This month, he joined in the standing ovation for Hernandez' remarks at the massive gathering in Tucson.

Before he graduated high school, Hernandez became a certified nursing assistant, yielding him the knowledge that likely saved Giffords' life. Still in college, Hernandez hasn't made up his mind about the vocational path his life will take. "I want to remain in public service, but I'm not sure in what capacity," he told a reporter.

With that statement, Hernandez personifies the compassion and competence of government workers at a time of relentless cutbacks and political volleys aimed at their wages, health coverage and pensions. He also follows a family pattern. "We always tried to impart on him to help his community and do the best he can," Hernandez' father told the editor of La Estrella de Tucson, a local Spanish-language weekly.

His status as a breakthrough role model for three oft-assailed communities comes at a pivotal moment in the evolution of the country. The Census Bureau is about to release its detailed picture of the nation from 2010, drawn from one of the largest and most expert mobilizations of public-sector workers and data-crunchers the nation has ever witnessed. The reports will show Hispanics as both the most numerous and fastest-growing minority in the nation. Thanks in part to efforts by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, it will also count same-sex couples who self-identify as married for the first time ever.

America's reckoning with its own diversity, and the changing face of its leadership, has been fraught with intolerance and backlash. Since the 2009 inauguration of the nation's first black chief executive, against the backdrop of an economic crisis, threats against the president's life have escalated 400 percent. These include anti-government activists and cells of white supremacists, but also a security guard at Newark Airport who stockpiled 43 firearms and hollow-point bullets before his arrest in October 2009.

Gun attacks with extremist motivation and directed at Obama and other progressives were on the upswing even before he took office. In July 2008, Knoxville gunman Jim Adkisson entered a Unitarian church and shot four people, two fatally, in what he called "a symbolic killing," since his target was "every Democrat in the Senate and House."

The spiral of threatening rhetoric against the president, harassment of progressives identified with his agenda, and assaults on public-service workers quickened during the new administration.

In February 2010, Texan Joe Stack flew a single-engine plane into the office building of the IRS in Austin, killing agent Vernon Hunter and injuring 13 others. Stack had railed against the agency as part of "a totalitarian regime," against which he wrote, violence "is the only answer."

In March 2010, during the passage of health-care reform, conservative blogger Solly Forrell called for the assassination of President Obama. Ted Nugent, a board member of the National Rifle Association, made a similar, coded appeal, concluding with, "We gotta' kill the pig."

Starting in April 2010, the openly gay president of the student assembly at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor endured a season of harassment by an assistant to the conservative state attorney general. Andrew Shirvell, a deputy of the state's top law enforcer Mike Cox, mimicked the tactics of the Kansas-based extremist Fred Phelps by shouting antigay messages at young Chris Armstrong during events and protesting at his home. Amidst a spate of teen suicides linked to anti-gay bullying, Shirvell took to CNN in September to advocate his right to target a student he accuses of "advancing a radical homosexual agenda."

The extent of vitriol and threats of violence aimed directly or indirectly at leaders who symbolize the nation's diversity does not exempt conservatives. In Texas, even the Republican House Speaker, Joe Straus, recently faced an attempted ouster by right-wing colleagues who invoked his religion; Straus is Jewish.

Twenty-one years ago, the late Democratic Congressman from California, George Brown, said, "A leader is the one who is perceived as being the most effective servant of the people." More than just the premise of Brown's own 50-year career in public service, the statement recalls the humility, solidarity and commitment to civil rights, shared prosperity, and strong safety net at the heart of progressive politics.

While Daniel Hernandez eschews the title of hero, by his own definition he embodies the archetype. Born the same year as Brown's pronouncement, Hernandez is both heir and exemplar of the tradition Brown symbolized of progressive leadership built on conscientious service and coalition-building.

In an era when some approach public service as a bully pulpit to splinter and stigmatize, or as a stage for their own aggrandizement, Hernandez' caring, daring and eloquence reflect its truest virtues and its capacity to meet great challenges while advancing the common good. For a nation at a crossroads of biblical proportions -- eager to rebound from recession, overcome hateful division, and realize the vast potential of its diversity -- he holds out hope that the best is yet to come.

Hans Johnson is president of Progressive Victory, a consulting firm that assists organizations with data services and strategies for advocacy and fund-raising. He is a blogger for The Huffington Post, a contributing editor at In These Times magazine, and a frequent mainstream news columnist on labor, religion, gay politics, and civil rights.
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