Consumer Watchdog at 25: Adding Up Hard-Won Victories, Honoring Brave Allies

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The honoree lineup at Consumer Watchdog's 25th-anniversary party on Saturday comprised a vivid portrait of our motto, "A Rage for Justice."  A mother, a wife and a wealthy businessman–all of them turned by corporate injustice into raging advocates–brought the crowd of hundreds in a hotel ballroom to its feet. (Watch the video clips !) A leading lawyer who could be resting in comfort challenged his equally comfortable peers to take the hard cases that confront business as usual.

We left inspired, reminded of why we do this David-vs-Goliath work.

It was uplifting to hear hedge fund founder Thomas Steyer calling for a "revolution" to slap down oil companies and turn clean energy manufacturing into hundreds thousands of working-class jobs, and demand that "business ethics" be more than an oxymoron.

  • Steyer, the billionaire chief of Farallon Capital, led last year's successful underdog battle against an oil industry ballot initiative. Proposition 23, cloaked in a mantra of job creation, would have killed California's green energy laws for the sake of nothing but corporate profit. Check out the short video that introduced Steyer, who received Consumer Watchdog's Philip Burton Public Service Award. The award was handed to Steyer by actor and Proposition 23 spokesman Benjamin Bratt, who also donated countless hours tot he cause. (Burton, our hero, was a California legislator and member of Congress whose own "Rage for Justice" was the title of his biography.)  It's an award that has gone in the past to wildly different honorees including Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Nurses Association head Rose Ann DeMoro, champion of the poor Elizabeth Edwards and actor Dennis Quaid, who won major hospital safety improvements after his newborn twins nearly died from a medication error.
  • Joseph Cotchett, the lawyer who received the Philip Burton Lifetime Legal Achievement Award, brought lawsuits on behalf of the environment in the 1970s that ultimately morphed into the states' highly protective coastal laws. Nearly 40 years later, he kept Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger from selling off historic state assets just to raise some ready cash–and maybe do a favor for certain friendly private investors. In between, he's done a legendary amount of challenging public work–including representation of CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was famously outed by the Bush Administration. Phil Burton's brother John Burton, another distinguished champion of the people, presented the award to Steyer.

The two inductees into our Consumer Advocate Hall for Fame both struck back against health insurance industry greed and misrepresentation, even in the midst of personal tragedy.

  • When insurance giant Cigna denied Hilda Sarkisyan's 17-year-old daughter Nataline a life-saving liver transplant, HIlda left the bedside and went to the streets. She rounded up alliies including the CNA and Consumer Watchdog, and led protests to Cigna's doorstep. She went from mother to tiger–and eventually won a reversal from Cigna, though it was by then too late for Nataline, who succumbed to her leukemia. Now  morphed into public advocate, Sarkisyan is the force behind Nataline's Law, which would lift a federal law that prevents patients who have employer coverage from holding insurance companies accountable.
  • Dana Christensen, who with her husband Doug bought individual insurance that they thought was comprehensive, ended up with nearly half a million dollars in medical debt after Doug succumbed to bone cancer. The insurance was junk–so bad that they were turned away from their hospital while he writhed in pain. She turned grief into determination, and was the key force in stopping Congress from making the same kind of junk insurance a national norm.

We all celebrated what an individual, and a small but determined band of take-no-prisoners advocates, can accomplish in the face of corporate greed and deception. It's the long odds that make victory so satisfying.

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