For the first time ever, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award will honor five individuals — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, U.S. Representative Liz Cheney, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Arizona Representative Russell “Rusty” Bowers, and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss — each for their courage to protect and defend democracy in the United States and abroad.
There is no issue today more important than the fight for democracy. These honorees have placed their careers and lives on the line to protect democratic principles and free and fair elections. They embody what President Kennedy admired most in others—political courage.
In February 2022, as Russia mounted a massive, unprovoked military assault on Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy marshaled the spirit, patriotism, and untiring sacrifice of the Ukrainian people in a life-or-death fight for their country – a struggle that endures to this day. From the first moment of the invasion, Zelenskyy and his family became targets for assassination by Russian forces. In the face of this constant danger, Zelenskyy has led a courageous defense of democratic ideals and political independence. With candor and clarity, he has focused the eyes of the world on the existential threat facing Ukraine, and on the need for robust, uncompromising international engagement and cooperation to safeguard all democratic societies. His principled leadership has strengthened the resolve of Ukrainians and people around the globe to protect and defend the fragile human right of self-determination.
Prior to the election in 2020, Representative Liz Cheney was elected by her colleagues to be chair of the House Republican Conference, making her the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the highest-ranking Republican woman in the history of the House. She has been one of the most conservative members within the Republican Conference. After the election, however, when President Trump falsely claimed that the election was stolen, she repeatedly called on the President to respect the rulings of the courts and his oath of office, and to publicly support the peaceful transfer of power. When the President instead rejected the lawful, certified outcome of the election, she broke with most in her party, urged fidelity to the Constitution, and stood her ground with honor and conviction. She stood against the lawlessness and violence of January 6th, and voted to impeach President Trump, concluding: “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing.” Cheney received numerous death threats after casting her vote in favor of impeachment, and yet refused to take the politically expedient course that most of her party embraced. Because she would not remain silent or ignore the events of January 6th, Cheney’s congressional colleagues stripped her of her leadership position in the GOP caucus. She now serves as the Vice Chair of the Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, and remains a consistent and courageous voice in defense of democracy.
In December 2020, shortly after the presidential election, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was at home putting up Christmas decorations with her young son when armed protestors massed in front of her house demanding that Michigan’s presidential election result be reversed. Protesters called Benson a “traitor” and a “criminal” for defending the certification of Michigan’s accurate results, which favored Joe Biden. Benson, the state’s chief elections officer, did not waver, and defended the will of Michigan voters and assured them that she would protect and defend the integrity of Michigan’s vote in accordance with state law. Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Benson repeatedly refused to back down from fulfilling the duties of her office, even as threats and harassment from then-President Trump and his allies grew increasingly aggressive. Benson continues to speak out about the risks to free and fair elections in Michigan and nationwide, as Trump supporters continue to perpetuate false claims and work to seize control of state and local election processes from duly elected or appointed public servants.
Following the 2020 presidential election, Rusty Bowers, a pro-Trump Republican, resisted intense pressure from Trump and Rudy Giuliani and refused to go along with an illegal scheme to replace Arizona’s legal slate of electors with a false slate of electors who would elect Trump. “As a conservative Republican, I don’t like the results of the presidential election,” Bowers said. “I voted for President Trump and worked hard to reelect him. But I cannot and will not entertain a suggestion that we violate current law to change the outcome of a certified election.” For his decision of conscience, Bowers endured persistent harassment and intimidation tactics from Trump supporters, and later survived an attempt to recall him from the legislature. In January 2022, Bowers again acted to protect the integrity of Arizona elections by stopping a Republican-sponsored bill that would have allowed the legislature to overturn the results of an election. He remains a target for pro-Trump partisans.
In December 2020, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, a full-time employee in the Fulton County Department of Registration & Elections since 2017, became the target of a vicious smear campaign by then-President Trump and his allies who were seeking to overturn the 2020 election. As a registration officer, Moss mostly handles voter applications and absentee ballot requests. She also helps to process the vote count on Election Day, in addition to other duties. In the wake of a close vote that tipped the state of Georgia to Joe Biden, Trump and his supporters falsely accused Moss of processing fake ballots for Biden during the late-night hours of Election Day. After being identified and targeted by Trump and his followers, Moss received so many death threats and racist taunts that she was forced to change her appearance and go into hiding. She carried out her duties remotely as much as possible. Although state officials repeatedly debunked the Trump camp’s lies about Moss, she continued to receive threats and harassing messages from Trump loyalists nearly a year after the election. Despite the onslaught of random, undeserved, and malicious attacks, Moss continues to serve in the Fulton County Department of Registration & Elections doing the hard and unseen work to run our democracy.