Stumped

Elizabeth Warren was supposed to be the Great Liberal Hope, the one Democrat tough enough to evict Scott Brown from Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Then she started campaigning.

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |
Elizabeth Warren Profile

Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP Images

On a sunny afternoon in May, a scrum of reporters has gathered outside the industrial-chic Brookline pizzeria Jimmy’s Bar & Oven. “It looks like a ladies’ garden party in here,” someone says, observing the group of white, middle-aged women in khaki capri pants and glasses who are scuttling about on the patio handing out Elizabeth Warren signs to people walking by.

Warren, the Harvard law professor and sharp-tongued consumer advocate who’s running for Senate, is scheduled to make a campaign stop here any minute. The turnout is pretty good, but it’s been a rough few weeks for the candidate, a stretch that began when the Herald reported that the law schools at both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard have at one time or another listed her in their registries as a Native American. A controversy has been raging ever since, centered primarily on whether Warren falsely identified herself that way in order to get an unfair advantage in the hiring process.

At first, Warren responded to the criticism by insisting that she’s always believed she is, indeed, part Cherokee. Asked for evidence of her heritage, she even replied that her grandfather had high cheekbones. After that, Warren essentially stopped talking about the issue, or anything else. It’s now been 12 silent days since her last press event.

Her inability to come up with a credible explanation for the university records has allowed to fester the impression that she perhaps did bend the rules. The clumsy response has served to underscore the fact that she’s an inexperienced candidate running in her first-ever race. It has also distracted attention from the qualities that drew her supporters to her in the first place: her decisiveness, good judgment, and grace under fire.

When Warren pulls up in a black SUV and jumps out to greet the crowd, her skin is flushed to match her salmon-colored jacket. She spots Louie Goldsmith, a floppy-haired middle schooler wearing an oversize “Elizabeth Warren 2012” T-shirt, and reaches out to shake his hand. “It’s good to see you,” she says. “I hear you’re the top of the heap here.”

“I’m not sure if I’m the top of the heap,” he replies, “but I’m volunteering.”

“Well, I can use the help,” Warren says.

As if on cue, about 15 members of the media, including several TV crews, swarm around her. Fortunately for Warren, she has good things to talk about: A poll released the night before found that she and her opponent, the incumbent Senator Scott Brown, are in a dead heat, and that 69 percent of voters believe the ancestry controversy to be a non-issue. But the reporters ask anyway. Over the next seven minutes, she’s bombarded with questions:

“Are you a minority?”

“Will you come clean to the Cherokee nation?”

“Why did you claim to be a Native American, then stop?”

“Will you just provide us with the documentation and put it to rest?”

Warren tells them she won’t back away from her family history and then says she’s done answering these questions.

A few minutes later, she regroups and climbs onto a chair to speak to supporters. She launches into a story, telling the room about how she conceived of an entire federal agency—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)—then forced it into existence. “The first thing people told me is that it was a great idea, and would make a real difference,” she says. “The second thing they said to me is ‘Don’t do it.’ They said, ‘Don’t do it because you can’t possibly win. The lobbyists will assemble an army, and they will block the CFPB.’” Warren starts making jabbing motions with her hand. “I heard this as try harder! I’ve read too many Nancy Drew novels. I’m the intrepid girl policy­maker.” She promises to build coalitions in the Senate in order to get things done. “How do you do it?” she cries as the crowd applauds wildly. “The answer is to play the outside game.”

Elizabeth Warren Profile

Warren introduces President Obama at a Symphony Hall fundraiser this summer. (Photo by Stephan Savoia/AP Images)

For the better part of 20 years, Joyce Linehan’s innocuous blue cottage in Dorchester has played host to indie-rock icons like the Smashing Pumpkins, Courtney Love, and the Flaming Lips when their tours have brought them through town. “My house was a place where a lot of semi-well-known musicians have stayed,” says Linehan, an arts publicist. “But I didn’t get starstruck until Elizabeth Warren walked through my front door.”

In August 2011, Linehan, who is also a Democratic activist, gathered 70 people in her living room for what was essentially a coming-out party for Elizabeth Warren’s political career. Warren, a consumer finance expert, had spent decades advocating on behalf of the American middle class, and had become known for her ability to take tedious, dry aspects of bankruptcy law and make them seem simple. Her bestselling book, The Two-Income Trap, led to regular appearances on the Dr. Phil talk show. In 2008 she was recruited to Washington to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel for the bank bailout, where she was the watchdog overseeing the disbursement of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), then orchestrated the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency established to “promote fairness and transparency for mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer financial products and services.” In the two and a half years she spent in Washington, her push for stronger consumer-protection laws to benefit working families made her the darling of the left. “I want to make out with you,” Jon Stewart told Warren when she appeared on The Daily Show in January 2010.

The evening of the get-together at her house, Linehan says, she and her circle “were begging” Warren to get in the race. “We knew the kind of scrutiny she’d be under and how difficult it could potentially be for her and her family,” Linehan says. “We genuinely liked the woman…. We were strangers to her, but she wasn’t a stranger to us.”

Warren announced her candidacy last September, and within weeks her ability to electrify her supporters was on full display. A video from an informal talk she gave in Andover lit up YouTube. In the clip, Warren argues that the owners of successful private businesses were aided on their path to wealth by public investments in things like education and infrastructure. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” she says. It wasn’t long before other Massachusetts Democrats dropped out of the race and Warren’s path to her party’s nomination was essentially cleared. In October her campaign announced that it had raised $3.15 million. The Brown-Warren contest made national headlines as the year’s most important non-presidential race.

To her supporters, Warren is the Sheriff of ?Wall Street. Her blunt attacks on the financial sector—she joked that she’d either see the CFPB created or leave “plenty of blood and teeth on the floor”—for its bending and breaking of rules captured the imagination of frustrated liberals who felt the current administration had failed to live up to its promise of hope and change.

To her critics, Warren is a menace, out to gut the financial industry and, with it, capitalism itself. While in Washington, she was portrayed by her Republican detractors as incompetent and boastful. “I think anybody who has had any experience in Washington was quite startled with the way she took that relatively obscure [TARP] position and turned it into a platform to promote herself,” says Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University. For his part, Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina went so far as to call Warren a liar during a Congressional hearing.

In her rise to national prominence, then, Warren has taken her place alongside other Democratic bogeymen like George Soros, the Kennedys, and Nancy Pelosi. And that was before she stated that she was the “intellectual foundation” for Occupy Wall Street.

To nearly everyone who knows her name, Elizabeth Warren has become a symbol. But in the months since she announced her intention to unseat Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren has become something else: a candidate. And that is proving to be the challenge.

Elizabeth Warren Profile

Warren at a news conference addressing the controversy over her Native American heritage. (Photo by Steven Senne/AP Images)

To this day, you can hear a bit of a twang in Warren’s voice, a lingering hint of her Oklahoma City upbringing. She and her three older brothers didn’t exactly grow up poor, but there was always an understanding that money was tight in their home. Her father, Donald Herring, was a carpet salesman and maintenance worker who was swindled out of his life savings by his business partner shortly before Warren was born in 1949. On the trail, Warren tells stories of working before she entered adolescence: nursing a neighbor’s colicky baby when she was nine and waiting tables at age 13. Then, shortly after she entered her teens, her father suffered a heart attack. “Daddy came home, gray and shaking, and he sat around the house for weeks,” she wrote in The Two-Income Trap. Her father later took a job that paid only half his old salary. Her mother, Pauline, went to work part-time filling catalog orders for Sears.

Warren enrolled in the city’s most competitive public school (she graduated at age 16), where she developed a passion for debate that led to a full scholarship at George Washington University in 1966. But Warren left the DC school at 19 after reuniting with her high school boyfriend Jim Warren, whom she married not long after. She finished college at the University of Houston in 1970, began teaching special-needs students, and had her first child, Amelia, the next year.

The family later moved to New Jersey, and Warren enrolled at Rutgers School of Law, from which she graduated in 1976. By then she was pregnant with her son, Alexander, which led to incredulous stares during her interviews at white-shoe Wall Street firms. So she set out on her own, writing up wills and doing real estate closings out of her living room.

In time, the Rutgers law school would offer Warren a part-time teaching position. When the family began considering a move back to Texas, she wrote to the ­University of Houston, asking for a job. “I did my first academic job interview standing in my kitchen at the end of a 20-foot telephone cord,” she recalls, “jiggling a baby in one arm and dodging a five-year-old underfoot while frying pork chops.”

She got the job, but quickly became overwhelmed with juggling her career and her children. “It was hell,” she says. “I loved the teaching, but I had two little babies and I had no support for them. Jim’s position was very straightforward. He said, ‘I like our lives. You don’t have to work. I make a decent living, so if you want to work, this is all on you. I still expect dinner on the table, the kids bathed and ready to go.’” She continues, “In a funny sort of sense, I never held it against him. That had been what he expected when he married me. So I tried, God I tried to keep it all together. And Jim’s view was: ‘Well, then quit. Quit and stay home.’”

Warren instead filed for divorce in 1979. One year later she married fellow law professor Bruce Mann. Warren’s career began to take off, and she was recruited for teaching positions at the universities of Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania before arriving in 1992 at Harvard, where she and Mann are now both on the law school faculty.

Warren’s interest in financial law and regulation began when she was at the University of Houston in 1979 and found herself intrigued by a new code Congress had passed that made it easier to file for bankruptcy. “The changes had been pretty profound, and people were anxious,” her friend and colleague Jay Westbrook recalls. “We wondered, ‘How is this really affecting people?’” So together with Westbrook and Teresa Sullivan, a prominent sociologist (who is now president of the University of Virginia), she set out to better understand who was taking advantage of the new law. Traveling across the country with their own photocopier (Warren insisted they bring it to save money on copies), they pored over thousands of filings and conducted hundreds of interviews with individuals who had filed for bankruptcy. Their work would eventually become the largest empirical study of consumer bankruptcy ever done in this country.

Warren has said that when she started her bankruptcy project, she expected to find that those who’d filed were “all a bunch of cheaters.” But what she ­discovered startled her. “I uncovered how families who worked hard and played by the rules got turned completely upside down by a medical problem, a job loss, or a family breakup,” she recalls. That realization has shaped the bulk of her life’s work.

Elizabeth Warren Profile

Warren meeting supporters at a campaign event in Lowell. (Photo by Elise Amendola/AP Images)

This may be Warren’s first run for office, but that’s not to say she lacks political experience. “She’s not a babe in the woods in Washington circles,” says Adam Levitin, a former Warren student who’s now a Georgetown law professor (he’s teaching at Harvard this fall). “She has long-standing personal relationships with senators.”

Warren first drew the attention of Washington insiders with the 1989 publication of As We Forgive Our Debtors, a book she coauthored with Westbrook and Sullivan that showcased their groundbreaking consumer bankruptcy research. In 1995, she became a senior adviser to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, which was created in response to the skyrocketing rate of bankruptcy filings at the time. “Credit card companies had decided they wanted to rewrite the bankruptcy laws,” she recalls, and they were lobbying to make it more difficult for people to file. For nearly eight years, she worked to keep bankruptcy as a viable option for middle-class debtors. She testified before Congress and submitted briefs to the Supreme Court, arguing that bankruptcy can keep working families from “falling off the cliff” into poverty. Through that process, she came to understand that her ability to convey difficult concepts simply and intelligently could become a political asset.

Melissa Jacoby, a protégé of Warren’s who served as a staff attorney on the review commission, remembers watching her explain bankruptcy policy to Senator Ted Kennedy in the late ’90s. “After a pretty short meeting, Senator Kennedy understood how these issues affected the people that he cared about in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” she says. “He was ready to fight the good fight.”

In time, Warren began to explore not just bankruptcy law, but also what caused people to file in the first place. In 2003, she and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, a former management consultant, published The Two-Income Trap, which argued that the escalating costs of ?housing and education have led to the hollowing-out of the middle class. Warren became the Cassandra of consumer advocacy, railing against credit-default swaps and subprime mortgages, which she contended were preying on hardworking American families. “It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house,” she wrote in the journal Democracy in 2007. “But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street.”

After the 2008 financial crisis, Warren was hailed as a visionary. Senator Harry Reid tapped her to chair the bipartisan Congressional oversight panel set up to ensure that every dollar of the $700 billion in TARP funds handed to the banks was accounted for. Warren produced in-depth monthly reports, appeared on television at every opportunity, and regularly hosted public discussions that became skewering sessions of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. It was her work on this panel—her strident criticisms of Wall Street, the Fed, and Geithner alike—that made her famous.

“I was impressed not just with her knowledge, but her ability to help do things politically with her common sense,” says Congressman Barney Frank, who watched as she navigated through Washington with increasing confidence. The two became close allies during his work on the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which helped establish Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Frank eventually counseled President Obama to name Warren head of the CFPB: “I said to him, ‘You should appoint her. If the Republicans filibuster her they’ll make her a hero, and it’ll be easier for her to run for the Senate.’”

It was an open secret that Warren welcomed taking control of the agency, but her hard-charging ways had left many in Washington—Republicans and Democrats alike—believing that her ideological zeal made her unfit for the role. “Will Elizabeth Warren be as effective as a bureaucrat as she is as a guest on The Daily Show?” Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post.

Warren continued her attacks on Geithner, who by then was said to be openly opposing her nomination. In his new book, Bailout, Neil Barofsky, who served as inspector general for TARP, writes that he’d expected Warren to play nice with the Treasury secretary in the hopes of securing the appointment. “But she just lit him up…. I thought it was a remarkably principled act, the exact opposite of what any other person in Washington angling for a high-profile job would have done.”

Ultimately, Obama did not appoint Warren, angering the thousands of supporters who’d petitioned for her to get the job. That left Warren looking for another outlet to push policy change. Fortunately, one was waiting.

Warren may have been unwilling to play the Washington game in order to secure the job she wanted, but it’s evident that she’s following the rules during her Senate run. At public events, she sticks to her stump speech and rarely strays from her talking points. That means she only occasionally takes questions from supporters. Despite the fact that Warren owes much of her fame to her role as a media darling, her team limits press access. And Warren’s delivery has become increasingly polished, with her campaign stops rarely looking like the bombastic performances that made her a celebrity. “She’s toned down her rhetoric and style to make herself more palatable,” says Boston University political historian Thomas Whalen. “At this point, she’s talking more in platitudes.”

But playing it safe can take a toll. At an event in Roxbury this April, I watched as the 300 community organizers in the room recoiled when Warren abruptly put down the mike after her speech. They’d been told she would be holding a Q?&?A. As she hugged supporters and took pictures on the far side of the room, a small debate took place on the sidelines, with the local politicians who’d hosted the event telling her staffers that this just isn’t how things are done. (Left unanswered was whether the campaign didn’t know about the anticipated Q?&?A or had decided that Warren simply wasn’t ready for questions.) It felt like a missed opportunity.

The truth is that the supposed most-important Senate race in the country has been surprisingly lacking in substance, with the candidates seemingly less concerned about the state of the country than about debate formats, racial heritage, and whether they’ve held secret meetings with foreign monarchs.

When I ask Doug Rubin, Warren’s campaign guru, about the lack of substance, he takes offense. “I think that’s unfair to Elizabeth, honestly,” he says. “If you go back and look at all the press releases and events we have done, we’ve talked about real issues. Substantive issues. It takes two to engage.”

But her struggles are evident in the poll numbers. Though most surveys show the two locked in a dead heat, the numbers reveal that one of Warren’s key talking points—that a vote for Scott Brown is a vote for Wall Street—isn’t resonating (only a third of voters agree). And Brown has scored much better on the all-important likability factor, with the Globe finding earlier in the race that 52 percent of voters thought he was the more likable candidate, while just 26 percent said it was Warren. (Even Democrats “liked” Brown more by two points.)

Still, it’s not all bad news for Warren. She’s raised more money than Brown, including in the second quarter, when she pulled in $8.6 million to his $5 million (her campaign notes that she brought in $3.1 million in June despite the Native-American controversy). And this is still Massachusetts. Brown may be the incumbent, but this is a heavily Democratic state and it’s expected that a whole lot more Democrats will be turning out to vote in November’s presidential election than did in the 2010 special election Brown won.

Then again, polls show that one quarter of Obama supporters are willing to cast their ballot for Brown. That’s the largest crossover margin of any Senate race in the country. Part of the challenge is that Warren is still learning how to be a candidate. Roger Wolfson, who studied under Warren at Penn and went on to work as a staff attorney for senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Ted Kennedy, says she has “exceptional political instincts, but political instincts and campaign instincts are not the same thing. Politicians’ instincts are: How can I move the ball forward for me and my constituents? Campaign instincts are: How can I stick it to my opponent and avoid being stuck to? I don’t think that comes naturally to her.”

The people behind Warren are hardly neophytes—Rubin, for example, helped orchestrate Governor Patrick’s successful grassroots campaigns—and that’s led to questions about what’s going on with Warren’s candidacy.

“Part of the problem with Warren’s campaign is that they’re kind of desperately trying to find a message that’s going to resonate,” says BU’s Whalen. “It strikes me as an amateur-run operation. And this is no time to be trying to be figuring things out. The whole notion with Elizabeth Warren was that she had a clear set of core ideas that she could sell to the voters of the commonwealth. Now she’s a flawed candidate.”

Democratic political strategist Michael Goldman says the campaign must find a better attack against Brown.“She needs to rewrite the narrative on him,” Goldman says. “Explain why [he’s] opposed to the one percent paying more taxes. She has to force him to explain: ‘Whose water are you carrying?’”

Clearly, though, the Warren camp has decided to scale back the aggression. “She’s playing it straight—the frontrunner’s defensive game,” says Democratic strategist Scott Ferson. But he argues that her campaign should be putting Warren in more authentic, unscripted moments. When you do that, he says, “You run risks, but they’re risks worth running because they make the person a better candidate and ultimately a better elected official. These are people who don’t have to be sheltered. They’re smart people who can take a punch as well as throw one.”

In July, Warren and I meet for lunch at the Tavern in the Square pub in Porter Square.

I’ve been promised just 20 minutes today, but even that took weeks of back-and-forth. Warren’s staff has continued to limit press access, and she’s been providing the media only brief sound bites in the wake of her ancestry controversy. However that may play into her campaign strategy, the fact is that the Warren supporters I’ve spoken to lately have been expressing frustration that their candidate lacks the aggressive edge they’ve expected. “I want Elizabeth Warren to win, of course I do,” says Margie Cohen, an independent who attended a South End ice cream social. “But I want her to shape up her campaign.”

Warren arrives to the lunch in a raspberry sweater and sporty reflective sunglasses, with a black backpack slung on her shoulders. She’s gracious and warm, quick with a story and a folksy aphorism, but she sticks to her talking points. So I ask about her likability problem. “‘I don’t know’ is the answer partly,” she responds. “For that you’ll probably need a political pundit.” Has she detected any kind of enthusiasm gap when it comes to her supporters? “You’re the first person to say that there’s an enthusiasm gap at all,” she says. “People tell me everywhere I go why they care that I got in this race. I can’t answer the question because I literally haven’t experienced what you’re talking about.”

There is a moment in Confidence Men, Ron Suskind’s bestseller about the financial crisis, when he describes Warren talking with the president while he’s still on the campaign trail. Obama tells her that the campaign is a “bubble.” Suskind writes that, “Elizabeth Warren would think about the man-in-a-bubble conversation all the way back to Cambridge and many times since.” And you have to wonder whether she’s thinking about it now.

Ferson, the Democratic strategist, has seen the bubble before. It’s typically what you’re dealing with “if you say to someone, ‘You’ve got a real problem,’ and the candidate says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ If you spend your day talking to the faithful who just love you, that’s not an accurate picture of what’s going on out there.”

Then again, Warren’s likability numbers have been on the rise. And she and Brown have a series of debates still to come. And she’ll be sharing the podium with former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. And perhaps all that will give her the edge she needs to win. That and the political calculation that if candidate Elizabeth Warren can hold her mouth in a clenched smile through November, she’ll be able to pull on her gloves and go back to knocking out teeth.

 

Read about Elizabeth Warren’s opponent, Scott Brown.

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