Elizabeth Warren is one impressive lady and may turn into a rock star candidate. She spoke yesterday at the University of Massachusetts Boston, invited there months ago by Steve Crosby, Dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, to speak as an advocate for “reasonable regulatory reform.” The fact that the ballroom had standing room only and the overflow crowd spilled out into adjacent areas speaks to Warren’s instant appeal as a just-announced candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
Watching her move among the crowd suggests what an effective candidate she may be. Warren is comfortable in her own skin, seeming to really enjoy shaking hands, taking pictures with and interacting with people. Unlike Attorney General Martha Coakley (brainy but stiff), Warren has the warmth and ease of a natural politician, and is anything but the Harvard elitist that Senator Scott Brown’s supporters will portray her to be. (Nor is she simply “the chick who just entered the race,” which is how an out-of-state Brown fundraiser who called our house offensively characterized her.)
Warren’s personal story is as compelling as Brown’s. She was the child of Depression-era parents in Dustbowl Oklahoma. (In 1889, her grandmother, aged 15, had driven a wagon west in that year’s land rush. The family never had much, but her grandmother saw her children gain their places in the world as a policeman, house painter, typist and clerk.) Warren’s father had a heart attack when she was in junior high. Their car was repossessed, and they feared losing their home. She earned money by babysitting and waiting tables, got married at 19 and had a baby at 22. Her schooling was at public institutions, far from “elitist” Harvard, where she now is a professor of law.
But, she said, she grew up at a time when America invested in kids like her, in public schools, highways, power grids, the G.I. Bill, Social Security and Medicare, “a time when parents knew their kids could do better than they did.” That, she says, began to change 30 years ago, when the cost of necessities rose while wages flattened, and people turned to debt to finance their fundamental activities. Washington, she said, changed the rules on debt, and financial institutions were free to work against the middle class, using as their weapons opaque and unintelligible fine print contracts. To Warren, the current financial crisis happened “one lousy mortgage at a time,” and “family by family.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she conceived, advocated for, saw through Congress, and started to implement was up against “the largest lobbying force on the face of the earth.” Its goal was transparency for consumers and accountability by financial institutions. Ultimately, 200 citizens groups joined her David-versus-Goliath cause. But from the time she was a small child, Warren has been one to challenge authority and to stand up and fight for what she believes in. She is rousing when speaking of the need for Washington to “stop giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations, while asking college students to drown in debt and seniors to live on less.”
As it turns out, Warren’s talk of “reasonable regulatory reform” was overpowered by the larger themes she gave voice to, fairness, concern for the middle class, and, above all, opportunity. It’s a positive message. And, while she’ll have to flesh out her candidacy and answer more specific questions (as Margery Eagan warns in Thursday’s Boston Herald ), it was still very exciting to see what Brian McGrory calls “a new kind of contender,” with warmth, brains, inspirational story, guts and integrity.
Warren is unabashedly partisan, as noted in The Atlantic. And, when asked after her speech who in history might be her Senate role model, she replied “someone between (Wisconsin’s) William Proxmire and (Ohio’s) Howard Metzenbaum,” two legendary zealous consumer advocates. But, to those who doubt she can work pragmatically across the aisle, as our toxic times seem to require, the successful creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is Exhibit A. Her vision is the kind of America many of us would aspire to. Elizabeth Warren’s entrance into the race has created a whole new dynamic in the Massachusetts Senate race.
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