Warren's political education

Supporters of the Massachusetts Democrat thought she had a lock on Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat. What happened?

Published September 4, 2012 5:45PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

In early October 2011, Shannon Sherman, a pregnant nurse who was two weeks from her due date, met Elizabeth Warren, though she didn’t know it at the time. All Sherman knew was that a friendly woman said hello to her in the ladies’ room at the Massachusetts Nurses Association’s annual conference, asked how far along she was, and shared a chuckle about the difficulties and indignities of the ninth month of pregnancy. Sherman had heard of Warren; the previous summer, the nurses' union had been among the first to endorse the Democrat in the 2012 Senate race, just after she left a job in Washington overseeing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.* Like many progressive groups, the union was eager to encourage Warren to jump into the race for the Senate seat Ted Kennedy had held for 47 years until his death in 2009. Scott Brown, a Republican, had won a special election in January 2010, and Democrats were still aghast over it.

The American Prospect But Sherman wasn’t thinking about all that when the woman in the restroom told her she looked great and wished her luck with the baby. There was no air of importance to signal the presence of a Senate candidate, or a nationally known bankruptcy expert, or the architect of a new federal agency. Sherman thought the woman could have been anybody. She seemed like nobody at all.

But then, a bit later, that woman was addressing the conference. After Warren’s speech, Sherman went up and thanked her. The next day, Sherman—who was chair of her local union chapter—found out that Warren wanted her to give the introduction at the campaign’s kickoff fundraiser. The event would be that night at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston’s gilded Back Bay. A still-surprised Sherman told the audience of roughly a thousand people about meeting Warren the day before and said that Warren would fulfill promises to make America a better country for her soon-to-be-born daughter. When Warren stepped up to the dais, she quipped to the audience, “I think it’s clear that the balance of power is shifting from the golf course to the ladies’ room.”

It was this unassuming charm, combined with her national reputation as a champion of the middle class and foe of Wall Street, that had led Massachusetts progressives to lobby Warren to enter the race. She had spent the previous five years transitioning from a Harvard law professor who studied bankruptcy to the country’s best-known expert on consumer financial products and regulation. After co-writing a book with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, on bankruptcy and the middle class in 2003, she’d become a telegenic expert on the financial travails of everyday families. (Full disclosure: Tyagi is chair of The American Prospect’s board of directors and is chair of the board of the magazine’s publishing partner, Demos.) Like Sheila Bair and Brooksley Born, she’d been a Cassandra in the years leading up to the financial crisis, warning that a disaster like the mortgage crash was coming.

Elizabeth Warren’s ability to speak about financial issues in clear, human terms that anyone could understand made her seem almost preternaturally media-savvy. When she made her second appearance on The Daily Show in January 2010, host Jon Stewart confessed to having the same crush on her that so many liberals had been developing. As she talked about the need for stronger regulations to help consumers, she brought the conversation around to the passion that fueled her work: “This is America’s middle class,” Warren said. “We’ve hacked at it, and chipped at it, and pulled on it for 30 years now, and now, there’s no more to do. Either we fix this problem going forward, or the game really is over.” Stewart said: “When you say it like that, when you look at me like that, I know your husband’s backstage—I still want to make out with you.”

Warren had become a Washington superstar without losing her everyday-ness. Chatting with a young nurse in the ladies’ room showed a genuine friendliness; asking that nurse to open her campaign signaled that she was determined to bring a common touch to her burgeoning political career. At 62, she still carried herself like a lanky teenager. Her light-blond hair had been kept in the same neat crop since she first started to appear in documentaries and on talk shows. She’d taken to rolling the sleeves of her jewel-toned jackets halfway up her forearms, as if she were ready to dig into some hard work: “Well, I guess I’ll just fix this country myself.”

A month before the Copley event, Warren had spoken to a small group of supporters in a private home in Andover, Massachusetts, and one of the attendees posted her remarks on YouTube. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” Warren told them. “Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.” Warren leaned forward as she spoke, brows wrinkled, hands gesturing and almost shaking, as if she were holding back even more emotion. “You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”

The crowd at the Copley had seen that instantly famous homemade video, a clip so popular that it had served as an unofficial, viral campaign launch. The video encapsulated why liberals saw Warren as the next great champion for the cause. For so long, conservatives had been unabashed about their ideology; here, finally, was a liberal doing the same on a national stage. At the kickoff, Warren’s theme—as it would be for the entire campaign—was a variation on her “Nobody got rich on his own” speech. First, though, she offered a bit of biography: that she was the daughter of a janitor in Oklahoma, that her three brothers had served in the military, that she had married her high-school boyfriend at 19, had a child at 22, and was the first of her family to graduate from college. Her first career was as a special-education teacher. She went to law school and graduated in 1976, making her way to Harvard in 1995. “From daughter of a maintenance man to fancy-pants Harvard Law School professor,” she said, “America is a great country.”

Massachusetts Democrats, and liberals across the country, saw in Warren what they no longer saw in Obama—someone who talked about the country as if it needed not just a change in leadership but fundamental repair.

The crowd ate it up. These folks—the sweatered professors, the Beacon Hill Brahmins, the working-class women from Rockland, the professional young women from Boston—were the first to come out and support Warren. They relished the chance to run a financial reformer against a senator who’d taken more money from banks than almost any other member of Congress. They had voted for Barack Obama, and he had disappointed them—especially with his tepid efforts at reform after the bank bailouts. Warren was the antidote, the real thing: In Washington, on cable TV, on NPR, she had given Americans a crash course on why the federal government needed to go back to the post-Depression reforms that both Democrats and Republicans had been so eager to undo for the past 30 years. Massachusetts Democrats, and liberals across the country, saw in Warren what they no longer saw in Obama—someone who talked about the country as if it needed not just a change in leadership but fundamental repair.

The evening had started for Warren at 5:30, when she met with the biggest fundraisers, those who had brought in the maximum amount of $2,500, in a smaller room in the same hotel. It was well after 9 before she was done saying thank you to every last person who waited until they could shake her hand. That would, it seemed, be like a pact, a physical manifestation of their fervent hope that Warren wouldn’t let them down the way Obama had—that she wouldn’t let it change her. She had only a couple of campaign staffers at that point, and they kept trying to nudge her out of the room, but there was always someone else to say hello to. A friend called out, “Liz, have you eaten? Get that woman some food!” Finally, on her way back toward the hotel entrance, Warren veered over to the concierge desk to shake hands with the bellhop. When she made it into a car and left the hotel, she was officially on the campaign trail.

In their enthusiasm for Warren, though, her supporters had overlooked something essential: For all of her experience in Washington, this was her first time as a candidate for any office.

In their enthusiasm for Warren, though, her supporters had overlooked something essential: For all of her experience in Washington, this was her first time as a candidate for any office. The learning curve, even for someone with Warren’s gifts, can be steep. Her political education was about to play out in one of the most expensive, most watched Senate races of 2012. Warren had made her name by preaching progressive economics to progressives. Now she had to appeal to a broader range of voters, including the 17 percent of Democrats who had told pollsters they were going to vote for Scott Brown in 2010.

“These are different roles—somebody who’s very successful in their world, then suddenly you’re in this whole new world,” says Democrat Scott Harshbarger, a former state attorney general who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998. “You’re much more accountable, you live much more in a fishbowl, and people see you only in snapshots. It takes a long time to see the whole person again. You have to learn how to translate who you are into your candidacy.” As many superstar first-time candidates have learned, the translation can be tricky. Sometimes, it’s downright impossible.


Three months later, the Warren campaign was fully staffed and had an experienced chief: Mindy Myers, who’d run then–Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s successful campaign for Senate in 2010. Myers’s arrival signaled a change—a full-blown professional apparatus now surrounded Warren. The candidate would no longer be casually asking young nurses she met in the restroom to introduce her at major events. But her enthusiasm was intact. “My life has become measured out in ever-smaller increments because there’s so much going on in it,” she told me. “I want to be everywhere at all times.”

Spotlight: Liz Warren's Education



Jamelle Bouie interviews Monica Potts, the author of the Liz Warren profile in our September/October issue.

While the grind of the campaign trail usually comes as a painful shock to a political novice, Warren said she was finding it liberating—a welcome change from Washington. She had felt constricted in her role setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Warren had first proposed the agency in an article she wrote in 2007, in the journal Democracy. The Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill, which passed in 2010, had established it. There was huge public support for Warren to be appointed director, but it was clear from the start that congressional Republicans would oppose her nomination. They associated her with an idea, a new regulatory body, that they loathed. Warren also had opposition inside the Obama administration; she’d publicly clashed with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who believed some of the reforms on credit cards, mortgages, and other consumer products Warren called for would cripple the still-fragile banks. The president compromised by naming her a special adviser charged with building the agency for its first 10 months.

As the bureau’s temporary head, every speech Warren gave was vetted by the administration. It felt like a straitjacket for a woman who’d become famous for speaking plainly. “I’d never written a speech in my life before I started work at the agency,” she said. “And I moved over to a world in which every script had been read by more than a dozen people, and they had to sign off before I could get out there and deliver the speech. If I wandered off the text, if I said something in the moment, there was a real price to pay when I got back.” Now that she was campaigning, Warren relished the chance to say what she meant, the way she wanted. It came through not just in the enthusiastic way she spoke about campaigning, but in the loosey-goosey, energetic body language she used on the trail as she darted from voter to voter, grabbing their hands, leaning in and smiling big. “I now get to have conversations with people all over the commonwealth,” she said. “I love meeting people out on the campaign trail.” She had turned “Nobody gets rich on his own” into a more refined stump speech. It was still a message about America’s middle class, but she’d started to sprinkle in references to business owners in Lowell and families in Springfield. “The families I’ve talked with get it,” she said. “They’re living it.”

The campaign trail loved Warren, too. In the first six weeks, she raised $3 million. By the end of December, the first full quarter after she entered the race, she’d raised $5.7 million—almost doubling Scott Brown’s haul. (Brown wasn’t hurting, though: He had $7 million in the bank left over from 2010.) The bulk of her funds came from progressive fans around the country, but Warren had also spent most of the fall and early winter raising money from wealthy Massachusetts Democrats. Her fundraising was so successful, the national media so glowing, her charisma so natural that commenters had already jumped beyond the 2012 Senate race she had yet to win and started speculating about 2016. Her fans not only trusted that she would be a better politician and steward than Obama had been but believed that she could do what Hillary Clinton hadn’t: become the first female president.

But Warren was still a stranger to the majority of Massachusetts voters—and her opponent, born and raised in the state, was not. Her campaign spent $932,000 on advertising toward the end of 2011, mostly on soft-focus spots introducing her life history to the Massachusetts public. Brown had a two-year head start on defining himself for the voters, and he hadn’t stopped campaigning after he won the special election. When the country had belatedly tuned in to that race—after figuring it was a lock for the Democrats, who’d held both Massachusetts Senate seats for three decades—many mistook Brown as a manufactured candidate, propped up by the national Tea Party, spewing focus-grouped talking points: “It’s not the Kennedys’ seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat—it’s the people’s seat.” But Brown, young and handsome and articulate, had traveled the state in his every-guy truck and every-guy barn jacket—which he’s still driving and wearing in 2012. He’d pitched himself as a lifelong middle-class Massachusettsan that regular folks could relate to and out-campaigned the Democrat, Attorney General Martha Coakley, by a mile.

He’d listened to folks outside of Boston and Cambridge and picked up on their genuine worry that Massachusetts was run by a small cabal of elite Democrats. As soon as Brown was elected with help from national Tea Party groups, he made it clear that he would be no Tea Partier in the Senate. “When Scott Brown first won and made his first moves, I thought he had this election on lockdown,” says Curt Nickisch, a business and technology reporter for the local NPR affiliate, WBUR, who covered the campaign. “I thought he was such a good candidate, and he’s doing all the right things to get voted on as a minority-party candidate in a majority-Democrat state.”

Brown had won over a lot of Democrats in the special election, and polls showed that most voters approved of the job he was doing in the Senate. They also showed that, despite the state’s liberal reputation, 48 percent of Massachusetts voters call themselves independents. Though he’d stuck with the national Republican Party on some key issues—like his vote against extending unemployment insurance during the recession—he’d also bucked the party on important symbolic votes. Brown was the lone Republican to vote to break the filibuster on the appointment of Richard Cordray, Obama’s replacement for Warren (and Warren’s own choice) to head the CFPB. An endorsement from Michael Bloomberg, the Republican-turned-independent mayor of New York City, only reinforced the image of Brown as a call-it-like-I-see-it independent. It was clear to everyone but Warren’s most devout fans that this would be a tight race. The outcome would likely boil down to independent-minded voters and moderate Democrats who were undecided—and would remain that way through the summer.

To court them, Warren had to combat the right’s efforts to portray her as an unrelenting liberal firebrand. It was a perfect illustration of a paradox in American politics. Voters want uncompromising, principled representatives; they also want pragmatic representatives who get things done. “Will Warren be able to continue to be as forthright?” Harshbarger wondered. “And the minute she stops being forthright, will she then be criticized for being run by consultants, they’ve modified her? Sometimes voters don’t want people to call it like they see it. Sometimes they want people to call it like they want it to be.”

In a conversation with the Daily Beast in October, Warren got a hard lesson in striking that balance—in how the conversations she held as a candidate couldn’t be as cozy and free-floating as those she’d had with Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart, or with Shannon Sherman in the ladies’ room. Beast reporter Samuel Jacobs asked Warren what she thought of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Warren responded: “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do. I support what they do.”

The response from liberal bloggers was both, “Well, yes, I guess she’s right,” and “No, don’t say that, Elizabeth!” It seemed unwise for Warren to connect herself so directly to a movement that mainstream voters might view as radical and appeared capable of exploding in ways both good and bad. The way she’d said it also struck a clanging note of self-aggrandizement.

Warren spent the rest of the winter and early spring meeting more locals and doing fewer interviews. The Warren campaign was hammering the point that Brown had voted overwhelmingly in concert with his fellow Republicans, but Massachusetts voters still didn’t see him as a hardcore partisan. Warren criticized congressional Republicans’ resistance to presidential initiatives like the Buffett rule, which would have raised the top tax rates for the country’s highest earners. She started to highlight what she would do differently from Brown and what she would do to shore up her singular accomplishment, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Despite the attacks, Brown stubbornly remained ahead in the polls until the end of March, when the two settled into a statistical dead heat. Five months after Warren entered the race, progressives were beginning to worry: Why wasn’t she winning easily? Why wasn’t Warren’s middle-class crusade translating into the kind of campaign they expected her to run?

It all changed in late April—all the giddiness and glittery promise of Warren’s campaign—though nobody suspected at first. The Boston Herald, the city’s conservative tabloid, reported that Harvard had claimed Warren was Native American to fight accusations that its Law School faculty lacked diversity. It didn’t exactly sound like a blockbuster scandal. But the Brown campaign jumped on the issue immediately, insinuating that Warren had gotten her “fancy-pants” job through some kind of Ivy League affirmative-action scheme. As the Herald continued to play up the issue, it demanded that Warren release all of the documents related to her employment at universities around the country and her tenure at Harvard.

Warren saw it as a nonissue. “I knew how I had grown up,” she told me. “I knew what had happened to my mother and father. … They wanted to get married, and my father’s parents objected. They said you cannot marry her because she is part Cherokee, part Delaware.” Her parents had eloped, and she says her mother’s ancestry remained an issue within the family until her death. “I never thought it would be part of a Senate race one way or another,” Warren said. “The other half of it—I never checked off a box on a college application, law-school application, employment application, so I just never expected this to be an issue. Didn’t understand why it would be.”

That attitude drove Warren’s early response. She didn’t hold a press conference, as some recommended, to answer all questions and put the issue behind her. On May 2, after touring a credit union in Braintree, she briefly took questions from reporters. The budding Cherokee controversy was all they wanted to talk about. Warren answered curtly, recounting the stories she’d been told as a girl. Her chummy relationship with the press was beginning to change. She had always asked, at the end of interviews, “Did you get what you need?” in a tone that said, “I hope this interview was helpful.” But at the May event, she ended her question-taking period with a noticeably snippier “Did you get what you need?” Reporters said the shift in tone was unmistakable: “I’m done with you now.”

He was hoping to capitalize on the cracks that rarely showed among Democrats in the state but had appeared in 2008: Hillary Clinton Democrats versus Barack Obama Democrats.

Brown’s campaign continued to push Harvard to release all the documents related to the Cherokee issue, and the Herald kept reporting the story as if it were the Massachusetts equivalent of Watergate. The controversy played perfectly into the Brown campaign’s larger strategy. He was hoping to capitalize on the cracks that rarely showed among Democrats in the state but had appeared in 2008: Hillary Clinton Democrats versus Barack Obama Democrats. The Clinton Democrats were working-class. They were white. They were suspicious of affirmative action. They had helped elect Mitt Romney as governor in 2002 and Brown to the Senate in 2010.

They also, by and large, resented Harvard, the embodiment of liberal elitism, which was as far away to them as it was to Warren as a child in Oklahoma. Plenty of political leaders had come from Cambridge, but the university certainly didn’t have a reputation for producing the kind of everywoman Warren was running as. The Cherokee faux scandal tied Warren back to Harvard, again and again. The Brown campaign wanted voters to question the image she presented: the daughter-of-a-janitor background, the lifelong passion for struggling middle-class families, the folksy charm. Brown and his campaign always referred to her as “Professor Warren.” They understood that her image was still up for grabs and they could shape it.

 The Cherokee scandal marked the first time the press had treated Warren like a regular politician, and she’d seemed unprepared, even amateurish at times. “Political analysts here didn’t feel like she handled it well,” says Curt Nickisch. “It kept poking along for weeks at a time when Brown was busy in Congress and she could have been making some hay.” The political cognoscenti had made the same criticisms during Richard Blumenthal’s 2010 campaign, Myers’s last big race. After The New York Times reported that Blumenthal had never served in Vietnam, as he had often claimed, the candidate issued a brief apology and then tried to treat it as a nonissue. He also never attacked his opponent, Linda McMahon, a former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. The conventional wisdom was that Blumenthal prevailed despite his campaign. For Warren’s supporters, the parallel was worrisome.

Warren also wanted to take the high road, to be above the fray, especially when it came to hitting back at Brown. But she was in the fray. The polls, and the money, were tightly knotted. Brown, with an assist from the Herald, had put a dent in Warren’s sparkliness and prevented her from making it a campaign about the middle class, about consumers versus financial predators. Warren would either emerge bruised but stronger, or soured, derailed from her sense of mission, another can’t-miss candidate who couldn’t hack it.

Campaigns have seasons, as Warren likes to say, and throughout the spring and summer, it was mostly the season of shaking hands, raising more money, and trying to get the Cherokee business behind her. She celebrated her 63rd birthday in June and spent a not-so-quiet 32nd anniversary with her second husband, Harvard law professor Bruce Mann, on July 12—an anniversary that generated a flurry of press attention because it was shared with Brown and his wife. Otherwise, she spent her time traversing the state, attending practically every summer festival Massachusetts had to offer. The campaigns were still accusing each other of avoiding debates—hardly the high-minded conversation Warren had envisioned. Some of the local press criticized Warren for not scheduling enough public events, of campaigning by fundraiser in the deepest-blue parts of the state. Brown charged Warren with hating businesses—and in July, he got an assist from President Obama. Warren was still giving her “Nobody got there on his own” speech about government investment, but Obama flubbed the line in July with his “You didn’t build that” speech. Fox News and Republicans were now hammering away at them as anti-capitalist twins. Warren didn’t back down: “I meant what I said.”

The summer was a dragging, anxiety-inducing time, anyway. The undecided independents with the power to shift the race seemed to have no interest in it yet. They’d tune in after Labor Day, when Brown and Warren would finally debate, and when the campaign would move into its last season—election season. Besides, both campaigns had more than enough for their own ads. After starting with a significant money deficit, Warren had almost caught up with Brown by the end of June, with $13.6 million on hand to Brown’s $15.5 million. The polls continued to show a statistical dead heat—hardly a disaster for a first-time candidate. No matter the hits Warren had taken during the Cherokee episode, that story at least had broken early. There were still four months to use the lessons she’d learned. Her missteps hadn’t destroyed her chances of winning.

On July 17, Warren had a chance to push the reset button. The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, hosted a well-publicized forum with Warren. She gave a short talk—a lecture, really, one that she’d given often. It was a brief rundown of how, through most of history, extending back into the Bible, laws had protected borrowers before lenders and how that had changed in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. The library was packed with supporters, and this was the Liz Warren they loved. It was also the kind of speech that allowed Brown to continually hammer her as professorial.

When she finished, Warren sat down on a bench onstage with moderator Christopher Lydon, a stalwart of Boston liberalism who formerly hosted The Connection on WBUR and once ran for mayor of Boston. He told her before he began that he hoped their time together would be less like an interview and more like an intimate conversation between friends on a park bench. Warren crinkled her eyebrows, looked out at the audience, and joked, “There are 600 people watching!” She was back: the charming, breezy Warren who had so unself-consciously chortled with Jon Stewart when he cracked that he wanted to make out with her.

But when Lydon and Warren veered into politics, that Elizabeth Warren seemed to vanish. Lydon asked about the influence of money in campaigns, and her answer bore none of the easy, confident fluency she’d so often shown in the past. “We had a vote just yesterday on exactly that question,” she began. “Everyone in this room remembers Citizens United, where the United States Supreme Court said that the richest people in America, the biggest corporations in America, can seize the electoral process and squeeze as hard as it wants. … But it did leave open one part. It said it is permissible for Congress to demand full transparency on that. … That’s known as the Disclose Act. So, Congress tried, the Senate tried to pass the Disclose Act—there was a vote on this yesterday—and again, I’m just reporting the facts, my Republican opponent Scott Brown and every other Republican filibustered so that the people that are pumping money into these independent groups can remain secret.” She wound up: “Even the smallest reform has been blocked by the Republicans on this one, and that’s just wrong.”

Clearly, this was meant to reinforce a campaign theme from the Warren camp, showing how often Brown sided with his fellow Republicans. But the point was made in a long, winding statement, and it didn’t feel like Warren was speaking to Lydon or the audience as much as she was trying to hit bullet points. The mechanics were almost visible, as if the gears were working in the person Elizabeth Warren to convey the thoughts of candidate Elizabeth Warren. It was as though she’d just learned how to ride a bike and forgotten how to walk in the process.

Lydon brought up an anecdote he’d heard: Warren, while she served on the bankruptcy panel during Clinton’s presidency, had known the first lady, Hillary Clinton. Clinton had supported Warren’s work and opposed changes to bankruptcy law. But later, when Clinton was in the Senate, she’d turned around and voted for changes Warren opposed. Lydon quoted what Warren had said at the time: “If she can’t take the heat, who can?” Later, Lydon asked Warren if she thought she could withstand the same pressures Hillary had sometimes caved to, or whether she’d just join the old boy’s club of the Senate. “Nobody’s fooled about what I stand for,” she started to answer. He interrupted: “No one was fooled by what Hillary stood for.” He was trying to raise, in a roundabout way, a concern that Warren’s fans had worried about since the race with Brown had begun: Was it possible to enter politics without being compromised? Warren knew what he was getting at. “Oh, I think there’s a real question about what people run for,” she replied. She added that she got into the race to uphold her principles, “not because this was a great career move for me.” The implication was that other politicians, including Clinton, were in it for themselves. It was a pretty harsh dig at a Democrat admired by many in Massachusetts, whether or not Warren meant it to be. Like Obama on occasion, she was trying to sound self-effacing but ended up being self-aggrandizing.

Warren stuck around afterward to shake hands. This was a crowd similar to the one that had cheered her announcement last October—her diehard fans, the same folks who’d urged her to run in the first place. But there was anxiety in the air where excitement had been. During the interview, Lydon had asked her, half-jokingly, “Why is your race close?” Warren didn’t answer that question, but it had elicited nervous laughter from the audience.

Massachusetts Democrats had assumed that a strong candidate like Warren would snatch the seat from Brown with ease—that he was a fluke. They now knew that wasn’t the case. Maybe their expectations were so high because it hadn’t occurred to them that someone as smart and accomplished as Warren still had something to learn. They were ready for her to talk about what kind of senator she would be. Before the race had started, they’d looked at her and thought she could be another Ted Kennedy: A senator who used the position to push the issues she cared about and who actually had enough clout to get things done. The way she’d spoken about Kennedy at the library—briefly, but with great admiration—they thought she could be one still. They needed more proof than promise, though. They wanted assurance that the old Warren would return. Congressman Barney Frank, one of the people who had encouraged Warren to run for Senate and who was used to balancing liberal fantasies with political realities, has little patience for this hand-wringing. “She’s trying to get people to vote for her,” he says. “Do they not understand democracy? Are they not in favor of winning?”

The following day, Warren’s campaign took her into parts of the state where the Clinton Democrats live. She visited a sheet-metal workers’ union training facility in Dorchester and shook hands at local businesses on the town square in Roslindale, on the outskirts of Boston. She was trailed by four members of her communications team and at least six reporters at any given time, including one from a Roslindale website called Wicked Local. It was too big an entourage to fit into the Fornax Bread Company or the nonprofit thrift store whose manager, Chris Roth, was listening to guitar music. Roth told Warren he was dismayed about the huge amounts of money that had taken over politics and said he had a friend running to be a state representative in Cambridge who was refusing to raise any money.

“That’s right,” Warren said. “The whole problem—”

Roth kept talking about his friend.

“The whole problem—”

Roth continued the story about his friend.

“That’s good,” Warren interjected. Then she repeated, almost word for word, what she’d said the night before. “The Supreme Court said that the wealthiest people can grab the electoral process by the throat and squeeze as hard as they want, make contributions, but they did say that Congress could force them at least to tell who’s putting money in. Yesterday there was a vote in the Senate on the Disclose Act, to make clear who’s making those contributions to these independent outfits, and Scott Brown and every Republican voted against it, filibustered it, so that the big money gets to continue to make its contributions in secret. And I, I see no defense for that. … That’s just wrong.”

By Monica Potts

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