The Political Education of Elizabeth Warren: Supporters of the Massachusetts Democrat Thought She Had a Lock on Ted Kennedy's Old Senate Seat. but the Campaign Has Proved That's Far from True

By Potts, Monica | The American Prospect, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Political Education of Elizabeth Warren: Supporters of the Massachusetts Democrat Thought She Had a Lock on Ted Kennedy's Old Senate Seat. but the Campaign Has Proved That's Far from True


Potts, Monica, The American Prospect


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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, while she was still 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.

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.

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