Senator Elizabeth Warren at Netroots Nation 2019
Senator Elizabeth Warren participates in the Netroots Nation 2019 presidential forum (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/Northwest Progressive Institute)

Wel­come to Meet the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls, a recur­ring Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate fea­ture we’ve cre­at­ed to help you get to know the peo­ple seek­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion for Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

In this install­ment, we’ll get to know Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren, the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date to launch a 2020 campaign.

War­ren – who was the tar­get of a “Draft War­ren” effort four years ago – announced the for­ma­tion of an explorato­ry com­mit­tee on New Year’s Eve 2018, and offi­cial­ly declared her can­di­da­cy on Feb­ru­ary 9th, 2019.

War­ren is one of the Senate’s most pro­gres­sive mem­bers, and as a for­mer Har­vard law pro­fes­sor, she is one of the smartest too.

Senator Elizabeth Warren at Netroots Nation 2019
Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren par­tic­i­pates in the Net­roots Nation 2019 pres­i­den­tial forum (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/Northwest Pro­gres­sive Institute)

She has ded­i­cat­ed her career to help­ing America’s low and mid­dle income fam­i­lies, a pas­sion which emerged ear­ly on in her life. Eliz­a­beth Her­ring was born in Okla­homa City in 1949, the fourth child of a mid­dle income fam­i­ly. When Eliz­a­beth was only eleven, her father Don­ald suf­fered a heart attack that beset the fam­i­ly with med­ical bills and reduced the family’s income sig­nif­i­cant­ly. War­ren would lat­er describe this expe­ri­ence as liv­ing on “the ragged edge of the mid­dle class.”

Her­ring escaped her family’s hard­ships through her high school debate team. She flour­ished on a diet of ideas from out­side her small, inward-look­ing Okla­homa com­mu­ni­ty. At the age of six­teen, Eliz­a­beth left home to attend George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty on a debate schol­ar­ship. Two years lat­er, Eliz­a­beth mar­ried her high school boyfriend, Jim War­ren, and moved to live with Jim in Texas.

Despite being a mar­ried teenag­er in the 1960s, Eliz­a­beth decid­ed to con­tin­ue her edu­ca­tion and grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton in 1970.

The War­rens moved to New Jer­sey, where they had their first child in 1971. Eliz­a­beth worked as a teacher, then enrolled in law school at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, where she gained a doc­tor­ate in law and passed the bar in 1976. A year lat­er she began her decades-long career as a lec­tur­er, start­ing at Rut­gers law school.

In 1978, Jim and Eliz­a­beth War­ren divorced (Eliz­a­beth kept her mar­ried sur­name). Two years lat­er, she mar­ried law pro­fes­sor Bruce Mann.

Since begin­ning her lec­tur­ing career in 1977, War­ren has taught law at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, and Har­vard. War­ren has spent most of her career research­ing bank­rupt­cy and mid­dle-class finan­cial issues.

At first, she approached the issue skep­ti­cal­ly, believ­ing that the increase in bank­rupt­cies in the 1980s was a result of oppor­tunists gam­ing the legal system.

What she and two research col­leagues dis­cov­ered shocked her pro­found­ly; most bank­rupts were ordi­nary mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans beset by ill­ness, fam­i­ly breakup, or job loss. War­ren also dis­cov­ered how the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the New Deal finan­cial reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem in the 1980s allowed big banks to prey on their cus­tomers with increas­ing­ly cru­el and dis­hon­est tactics.

In 1995, Pro­fes­sor War­ren was hired by the Clin­ton Admin­is­tra­tion to head the Nation­al Bank­rupt­cy Review Com­mis­sion. Under her lead­er­ship, the Com­mis­sion fought for fair­er rules in the finan­cial sys­tem, argu­ing that big banks had too much pow­er over con­sumers and that he sys­tem made it too hard for ordi­nary peo­ple to sort out their finan­cial affairs. How­ev­er, War­ren was tak­ing on the entrenched pow­er of Wall Street, and the Commission’s mis­sion ulti­mate­ly fell apart in 2005.

This might have brought an igno­min­ious end to Warren’s polit­i­cal career, were it not for the fact that glob­al finan­cial melt­down erupt­ed just three years later.

As the cor­rup­tion and incom­pe­tence of America’s finan­cial sec­tor brought the entire econ­o­my crash­ing down, War­ren – who had spent decades warn­ing about just these issues – sud­den­ly became à la mode.

In Novem­ber 2008, War­ren was picked by the out­go­ing Bush admin­is­tra­tion to over­see the Emer­gency Eco­nom­ic Sta­bi­liza­tion Act (EESA, com­mon­ly known as the bank bailout bill) and over $700 bil­lion in fed­er­al fund­ing. She used her posi­tion to grill top bankers and Trea­sury offi­cials in tele­vised hear­ings, gain­ing nation­al pop­u­lar­i­ty overnight when she “evis­cer­at­ed” Tim Gei­th­n­er, a cen­tral banker, and the video became pop­u­lar on YouTube. It was around this time that many top bankers report­ed­ly began refer­ring to her as “The Dev­il Incarnate.”

In the first years of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, War­ren set her sights on estab­lish­ing a fed­er­al agency to guard con­sumers against the rapac­i­ty of finan­cial insti­tu­tions. The Con­sumer Finan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau (CFPB) was final­ly estab­lished in Sep­tem­ber 2010 after a long polit­i­cal bat­tle as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act – a fight where many Democ­rats sided with the Repub­li­cans and the worst ele­ments of the finan­cial sector.

Despite her tri­umph, War­ren was denied the prize of lead­ing the insti­tu­tion that was essen­tial­ly her baby. The White House had no appetite for anoth­er drawn-out bat­tle with the Repub­li­cans and right-wing Democ­rats (War­ren had already writ­ten that she was will­ing to fight for the agency until there was “plen­ty of blood and teeth left on the floor”), and appoint­ed Richard Cor­dray of Ohio in an attempt to mol­li­fy the CFPB’s oppo­nents (who were not mollified).

At this point, War­ren had been fight­ing for a clear vision of con­sumer rights and finan­cial reg­u­la­tion for fif­teen years, and yet she had been repeat­ed­ly ignored, over­looked and dis­missed by the polit­i­cal sys­tem she had been try­ing to help. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, she began look­ing for a way that she could influ­ence pol­i­tics with­out being pushed aside. She decid­ed to run for the U.S. Senate.

In Novem­ber of 2012, after an incred­i­bly fierce cam­paign, War­ren beat Scott Brown, a favorite of the bank­ing lob­by, becom­ing the first ever woman to rep­re­sent Mass­a­chu­setts in the U.S. Sen­ate. By defeat­ing Brown, War­ren reclaimed the seat Ted Kennedy had held for decades for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

Sen­a­tor War­ren was assigned a seat on the Sen­ate bank­ing com­mit­tee, and used it to revis­it her EESA days, fero­cious­ly inter­ro­gat­ing the finan­cial reg­u­la­tors who had failed to pre­dict or pre­vent the 2008 Crash.

She also upbraid­ed cor­rupt bankers, famous­ly demand­ing that Wells Fargo’s CEO resign to his face, after ques­tion­ing him for his role in the bank’s wide­spread ille­gal prac­tices. John Stumpf resigned a month after the hearing.

Despite being one of the Senate’s most pro­gres­sive mem­bers, she has proven to be adept at reach­ing across the aisle. In 2015, she worked with Repub­li­can stal­wart John McCain and Maine inde­pen­dent Angus King in a bid to rein­tro­duce the Glass-Stea­gall Act (one of the mea­sures adopt­ed by Con­gress and signed by FDR after the Great Crash of 1929 and the ensu­ing Great Depression).

In 2016, many pro­gres­sive Democ­rats hoped that War­ren would run for Pres­i­dent. How­ev­er, War­ren stayed well out of the fray. She decid­ed against run­ning, leav­ing only Bernie Sanders, Mar­tin O’Malley, and a smat­ter­ing of rel­a­tive unknowns to chal­lenge the polit­i­cal behe­moth that was the Clin­ton campaign.

Since Don­ald Trump’s Elec­toral Col­lege vic­to­ry, War­ren has been one of his fore­most oppo­nents in the Sen­ate. She has the third most anti-Trump record of any­body in the upper house, hav­ing only sided with Trump 13% of the time.

War­ren turned heads when Mitch McConnell was work­ing to con­firm Jeff Ses­sions as the nation’s Attor­ney Gen­er­al. In Sen­ate hear­ings, War­ren read aloud from a let­ter con­demn­ing Ses­sions’ racism, writ­ten in 1986 by the civ­il rights activist Coret­ta Scott-King (the wid­ow of Mar­tin Luther King Jr).

Warren’s ques­tions were inter­rupt­ed by top Repub­li­can Mitch McConnell, who used Sen­ate Rule 19 to silence War­ren for “impugn­ing” his good friend Ses­sions. McConnell patron­iz­ing­ly and infa­mous­ly stat­ed: “She was warned. She was giv­en an expla­na­tion. Nev­er­the­less, she persisted.”

Rather than cow­ing War­ren, McConnell’s words were turned into a fem­i­nist slo­gan. Warren’s own cam­paign cre­at­ed signs with the slo­gan “Per­sist”.

War­ren won reelec­tion in 2018 eas­i­ly, win­ning over 60% of the vote. In Decem­ber, as men­tioned, she announced that she had formed an explorato­ry com­mit­tee into a pres­i­den­tial run, which she con­firmed this Feb­ru­ary. She was the first major Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date to announce her cam­paign to become President.

Warren’s cam­paign faced trou­ble at the outset.

In late 2018, the Sen­a­tor became embroiled in a bat­tle with the Pres­i­dent over her Native Amer­i­can ances­try. In the 1980s and 1990s, War­ren reg­is­tered her­self as a per­son with par­tial Native Amer­i­can ances­try while she worked at the Uni­ver­si­ties of Penn­syl­va­nia and Har­vard. Trump seized upon this as a chance to dis­cred­it her aca­d­e­m­ic record (despite the fact that her claimed ances­try nev­er gave her any career advan­tages) and – more impor­tant­ly for this century’s most racist pres­i­dent – stir up the vir­u­lent racism of his ardent supporters.

Dub­bing War­ren “Poc­a­hon­tas,” Trump chal­lenged her to take a DNA test to “show you’re an Indi­an.” War­ren answered these taunts and released a video dis­clos­ing results of a DNA test. Ana­lysts agreed that the mat­ter had been bad­ly han­dled, and some even wrote Warren’s cam­paign off as doomed.

How­ev­er, War­ren con­tin­ued cam­paign­ing and slow­ly, bit by bit, she has climbed in the polling. Unlike can­di­dates like Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke, who rely on their per­son­al charis­ma and rep­u­ta­tion, War­ren has adopt­ed an approach that is laser-focused on pol­i­cy issues – her mot­to has become, “I have a plan for that!

Cred­i­ble plans for gov­ern­ing are help­ing Warren’s cam­paign catch fire, but War­ren will have to earn the trust of more than just pol­i­cy-ori­ent­ed vot­ers to secure the nom­i­na­tion. She must per­suade finicky vot­ers that she has what it takes to defeat Don­ald Trump, as many Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers are focused on oust­ing Trump.

War­ren also faces the prob­lem that Hillary Clin­ton and many oth­er female politi­cians have been worn down by – the per­sis­tent sex­ism of the Amer­i­can elec­torate. The USA is one of the few advanced coun­tries that have nev­er had a female leader; even Pak­istan and Kyr­gyzs­tan have had female leaders.

In the Unit­ed States, women can­di­dates are often described – in the lan­guage of cod­ed misog­y­ny – as “unlike­able” or “pow­er-seek­ing” when their male coun­ter­parts rarely are. In a world where Joe Biden’s patron­iz­ing racial insen­si­tiv­i­ty get him the nick­name “Uncle Joe” and Bernie Sanders’ disheveled hair and cur­mud­geon­ly atti­tude help him to be seen as “gen­uine,” War­ren may catch flak because she fails to con­form to the inter­nal­ized stereo­types of voters.

Bailey, Elizabeth Warren's dog
Bai­ley – the War­ren family’s gold­en retriev­er – is work­ing hard to help the Sen­a­tor make a pos­i­tive impres­sion with vot­ers. (Pho­to: Mark Nozell, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

That said, the Sen­a­tor has a huge num­ber of advan­tages in the 2020 race.

While politi­cians who change with the times are suf­fer­ing for it in today’s pol­i­tics (Joe Biden’s racial record has hurt him sig­nif­i­cant­ly) War­ren has a con­sis­tent record going back decades. In the same way that Bernie Sanders’ sup­port­ers in 2016 admired that his con­vic­tions went all the way back to the 1960s, 2020 Democ­rats will be attract­ed to a mes­sage that has decades of con­sis­ten­cy to it.

War­ren is also a per­fect fig­ure­head for the #MeToo moment, espe­cial­ly since Mitch McConnell pro­vid­ed her with the per­fect slo­gan, “Nev­er­the­less, she persisted.”

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty relies heav­i­ly on female vot­ers, and a woman who has stood up to sex­ism from Don­ald Trump, Sen­ate Repub­li­cans and fat-cat bankers can cred­i­bly claim that she is capa­ble of tak­ing on the tough­est of adversaries.

War­ren also sits atop a poten­tial­ly broad nexus of sup­port. She is undoubt­ed­ly pop­u­lar amongst the pro­gres­sive wing of the par­ty, but she also enjoys bet­ter rela­tion­ships with many peo­ple than rivals Bernie Sanders.

Cru­cial­ly, War­ren didn’t gain this insid­er sup­port by back­ing down on her prin­ci­ples, but instead by vig­or­ous­ly sup­port­ing her fel­low Democ­rats. In 2018, the Sen­a­tor redi­rect­ed over $7 mil­lion of her own campaign’s funds to help out state-lev­el can­di­dates, call­ing them to encour­age them hun­dreds of times, and send­ing out dozens of emails on their behalf. While some estab­lish­ment Demo­c­ra­t­ic fig­ures may not love her pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, she is unques­tion­ably a loy­al Democrat.

War­ren has proven her­self to be one of the strongest can­di­dates com­pet­ing in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. Although she has faced some tru­ly fero­cious racism and sex­ism from Trump, and although her cam­paign got off to a slow start, she has found her place in the top tier of the party’s 2020 pres­i­den­tial hopefuls.

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