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.
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.
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.