Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is controversial in Washington and unpopular on Wall Street, but her rock-star status among the Democratic base has led her to a prime-time speaking slot ahead of former President Clinton at this year’s convention.
After being passed over last year by President Obama to head the newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the now-63-year-old Harvard professor headed to Massachusetts to launch her run against GOP Sen. Scott Brown. The consumer bureau was Warren’s brainchild, and her campaign has focused on reining in Wall Street and protecting consumers—topics she is expected to emphasize when she returns to the national stage with her convention appearance on Wednesday.
Warren is well-suited to make the case for Obama’s economic populism and play up the Democratic line that wealthy Mitt Romney is too out of touch with the average American. “I think [her selection] is Democrats taking full ownership of an election-year ... anti-Wall Street perspective,” said Sean West, head of Eurasia Group’s U.S. practice.
Her strong views on consumer protection and regulating Wall Street have made her unpopular across the aisle while attracting loyal followers from her own party. The conventions are “really about mobilizing the faithful and the idea is, she’s one of the stars,” said David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College.
A Wild West-themed hip-hop video created by Warren’s supporters in 2010 depicted her as the sheriff of Wall Street and warned bankers to “watch out.” Another parody video joked that she joined a gang when she was only 11 to highlight her reputation for toughness.
Warren comes from “a long line of hardscrabble Okies,” she wrote in the 2005 consumer-finance book she coauthored with her daughter. In the book, Warren detailed her father’s loss of the family’s life savings to a “crooked business partner” just before she was born. Her family was listed as “poor” in her college financial-aid applications, but she ultimately received a B.S. from the University of Houston in 1970 and a J.D. from Rutgers University in 1976. She began teaching at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s.
Her specialty, bankruptcy law, is “not an area you choose to work on if you’re planning on a political career,” said Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending. Still, Warren ended up in Washington, rising to prominence when serving as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She then led the effort to get CFPB off the ground.
The consumer bureau was one of the more contentious pieces of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation, inspiring 44 out of 47 Republican senators to send a letter in May 2011 to Obama saying they would not confirm any nominees to head the bureau until structural changes to increase CFPB’s accountability were made. So the president appointed Richard Cordray, a Warren ally, by recess appointment.
With her work at CFPB behind her, Warren announced her bid last September for the Senate seat formerly held by Democrat Edward Kennedy, which Brown had won in a 2010 special election after Kennedy’s death. Her selection as convention speaker is “meant to rally the base, but it’s also meant to get her elected,” Eurasia Group’s West said. If Warren’s remarks go well, she is expected to get a polling bump in the Bay State. If she wins, she is likely to take up the reins of retiring Democratic Rep. Barney Frank and retired Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, whose names the finance law bears. Until then, she is expected to stand behind those reforms and push for more.