Democrat Elizabeth Warren, 63, the Harvard law professor who beat Republican Sen. Scott Brown in one of the fall’s marquee races, is a nationally known champion of middle-class families and a critic of Wall Street and big banks. Her toppling of Brown thrilled liberal activists, many of whom see her as a feisty guardian of consumers’ interests.
Warren traces her political convictions to both her academic research and her hardscrabble origins. “It’s part biography and part seeing what’s happening,” Warren said in an interview. “Working families have been getting slammed. Washington has been rigged to work for those who can hire an army of lawyers and an army of lobbyists.” While she was growing up, she added, the United States was “a country of expanding opportunities.… Now we talk much more about protecting those who have already made it.”
Warren grew up in Oklahoma City. Her teen years were marred when her father, a maintenance man, suffered a heart attack. His lost pay and his medical bills imperiled the family’s finances; Warren and her mother went to work. But bright young Betsy, as she was known, made it to college on a debate scholarship at the age of 17, and became the first in her family to receive a college diploma.
Warren married young, bore two children, picked up a law degree from Rutgers University in 1976, and went through a divorce, earning an appreciation for working moms. She combined her two passions—law and teaching—as an instructor in law at the universities of Houston, Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and developed a specialty in bankruptcy law before arriving at Harvard in 1992. For many years, according to The Boston Globe, she was the only public law school graduate on the tenured faculty at august Harvard Law School. Along the way, she remarried, to Bruce Mann, also a Harvard law professor.
Warren was a registered Republican as recently as 1996. But the families she met in her research into bankruptcy changed her life. “These were hard-working, middle-class families who by and large had lost jobs, gotten sick, had family breakups, and that’s what was driving them over the edge financially. It changed my vision,” Warren said at an appearance at the University of California (Berkeley) in 2007.
Warren’s expertise in bankruptcy issues brought her to Washington and public policy, and the expert became an advocate. She went on The Daily Show, testified on Capitol Hill, wrote articles and books, served in advisory capacities, and raised alarms about the big financial firms and banks and their lobbyists. Warren helped lead the unsuccessful fight against the 2005 bankruptcy bill, a law that made it tougher for consumers to obtain the protection of the courts.
In 2008, amid the great financial crash, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid named Warren to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, and in 2010 and 2011—as an assistant to President Obama and special adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner—she helped design and launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a legacy of the Dodd-Frank legislation. Her work earned Warren the enmity of the financial industry, and Republicans blocked her expected appointment as the bureau’s first director.
Warren’s experiences in Washington led her to the Senate race, where she challenged Brown for the seat he had won in a 2010 special election after the death of Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. She became a national sensation when a speech she gave, exhorting wealthy Americans to recognize the debt they owe to the community and “pay forward for the next kid who comes along,” went viral. Warren became a Doonesbury cartoon heroine, a liberal darling, and got a prime-time speaking slot at the 2012 Democratic convention.
Money poured into her campaign, and Warren held her own in debates with Brown who, recognizing he was vulnerable, repeatedly censured Warren for claiming that she had Cherokee ancestry. It was a ruse, Brown’s supporters said, that Warren used to exploit affirmative-action plans. Warren denied it, won the election, and vowed to tackle taxes, entitlements, education, and other tough issues. “I am a woman of big appetites,” she said, when asked about the ambitious agenda. “A little wonky, but of big appetites nonetheless.”