Who Is Elizabeth Warren?
Politician Elizabeth Warren was the first member of her family to graduate from college, eventually earning her law degree from Rutgers University. After teaching law at several universities, Warren was selected to lead the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. In 2008, she headed the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In November 2012, Warren won election to the U.S. Senate, defeating incumbent Republican Scott Brown. On February 9, 2019, she formally announced that she was running for the presidency in 2020.
Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on June 22, 1949, Elizabeth Warren was the last of four children—and the only daughter—of Donald and Pauline Herring. Warren spent most of her early life on what she referred to as "the ragged edge of the middle class." Her father worked mostly as a maintenance man, and when he suffered a heart attack that created massive medical bills, Warren's mother brought in extra money by working in the catalog-order department at Sears. Warren also began helping out at the age of 13, by waiting tables at her aunt's Mexican restaurant. But despite efforts to relieve the financial strain on the family, money remained tight; Warren recalled her mother's hesitation to take her to the doctor when she was a child because of a lack of finances.
A brilliant student, Warren became a state debate champion and graduated high school at the age of 16. That same year, she entered George Washington University on a full debate scholarship. After two years at the university, Warren left school to marry her high school sweetheart, NASA mathematician Jim Warren. She and Warren moved to Texas, and Elizabeth finished her degree in speech pathology at the University of Houston, becoming the first member of her immediate family to graduate from college.
Elizabeth and her husband moved to New Jersey, where Warren worked in public schools, helping children with disabilities. During this time, Warren gave birth to two children, daughter Amelia and son Alex. The day her first child turned 2, she headed to graduate school to study law at Rutgers University. She earned her J.D. in 1976, and practiced law from her home, becoming known for her scholarly expertise in bankruptcy law.
By 1978, Warren had divorced her first husband. In the year after the split, she began exploring the economic pressures facing the American middle class, looking specifically at a 1978 law passed by Congress that made it easier for companies and individuals to declare bankruptcy. Warren decided to investigate the reasons why Americans were ending up in bankruptcy court, and discovered that most of the financial victims were from middle-class families who had lost jobs, experienced financial hardship from a divorce or suffered illnesses that decimated their savings. From then on, Warren would focus her research on bankruptcy and commercial law—specifically on how it affected financially distressed companies, women, the elderly and the working poor.
In the decade that followed, Warren moved around the country with her second husband—Harvard law professor, Bruce Mann, whom she married in 1980—teaching law at the University of Houston, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. The couple finally settled at Harvard in 1995. That same year, Warren was asked to advise the new National Bankruptcy Review Commission. During Warren's time as chief adviser, she testified against Congressional efforts to limit consumers' ability to file for bankruptcy. Despite her best efforts, the related bill passed in 2005. It was considered a victory for the business lobby and a defeat for Warren.
In November 2008, Warren was tapped by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel, which was created to monitor the $700 billion bank bailout effort known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Warren headed investigations, conducted televised public hearings, led interviews of government officials and submitted monthly reports demanding accountability from banks. For her efforts, the Boston Globe named Warren "Bostonian of the Year" in 2009.
On September 17, 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Elizabeth Warren Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In her roles, she helped design the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. The main goal of the CFPB was to police credit lenders and prevent consumers from unwittingly signing up for risky loans. However, due largely to Republican opposition, Warren was not chosen to head the agency, and she stepped down from the post in August 2011.
Elected to U.S. Senate
On September 14, 2011, Warren officially announced her candidacy for Massachusetts Senate, pitting herself against Republican incumbent Scott Brown. Around this time, a speech Warren delivered went viral on YouTube, endearing Warren to populist supporters. In the clip, filmed in an informal living room meet-and-greet, the Harvard law professor explained how everyone benefits from roads, public safety and the public education system in the United States, which are paid for by taxes. "You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless!" she said. "Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along." The viral video was credited with giving Warren a bump up in the polls.
But Warren's campaign ran into some trouble in early 2012, when she found herself in a media maelstrom over her Native American ancestry claims. Reporters for the Boston Herald could not find any proof of her Cherokee heritage, and a Cherokee genealogist also challenged Warren's assertion. To try to quell the controversy, Warren released a statement to Boston's WBZ-TV. "Growing up, my mother and grandparents often talked about our family's Native American heritage. As a kid, I never thought to ask them for documentation—what kid would?" Warren further explained that "I never sought nor gained personal benefit in school or job applications based on my heritage."
Despite this controversy, in June 2012, Warren clinched the Democratic nomination in the Senate race, facing incumbent Republican opponent, Senator Scott Brown. The candidates were involved in a tight race. A poll released in September 2012 by the Public Policy Polling showed that Brown had a five-point lead over Warren. However, later that month, Warren earned national exposure as one of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, gaining the favor of many critics as well as a slight lead in the polls. At the convention, she heavily discussed the need for economic and government reforms. "America's middle class is getting hammered, and Washington is rigged to work for the big guy," Warren told ABC News.
Warren won the election in November 2012, defeating Brown by 5 percent to 6 percent and earning her first term in the U.S. Senate, making her the first woman ever elected to the post for Massachusetts. On her website, Warren told her constituents: "I won't just be your senator, I will also be your champion."
The month after her election, Warren was selected for a seat on the Senate Banking Committee, which was charged with implementing the Dodd-Frank legislation that she had helped design. After being sworn in to her Senate post in January 2013, Warren set straight to work with the committee, leading its inquiries into banking regulations, and in May she introduced her first bill, the Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act, which proposed that students should receive the same interest rates on their federal loans as banks do on theirs. Warren also earned seats on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the Special Committee on Aging.
In 2014, Warren was chosen to fill the newly created position of Strategic Advisor of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, tasked with reshaping the party's direction and priorities. The appointment, along with the encouragement of various Democratic groups, led to speculation that she was being groomed for a presidential bid in the 2016 elections, but Warren ultimately announced that she would not run.
Choosing her work in the Senate over a bid for the White House, Warren sponsored many pieces of legislation. She championed financial transparency in government legal cases in the Truth in Settlements Act of 2015, which passed the Senate.
In 2016, Warren made headlines for her candid financial advice. She recommended that everyone have an emergency savings fund. Warren told Elle magazine that "I got married when I was 19, and my mother-in-law took me aside and said, 'You always need walking-out-the-door money.'" She took that suggestion to heart, and it was the funds that she had put aside that helped her when she and her husband divorced roughly a decade later.
Warren was also outspoken about the need to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by the death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Some Republicans opposed President Obama naming a replacement, claiming the spot shouldn't be filled until after the 2016 elections. Warren took to Twitter to point out how flawed she thought their thinking was on the issue, tweeting "I can’t find a clause in the Constitution that says '…except when there’s a year left in the term of a Democratic President.'"
In June 2016, Warren endorsed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Later that month, Warren hit the campaign trail with Clinton, making their first joint appearance at an event in Cincinnati, Ohio. "I'm here today, because I'm with her, yes her," Warren told the crowd, referring to Clinton's campaign slogan. Warren also went on the attack in her critiques of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. "When Donald says he'll make America great, he means greater for rich guys just like Donald Trump," she said. "That's who Donald Trump is. ... And you have to watch out for him, because he'll crush you into the dirt."
On July 25, 2016, Warren delivered the keynote address on the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the third woman in history along with Texas Representative Barbara Jordan and Texas Governor Ann Richards to be given the prestigious speaking position. Warren took the opportunity to draw clear distinctions between Clinton and her opponent Trump.
"On one side is a man who inherited a fortune from his father and kept it going by cheating people and skipping out on debts," she said of Trump. "On the other side is one of the smartest, toughest, most tenacious people on the planet — a woman who fights for children, for women, for health care, for human rights, a woman who fights for all of us, and who is strong enough to win those fights."
Voice of Opposition
On November 8, 2016, Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by almost 3 million votes, but in a historic victory won the electoral college and was elected the 45th president of the United States.
A day after President Trump's inauguration on January 22, 2016, Warren joined the Boston Women's March for America, a sister march of the historic Women's March on Washington. "This gathering is a chance for us to come together to make clear that we believe in basic dignity, respect, and equal rights for every person in this country, and that we are committed to fighting back against bigotry in all its forms," Warren said in a statement.
Senator Warren also immediately voiced opposition to President Trump's executive order to implement a travel ban on immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for at least 90 days, temporarily suspend the entry of refugees for 120 days and bar Syrian refugees indefinitely. Thousands of demonstrators protested at airports around the country, and Warren joined those gathered at Boston's Logan International Airport.
She also was a vocal opponent of many of the president's cabinet nominees, including Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama for attorney general. In a speech opposing Senator Sessions's nomination, Warren quoted former Senator Edward Kennedy, who had been a member of the Senate Judiciary committee in 1986 when Sessions was nominated by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship. Warren read Kennedy’s words about Sessions: “He is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.”
Warren then began to read a letter from late civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which she wrote in 1986 to urge the Senate to reject Sessions's nomination as a federal judge. As Warren read Coretta Scott King's letter to the Senate, she was interrupted by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and was told she had breached provisions of the Senate's Rule 19 because she had "impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama."
After being silenced by her Senate colleagues, Warren read the letter aloud on Facebook live in a video that went viral and was viewed more than 7.2 million times.
In November 2017, following a stunning claim by former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile that the Clinton campaign had control over the DNC and that the "system" was rigged "to throw the primary to Hillary" in 2016, Warren publicly agreed with that analysis during a CNN interview.
"This is a real problem," Warren conceded. "But what we've got to do as Democrats now, is we've got to hold this party accountable."
In another interview on Meet the Press, she brushed off one newspaper's suggestion that she take a DNA test to verify her claims of Native American bloodlines, again noting that she never sought any special treatment for that aspect of her heritage. (She later released the DNA results that showed "strong evidence" of Native American ancestry going back six to 10 generations.)
That August, Warren introduced the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, legislation she said was designed to "eliminate the influence of money in federal government." Among its provisions, the bill would prohibit federal lawmakers, judges, Cabinet secretaries and other senior congressional staff from owning individual stocks while holding office, and establish a series of measures to curb lobbying efforts.
The bill would also require the IRS to release tax returns for congressional candidates from the previous two years and during each year in office, and for presidential candidates to also share their tax returns. In conjunction with that proposal, Warren released her tax returns from the past 10 years online.
2020 Presidential Race
On December 31, 2018, Warren became one of the first prominent Democrats to announce the formation of an exploratory committee to run for U.S. president in 2020. The announcement came by way of a video message to supporters, in which she decried the practices of big corporations and cited her work on financial protections for consumers.
From the start, Warren's campaign carried the baggage of her missteps with claims of Native American heritage, but she drew favorable attention for a CNN-sponsored town hall in March 2019, during which she emotionally revealed her family's struggles with finances when she was a child. Prior to another town hall in April, she revealed details of a proposal to cover tuition at public colleges and eliminate student-loan debt for millions of Americans.
By late July, Warren had made steady gains in the national polls, rendering her a target of fellow candidates during the second round of Democratic debates. She parried some of the attacks as "Republican talking points" and drew applause for her rebuttal of John Delaney's calls for pragmatism, noting, "I don't understand why anybody goes to the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for."
Pressured to describe how she intended to pay for a "Medicare for all" program to provide free health care for Americans, Warren revealed a $20.5 trillion health care proposal in early November. Under her plan, employers would continue contributing toward overall coverage expenses (though employees would trade in their company insurance for the government one), with additional funds to be raised through an altered income tax policy and the taxing of financial transactions like stock trades.
Toward the end of the year, the Massachusetts senator faced a new threat when the fast-rising Pete Buttigieg jumped ahead of her in the polls. Warren regained some momentum with her pointed attacks of Michael Bloomberg in a pair of February 2020 debates, though she still trailed fellow progressive Bernie Sanders in the polling and delegate count.
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