Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s gestures grew more emphatic and her light Southern accent more pronounced as the Massachusetts Democrat moved toward a crescendo before an audience in her native Oklahoma. She ticked off the villains: billionaires, giant corporations, hungry politicians and their rigged system.
“Yeah, we got a fight on our hands,” she said, stirring a mostly female crowd that was already on its feet. “A tough fight.”
“And here’s the deal,” she continued. “They have more money than we do. They already run big chunks of government. But here’s the thing I want you to think about: There’s a whole lot more of us than there is of them.”
This was the Elizabeth Warren that many liberals were clamoring to see on the presidential stump in 2016, a Democrat who would go to the country’s deep-red middle and sell her progressive version of prairie populism. Instead, Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernie Sanders swooped in to capture the party’s left while Donald Trump claimed populism for the right.
Warren now sounds like a candidate who wants back in the fight. In that recent 30-minute speech to teachers’ union activists and a 20-minute interview, she seemed to use the word “fight” at least once a minute. Back in Massachusetts days later, on Saturday, she would tell constituents in Holyoke that she would take a “hard look at running for president” — her strongest statement to date on the question.
“Times up,” she said in Holyoke, promising to make a decision after the Nov. 6 midterm election.
Even before Saturday’s acknowledgement, Warren had done everything short of erecting a billboard to suggest she is running for president, in stark contrast to her posture before 2016, when she repeatedly said she was not running.
Her trip to Oklahoma, to speak at a rollicking rally sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers at her high school alma mater, was an opportunity to seize upon progressives’ excitement following a nine-day strike this spring that coincided with successful teacher protests in other conservative states.
It also felt like something of a personal reclamation mission.
This was Warren’s first public speech in the city where she grew up since she entered the Senate in 2013. A low-profile Republican into her adult life, she became an East Coast liberal in recent decades, coinciding with her rise as a Harvard Law School professor, critic of big banks and a consumer crusader who became a top aide in the Obama administration. She entered electoral politics in her 60s.
Warren’s modest upbringing among the oil derricks and flatlands of Oklahoma — the source of her connection to the heartland’s working-class voters and a potential selling point in a national campaign — has been clouded by the controversy that erupted during her 2012 Senate race over her undocumented claims to Native American ancestry. President Trump uses derisive shorthand to rehash the issue, calling her “Pocahontas” despite tribal groups’ complaints that the nickname is racist.
Here within the white and purple brick walls of the cafetorium at Northwest Classen High School, Warren was known as “Liz” to her classmates when she graduated 52 years ago (“Betsy” to her family). “Hello Okies!” she shouted to howls of approval from the unionists who had turned her old school into a tiny island of progressivism within a state that voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Warren was greeted with a flashing “Welcome Home” sign. She recalled the elementary school teacher in nearby Norman who inspired her, Mrs. Lee, the Methodist church where Warren learned she couldn’t sing and the high school debate team that taught her how to argue.
Students at the public high school were known as “silkies” — because they came from the fancy part of town. Warren, however, has said her family struggled along the “ragged edge of the middle class,” uncertain at one point whether they would keep their home after her father suffered a heart attack.
Some in the crowd here wore shirts reading “Nevertheless, she persisted,” recalling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s admonishment of Warren last year when he moved to silence her for disparaging Jeff Sessions during the Senate’s debate over his confirmation as attorney general.
Among the handful of gifts collected by her aides was a patterned blanket that came, they said, from the governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. In recent months Warren has tried to lay to rest questions about whether her ancestry claims aided her career, reflecting her moves toward a possible presidential run.
She gave the Boston Globe extensive access to her personnel records for a story last month and the newspaper interviewed dozens of people involved in hiring decisions throughout her career. The lengthy investigation concluded that her ethnicity claims played no role in her hiring at a series of law school jobs, including at Harvard.
Warren also has released 10 years of income tax returns — a rejoinder to Trump’s failure to release his. She’s begun granting Capitol Hill reporters more attention, ending her longtime practice of refusing to respond to impromptu questions in Senate hallways. She has sent $5,000 donations to all 50 Democratic state parties this year, spoken for candidates in Nevada, Ohio and other states key to presidential contests and raised $15 million for Democratic candidates since she took office, according to aides.
And she has taken a slew of positions intended to curry favor with the left — including support for a movement to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and for proposed environmental legislation and a pledge to refuse donations from federal lobbyists.
Warren has a mixed reputation in the Senate. Her Democratic colleagues appreciate her fundraising prowess, her hold on the party’s activists and her ability to turn a sleepy committee hearing into a viral moment on social media. Yet she has failed to assemble a roster of legislative accomplishments.
Warren has at times rankled fellow Democrats, opening herself to accusations of grandstanding. Earlier this year, she went after politically vulnerable colleagues who voted with Republicans to roll back provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law enacted after the 2008 financial crisis. In 2014, she brought the government to the brink of a shutdown over a similar issue, before relenting.
“I’ve gone out and worked for the team and I’ll continue to do that,” Warren said in an interview. “But at the same time, I’m going to fight hard for what I believe in. It’s not good for American families when Wall Street calls the shots in Washington.”
In a presidential primary, Warren would loom large in a fierce party debate between those like her who want to move the party to the left and those who believe they can peel off Republican moderates and even some Trump supporters with a more centrist message.
“If we get more people to turn out and vote, we win,” Warren said. “This is all about giving people a reason to turn out, a reason to get in the fight, a reason to knock on doors, a reason to run for office, a reason to drag your friends and your family and your neighbors and your co-workers down to the polls on election day.”
Warren mentions Trump only once in her speech here, in a joke about being his favorite sparring partner on Twitter. In the interview, she resists joining calls from some Democrats for impeachment, saying that lawmakers need to focus on protecting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III from any Trump attempt to fire him.
Still, she harnesses the anti-Trump anger on the left to bolster her argument for a more activist party.
“There’s no more, you know, ‘You’re a good citizen because once every two years you show up there and vote,’” she said. “Nope. Citizenship in the Trump era has changed. People are coming off the sidelines saying my country needs me and my voice will be heard in Washington.”
Warren won’t answer whether she should have come off the sidelines in 2016, and whether that might have forestalled the same Trump era that she and other Democrats call an existential threat to the country.
“Nothing good will come of it,” Warren said of looking backward. “We are where we are and we’ve got to put everything into the fight going ahead.”
Her allies have said she wasn’t ready then, and that she believed she wouldn’t have wrested the nomination from Clinton. Even so, in a business said to be all about timing, there are questions whether Warren may have missed her moment.
Colin Reed, a Republican consultant who has watched Warren’s career closely as an aide to her 2012 opponent, former Sen. Scott Brown, and as leader of an opposition research group that targeted her, said she had improved as a candidate. He gives her credit for moving her party.
But sometimes, “you only get one chance at this,” he said, adding, “In 2016, she would have had more of the left-wing populist lane to herself, whereas in 2020 she would have to share that lane with Sen. Sanders and slew of other candidates.”
The crowd at her high school nodded and clapped as Warren recalled the dramatic teachers strike. Its mobilization has fueled progressives’ beliefs that they can field more candidates in the Trump-friendly state. Several of those running for state and local office privately chatted with Warren before her speech.
The visit, which drew attention in the local media, could help cement her relationship with the AFT, the first national union to endorse Clinton in 2016. She also caught up with family. One of her three brothers attended and later they joined other relatives for dinner.
Belying a public image as hard-charging and at times unapproachable, Warren posed for cellphone pictures for more than an hour, whispering into the ears of teenagers, crouching to throw her arm around people in wheelchairs and nodding agreeably to people who brought her books and even an Elizabeth Warren action figure to autograph. (The owner was tickled that the doll was dressed just like Warren, in black pants and a red blazer.)
Despite some supporters declaring themselves “beyond excited” for a Warren 2020 run, others wore Sanders shirts — a pink one said “Talk Bernie to me” — and a few expressed concerns about Warren’s age and electability.
“If she ran I would vote for her, but I think it’s time for us old folks to step aside and let the young crop have a chance,” said Lisa Lunsford, a 58-year-old Oklahoma City banker. She called Warren a hero but approvingly named two other Democratic senators who are prospective candidates — Cory Booker, 49, of New Jersey and Kamala Harris, 53, of San Francisco.
Warren, at 69, is still younger than Trump, 72, as well as Sanders, 77, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 75. But she would certainly be on the older side of what is expected to be a crowded field.
“Right now, I know who I don’t want to be president, but I’m not sure I know who I do,” said Eve Cohn, a chiropractor at Warren’s event.
What many Democrats do want is Warren’s impassioned message.
Randi Weingarten, the influential AFT president who introduced Warren, said that in the Trump era, “People don’t believe that the world is normal or that our leadership is normal. And they believe that you need the fight.”