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Politics

Elizabeth Warren’s long path from Oklahoma to Harvard

Elizabeth Warren with her high school debate partner, Karl Johnson, in 1966.
Elizabeth Warren, then Elizabeth Herring, with high school debate partner Karl Johnson in 1966.
(Warren campaign)

When Elizabeth Warren first ran for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 2012, her opponent mocked her as a Harvard elitist, addressing her in debates as “Professor,” dripping out the syllables so it sounded more like an epithet than an honorific.

Warren won anyway, swamping the Republican incumbent, Scott Brown, who had campaigned in a pickup truck.

Now, as she runs for president, Warren faces the same arduous political challenge — rushing to portray herself as a prairie populist from homespun roots in Oklahoma before opponents can paint her as an out-of-touch Ivy League academic.

On the campaign trail, Warren, 70, rarely mentions her two decades at Harvard Law School, where she was once one of the highest-paid professors. She instead highlights her upbringing in a state known for wide expanses and oil pump jacks, saying she dreamed of becoming a schoolteacher when she lined up her “dollies” and learned the lessons “my momma told me.”

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“Any Okies?” she asked supporters at a recent rally in Seattle. “Oh, we got some right here. Woohoo!”

In speeches, she poignantly recounts how her mother was forced to take a minimum-wage job at a Sears store in Oklahoma City after Warren’s father, a Montgomery Ward salesman, suffered a heart attack. As medical bills mounted, the family feared losing their home and one of their cars was repossessed.

Warren leans on her biography to argue that American families can no longer escape poverty with minimum-wage jobs or gain access to affordable colleges that can provide a ticket to the middle class.

LA-NA-POL-Elizabeth-Warren-1.jpg
Elizabeth (Herring) Warren in third grade.
(via the Warren campaign)

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“That’s the story of millions of people all around this country,” she said in Seattle.

It’s still Warren’s story. But she now has lived longer in leafy Cambridge, Mass., with her husband, Bruce Mann, another Harvard Law professor, in a $3-million Victorian townhouse, than in Oklahoma, which she left to attend college.

Class struggles have helped define presidential races since at least 1840, when William Henry Harrison ran as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, masking his life as a wealthy plantation owner. He ultimately beat the incumbent president, Martin Van Buren, whom he had lambasted as a wealthy snob.

In 2016, Donald Trump won over working-class voters by positioning himself as the bane of cultural elites, even though he inherited millions, lived in a Manhattan penthouse and claimed to be a billionaire. Once in the White House, he approved a tax cut that chiefly benefited corporations and high earners.

Warren’s past is more complex. She kept her Oklahoma ties through the decades, supporting family members there. Long before she ran for political office, she described her family’s struggles as the motivating force behind her extensive academic research into the causes and effects of bankruptcy.

Whether that helps her chart a path to the White House is another matter. Polls so far show her support is strongest among highly educated voters — those more likely drawn to her Harvard pedigree — and not with the working-class and minority voters she would need to win.

Hers was the generation raised in the shadow of the Dust Bowl, which devastated the region’s agricultural economy, and World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, Oklahomans rallied around football, religion and anti-communism to forge a proud identity.

“Oklahomans generally had a sense of inferiority that stemmed from the Dust Bowl,” said W. David Baird, an Oklahoman who has written six books about the state and is emeritus professor of history at Pepperdine University in Malibu. “We always used to say that the strong stayed in Oklahoma. The weak left for California.”

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Known as Betsy at home and Liz at school, Warren attended racially segregated public schools in Norman and then Oklahoma City as the conservative state dug in against change. Neighborhoods were largely segregated as well: Blacks lived in Oklahoma City’s northeast, working-class whites in the south, and more-affluent whites in the northwest.

Her parents strained for a toehold in the northwest. “We were what you might call a poor family, but we didn’t know it,” her eldest brother, Don Reed Herring, recalled in an unpublished 2011 interview.

At the dinner table, the family discussed cars, cows and rodeos, not politics. When college campuses erupted over the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, and the nation was roiled by social and cultural divisions, Merle Haggard recorded his country classic “Okie from Muskogee,” reflecting — or satirizing — Oklahoma’s traditional values. “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” it begins.

“A lot of the turmoil that people associated with the ’60s just didn’t come here,” Warren said in a 2011 interview. Her three brothers served in the military, and one went to Vietnam, but Warren said her family never debated whether the war was right or wrong.

In high school she joined the Cygnets pep squad and drove a used MG roadster. She read morning announcements, beginning with a prayer, over the intercom. But she made her mark on the school debate team, winning a state championship.

“Quietly, she could pretty well pull you apart,” said Joe Pryor, a member of the team.

But Warren felt constrained, both by her family’s economic insecurity and by low expectations of what she could achieve.

“Boys were in sports and girls were in home economics learning how to cook for their future husbands,” Pryor said. “She certainly, at that time in her life, at 16 years old, was not comfortable with that world.”

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She left as soon as she could, graduating a year early and winning a debate scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She left after two years to get married, but completed her degree at the University of Houston, becoming the first member of her family to graduate college.

“Did I think I was going to be one of those ‘women’s libbers’? Heavens no,” she recalled in a 2007 recorded interview at UC Berkeley. “I wanted children. I wanted family. And somehow, I thought those were either-or choices. And yet I wanted to do things.”

After a year teaching disabled children in a public school, she attended Rutgers Law School in New Jersey, where she graduated in 1976. Along the way, she had two children and later got divorced.

She drew notice, and then acclaim, teaching and doing research at universities in Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania over the next two decades, finally landing a job at Harvard in 1995. She used that high-profile perch to turn the dry subject of bankruptcy law into the foundation of a national progressive movement, one that fuels her presidential bid.

“It probably wouldn’t have happened if she wouldn’t have come here,” said Andrew Kaufman, a friend and Harvard professor since 1965. “For better or worse, this place gives people a forum if they’re interested in using it.”

It was at Harvard where Warren, previously a Republican, became a Democrat and later an advisor to President Obama. She wrote bestselling books on personal finance, and consulted for corporate clients, earning millions of dollars. She also developed a certitude that is common among Harvard faculty, who often sit atop their fields and are quick to say so.

“You can’t be diffident and be at Harvard Law School,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor. “You have to come out swinging.”

Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren teaches at Harvard Law School in 2009.
(Suzanne Kreiter / Boston Globe)

Former Harvard colleagues say Warren’s background stood out at the institution, where graduates routinely clerk for Supreme Court justices. For years, she was the only tenured professor on the law faculty who had attended a public law school in the U.S.

At least three of Warren’s former students have been elected to Congress: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine). Her former dean, Elena Kagan, sits on the Supreme Court.

“She was a scrapper. She had come up by dint of working three times harder than anybody else,” said Randall Kennedy, a law professor who helped recruit Warren to Harvard.

Critics have cited Warren’s claims of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry to argue that she unfairly benefited from affirmative action on her path from Oklahoma to Harvard, and Trump frequently taunts her as “Pocahontas.”

But Kennedy, an African American who helped lead Harvard’s efforts to recruit nonwhite faculty, said he and others involved in hiring Warren did not know she had at times self-identified as Native American, citing family lore.

The Boston Globe, in an extensive investigation last year, found no evidence that she had used her claims to land academic jobs. But the controversy has dogged her presidential bid.

Warren last year apologized for taking a DNA test that found she had traces of Native American blood. Tribal leaders have recoiled at the use of blood to determine heritage, and some progressive allies complained that the test played into Trump’s jibes.

Warren’s gender, in contrast, was much discussed at Harvard because the faculty was almost entirely male. Students held vigils in support of offering Warren a tenured position before she accepted in 1995.

Her compensation of more than $290,000 in each of her first two years, including housing allowances, made her among Harvard’s highest earners, according to the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.

Harvard was everything Oklahoma wasn’t. Homes were cramped and expensive, the streets narrow and snow-packed in winter, and the debates — over everything — fierce.

Elizabeth Warren at Harvard Law School in 2006.
Elizabeth Warren at Harvard Law School in 2006.
(Michele McDonald / Boston Globe)

The law school was engulfed in pitched ideological battles between conservatives who used economic theory to analyze the law, and liberals who saw the legal system as a tool of oppression. Though Warren had dabbled on the conservative side earlier in her career, she was not known as an ideologue at the time.

“She was actually quite restrained in airing her political views,” said James Spindler, a 2000 graduate who earned a writing prize from the conservative law and economics faction.

She was instead known for her tough courses — secured transactions, contracts and bankruptcy among them — calling on students in rapid succession. Spindler said he “got chewed out by her pretty good” when he neglected to do the reading.

“I think I was more well-prepared for that course than I’ve ever been for anything else in my life,” said Spindler, now a professor at the University of Texas, who later used Warren as a reference for a job.

Charles Fried, former solicitor general for President Reagan, said he and his wife would sometimes eat at Warren’s house and politics was rarely on the menu. Warren’s husband would cook and the two couples were more likely to discuss old wine and new movies than Supreme Court opinions or elections.

Like many Harvard law professors, Warren saw her path to influence through an appointed job in Washington. But her efforts to run a federal consumer agency that she had helped create for the Obama administration were thwarted in 2011 when Obama, facing industry opposition, declined to nominate her. She ran for Senate instead.

“It’s really very funny because the banks and Wall Street couldn’t stand the idea that she’d be there for a couple of years,” Fried said. “Now they’ve got her until the end of time.”


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