DETROIT — “Is this the line for the groupies?”
Amanda Knief asked the question with a laugh, but liberal fervor for Sen. Elizabeth Warren runs deep, as evidenced by the fans who’d gathered some 90 minutes before the Massachusetts Democrat took the stage in Detroit recently at the nation’s largest gathering of liberal activists.
Volunteers with a group that’s hoping to convince Warren to launch a bid for the White House handed out “Warren for President” stickers and hats. As the senator signed copies of her latest book, “A Fighting Chance,” supporters pressed her to consider a run in 2016.
Warren’s pugnacious battle against Wall Street titans and her impassioned defense of liberal touchstones have fans swooning.
“She represents the conscience of America,” said Monica Lewis Patrick, 48, a public policy analyst in Detroit.
She cited Warren’s unabashed criticism of the banking industry, which the senator charges duped homeowners and helped spark the financial crisis.
“She speaks truth to power unapologetically,” Patrick said.
Knief, 37, a public policy activist, said Warren was inspiring a new round of activism.
“She makes us think, ‘We can do this,’ ” said Knief. “She’s out there making things happen.”
A former Sunday school teacher, Warren delivers populist stemwinders with confrontational rhetoric. She speaks more like an activist than a politician, decrying “sleazy lobbyists” and their “Republican friends in Congress,” along with rapacious corporations and big banks that she says “swagger through Washington” focused on squashing any effort to regulate them.
For liberals and many who feel left behind by an economy that’s supercharged Wall Street but done little to lift salaries, the subjects of Warren’s ire are fitting targets.
“Most of our politicians are preoccupied with raising money, much of it from Wall Street,” said Egberto Willies, 52, a Houston blogger and software developer. “We finally have a politician who truly believes and advocates for the middle class.”
Warren comes by her populism honestly. She taught for two decades at Harvard Law School, but the Oklahoma native underscores her modest roots: her father was a janitor and her mother worked at Sears, earning minimum wage, Warren tells audiences.
Her parents didn’t have enough money to send young Elizabeth to college, so she enrolled at a commuter school, paying $50 a semester.
Warren first drew widespread liberal ardor when she issued pointed critiques as the chair of a congressional oversight panel that monitored the $700 billion federal taxpayer bailout of the banking industry in 2008. At one hearing, she allowed protesters toting signs that read “Give us our $$$$$ back” and “Where’s our money?” to stay during a nearly two-hour congressional hearing.
She left the panel in 2010 to help launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, aimed at cracking down on deceptive and abusive loan products. Calling for a strong consumer watchdog, she memorably said her second choice would be “no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”
Many had hoped she’d become the bureau’s first director, and she was a natural choice. But President Barack Obama passed her over amid staunch opposition from congressional Republicans and financial service industry lobbyists who thought Warren was hostile to their interests.
She ran for the Senate instead, defeating Republican former Sen. Scott Brown, despite what she says were pledges by Wall Street to “send money by the double bucketful” to defeat her.
Warren boasts that the financial protection agency has returned $4 billion to consumers, and as much as some backers would like her to run for president, many want her to remain in the Senate. She’s repeatedly told reporters pressing her about presidential aspirations that she’s serving out her Senate term, which runs to 2019.
“I am focused on the 2014 race,” she told reporters after a fundraiser for Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who’s running for the Senate “It is absolutely critical to this country. We can’t get distracted from that.”
Warren’s populist appeal has made her one of her party’s most valued surrogates on the political circuit. She’s raised $2.6 million for candidates already and has stumped for Democratic Senate hopefuls, even in red states such as Kentucky and West Virginia.
Whether or not she’s firmly committed to not seeking the presidency in 2016 _ the Democratic contest is frozen, in any case, while it waits for a decision by Hillary Clinton _ Warren’s fundraising and book tour gives her a chance to see how well her populist road show plays around the country.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which bills itself as the “Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” says there’s a growing audience for her message. It plans to use Warren as its standard-bearer and to pressure Democrats who seek the White House in order to see whether they, like Warren, support more Wall Street regulations and expanding Social Security.
“There’s a rising economic populist tide in America, and Elizabeth Warren is the personification of that movement,” said Adam Green, the committee’s co-founder.
Republicans have taken note of Warren’s popularity. America Rising, a conservative group that does opposition research on Democrats, says it’s tracking Warren now, along with Clinton.
“Democrats are launching a campaign to draft liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren for president,” America Rising said in a fundraising appeal. “America can’t afford to let that happen.”
Republicans have seized on the consumer bureau’s plans to renovate its Washington headquarters for as much as $216 million as a sign of government waste.
Warren enthusiasts, who can cite her stances on issues as easily as movie buffs detail their favorite actors’ starring roles, say critics are aiming at the senator to avoid oversight.
“If we didn’t have her voice in Congress, as one-sided as it is, it would be a disaster,” said Lois McCarthy, 67, a retiree from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “She says exactly what needs to be said, what everyone else is ignoring.”
McCarthy said she’d heard about Warren’s push for the consumer protection board, followed her Senate race and now tracked her Capitol Hill career via Facebook.
“We bailed out these big banks, but you don’t see them bailing out people,” McCarthy said. “Someone has to be vigilant for the consumer, and that’s Elizabeth Warren.”