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Leaving D.C., Warren ponders run for Senate

Elizabeth Warren has said little about whether she plans to run for Senate. And her delay in making a decision has left some Democrats anxious. Elizabeth Warren has said little about whether she plans to run for Senate. And her delay in making a decision has left some Democrats anxious.
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 19, 2011

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Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor whose consumer protection work has made her a favorite among liberal activists, will spend early August assessing whether to try to unseat Senator Scott Brown, an adviser said.

Warren will return to Massachusetts to ponder her political future after President Obama’s decision not to select her as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She will spend a few weeks winding down her role in Washington and on a trip with her grandchildren, and then focus on what’s next, according to the adviser.

National liberal activists believe Warren would be able to raise the necessary money and make the strongest case among Democrats seeking to challenge Brown. The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity because Warren’s plans are emerging.

The White House has said she will return to her teaching job at Harvard, but has not said whether a potential Senate run could interfere with those plans.

Warren told MSNBC yester day that she plans to take her grandchildren to Legoland and then return to Massachusetts.

“Massachusetts does beckon in the sense that it’s my home and I need to go home,’’ she said. “I’ll do more thinking then, but I need to do that thinking not from Washington; I need to go home.’’

Her plans are being closely watched by state and national Democrats, who have yet to coalesce around a candidate. The declared candidates, with the exception of Alan Khazei, are having trouble raising money.

Warren’s supporters believe her record as a consumer advocate whose early grasp of Wall Street’s role in creating the subprime mortgage crisis makes her an attractive candidate. They have begun online efforts to draft her and raise money on her behalf. But she is untested in campaigns, which bring a different element of public scrutiny and up-close interactions, and she is virtually unknown to large swaths of the electorate.

Warren, 62, had been hoping for an appointment to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she conceived as a watchdog initiative in the wake of the financial crisis. She has served for 10 months as a special adviser to Obama, but the prospect of Warren serving as head of the new venture was derailed by strong opposition from Republicans and the banking industry, who say her zeal would impede the free market.

Obama instead announced yesterday he is nominating Richard Cordray, former attorney general of Ohio, and vowed to fight Republican efforts to derail Cordray’s nomination and restructure the bureau.

Warren has said little about whether she plans to run for Senate. And her delay in making a decision has left some party operatives anxious, questioning whether she has the passion for a backbreaking campaign. “Running for statewide office is enormously difficult and one has to have the fire in the belly to be successful, particularly against a well-financed incumbent,’’ said Philip W. Johnston, former state Democratic chairman.

She is clearly on the GOP radar. Yesterday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a news release attempting to undermine her credentials as a true Red Sox fan, pointing out she grew up in Oklahoma. Brian Walsh, communications director for the committee, previewed the Republican campaign against her in an interview, in which he tried to paint Warren as a product of national Democrats and a creature of the ivory tower.

“It’s unclear whether Massachusetts natives believe an Oklahoma native and professor at Harvard best represents their views and values,’’ he said. “If she does get in, it’s clear the Democrats are going to have a very divisive primary on their hands.’’

Despite a lack of political background, Warren has been a popular draw on the speaking circuit in Washington.

Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, invited her to a town meeting in May in his Baltimore district, after she had clashed publicly with the Republican chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on which he also serves.

“The auditorium held about 250 and then they had an extra room that held, I think, about 100,’’ Cummings said. “We had to turn at least 150 people away.’’

“She’s the Republicans’ worst nightmare,’’ Cummings said.

But her willingness to take on a fight is not restricted to the GOP, or to the power brokers as she fought to regulate the banking industry during the financial crisis. Before that, she served two years on a congressional panel overseeing the financial bailout, where she proved a persistent critic of Wall Street.

“Unlike many people who aren’t sure what they want to do and aren’t sure what’s right, Elizabeth knew where she stood and fought for it,’’ said Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president who served as a top economic adviser to Obama.

Supporters say her working-class background - her father was maintenance man - undermines the charge that she is a Harvard elitist. “Her background makes her much more generally appealing than most of my colleagues could possibly be,’’ said Lawrence Tribe, a colleague and friend at Harvard Law School. “What makes her so popular and effective is that she comes across as an ordinary person who very much empathizes with the lives of ordinary people.’’

Indeed, during internal debates, she clashed privately with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the degree to which consumers should be protected in the aftermath of the financial crisis, according to someone who worked in the Obama administration who wished to remain anonymous.

Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat and author of the financial reform bill, said he first broached the idea of floating Warren as a senate candidate to Obama in February. He said he urged the president to appoint her to lead the new financial oversight committee. If she won confirmation, Frank would have had his top candidate for the job. If she lost, she would come away a martyr, and a bigger threat to Brown. It would be a win-win for Democrats, he argued.

Frank said Warren laughed when he told her, but added that the two have not spoken about the Senate run since.

Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.