Dueling stories of rags to riches
Senate contenders try to capitalize on humble starts
Elizabeth Warren was not born at Harvard Law School. Before she was as a bankruptcy expert and a Wall Street watchdog, she was the fourth child of an Oklahoma carpet-seller-turned-maintenance-man whose heart attack cost her family their financial security and their car.
Now a Democratic candidate for the US Senate, Warren is employing her biography to bolster her credibility as a champion for the middle class, reminding voters where she found her voice - not in an Ivory Tower but in the Dust Bowl State.
It is a tried-and-true political narrative, but this time, it has a catch: The incumbent Warren hopes to unseat already wrote that story.
Scott Brown traded on his everyman appeal and independence to snatch the seat long held by liberal icon Ted Kennedy and rename it the People’s Seat. The autobiography he published this year expounded on his rough-and-tumble upbringing, making his dogged climb to the halls of power only that much more impressive.
Will the real underdog please stand up?
Political image-shapers on both sides of the aisle said it is important for candidates to tell their own stories, to define themselves before their opponents do, and little works better than a Horatio Alger story. A legitimate up-from-the-bootstraps life tale can make a candidate more accessible and more likeable; a compelling biography can help persuade voters a candidate understands their concerns.
But ultimately, competence trumps biography, said Republican media consultant Rick Reed. “If you can convince voters you both understand their concerns and are competent to address them, you win,’’ he said.
From John Edwards to Rick Perry, Deval Patrick to Barack Obama, candidates have been mining humble life stories to round out their public persona or temper perceptions of privilege for years. The online biographical video Warren’s campaign launched last week was produced by Mandy Grunwald, who helped produce “The Man from Hope,’’ the convention video that aimed to remake Bill Clinton - the draft-dodging Rhodes Scholar - into a flawed but sympathetic striver, a boy with eyes full of promise when he shook the hand of President John F. Kennedy.
“There’s nothing more American than rags to riches,’’ said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University professor of political science. “It’s part of our American DNA. It’s an enduring attraction for the candidates that can make a convincing story that they came up the hard way and even though they’ve now crossed the line into riches, they still understand rags.’’
Warren’s campaign biography notes that her mother answered phones for Sears to make the mortgage payments. “Everybody in our family worked hard,’’ she says, noting that she started babysitting at 9, and waited tables at 13. She went to law school as a young mother and started practicing from her home.
Warren’s advisers say they are presenting the real Elizabeth Warren, not trying to inoculate her against conservative criticisms.
“I think we knew that the Republicans would go on the attack, but all we’re doing is telling her story,’’ said Doug Rubin, Warren’s campaign adviser. “We haven’t made any changes to be reactive.’’
Long before she was a candidate, Warren was a consumer advocate, dedicating her 2003 book to “all parents who wake up with hearts thudding over the possibility that buying school shoes and Girl Scout uniforms will mean that there won’t be enough left over to pay the mortgage.’’
Her financial expertise and her plainspoken explanations of complicated financial lessons led to her recruitment by President Obama to create a new consumer protection agency, and by Democrats as a candidate.
“She’s the perfect Beltway outlaw,’’ said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor of communications who teaches political campaigning. “She’s smart, she’s got this wonderful pedigree of dirt farmer daughter from Oklahoma, brainiac professor-of-the-people from Harvard.’’
Republicans have been quick to tag her as an elitist, perhaps as a way to distinguish her “rock star’’ appeal from Brown’s own or to blunt the effect of her populist message.
“There is no way I would let a Harvard professor or Obama adviser - not to mention one who is both - run as a populist,’’ said Reed, whose former firm handled Mitt Romney’s ads when he ran for the same Senate seat and who is not involved in Brown’s campaign. “I think I’d do most of my filming in Harvard Yard.’’
Brown’s team has been quick to remind voters of her Harvard connection. After she and Brown traded barbs over his nude photos in Cosmo magazine, Brown said, “I didn’t go to Harvard, you know, I went to the school of hard knocks, and I did whatever I had to do to pay for school.’’ (Warren went to the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School. Brown went to Tufts University and Boston College Law School.)
Brown campaign advisers would not discuss his image or Warren’s, noting she is one of six Democrats vying for the nomination to challenge Brown, along with Thomas P. Conroy, Marisa DeFranco, Alan Khazei; James C. King; and Herb Robinson.
But Republicans also seem unwilling to surrender the turf Brown already claimed with voters as a “regular guy.’’ Brown’s image was shaped by the 2010 special election campaign that sent him across the state in a barn jacket and a pickup truck. Polls show he remains the most popular politician in Massachusetts.
“For a US Senator, he still comes as close to your next-door neighbor as any one of the 100 who stride on Capitol Hill,’’ said Berkovitz. “I think people still see him more as a guy than as a senator.’’
That message further resonated when he released a personal memoir describing his unlikely rise from undernourished, undernurtured boy to underestimated politician. The book won particular attention for his revelations of past physical and sexual abuse and described the grim upbringing of a disappointed but driven child who had to work for everything he got.
Both sides will have to fight to eliminate the relatable persona the opposing campaign is now shaping, Berkovitz said.
“The Democrats and their allies are going say Scott Brown is a Snidely Whiplash lackey of the banks,’’ he said. “And the Republicans and their allies are going to say Elizabeth Warren is a snooty Chablis-drinking professor from Harvard who did the bidding of Barack Obama.’’
In the meantime, Warren will have to be careful about how she positions herself - as evidenced when she joked that she was going for the “hick vote.’’
“You don’t convince voters you’re not elitist by grand gestures or selling your hard-luck story. That can suggest the opposite, that you look down on voters,’’ said Republican analyst Todd Domke. “This isn’t a reality show where you vote for the one with the best sob story.’’
As a sitting senator, Brown will have a harder time playing the guy next door. Still, he remains the underdog in one significant, unchangeable category: math.
Republicans make up just 11 percent of Massachusetts voters and the electorate that turns out for his reelection in November 2012, with the presidency on the line, could be dramatically different than in the special election.
But Warren must also drown out another story - that of Martha Coakley, the Democrat Brown defeated in 2010. Coakley, the state’s attorney general, had been viewed as the Democratic establishment favorite almost until the day she lost, her campaign hobbled by an image that she was chilly and out of touch.
“In that sense, she’s really running against Martha Coakley rather than Scott Brown,’’ Domke said.