Elizabeth Warren woos Michigan voters with 'big structural change'

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is seeking to revitalize her campaign for the White House, focusing time and money on winning Michigan by being the first Democratic candidate to open an office here and having the second most campaign visits.

The senior Massachusetts senator, who placed third in Iowa, and fourth in New Hampshire and Nevada, is turning her attention to South Carolina, 14 delegate-rich primary states on Super Tuesday and then Michigan and five other states on March 10.

The progressive firebrand, known for promoting consumer protections, was aggressive during Wednesday's debate in Nevada, attacking the "stop and frisk" policing strategy of rising candidate Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, as well as some of his comments about women.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren makes a point when talking about her policy on health care and jobs.

"I’d like to talk about who we’re running against — a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’ and no I’m not talking about Donald Trump," Warren said in the opening moments of the debate. "I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg."

Warren succeeded in putting herself back on the political map with her Las Vegas debate performance, “and differentiate herself from the pack a little bit," said Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Lansing-based Grassroots Midwest group that helps to run ground games for campaigns. 

The Warren campaign said it has dozens of staffers in the field, doing daily phone banks, organizing events and canvassing. But Hemond argued the senator needs more money to improve her outreach and get-out-the-vote operations. 

"That’s a place that’s she struggled some even though she’s had a campaign office in Michigan for quite a while,” he said.

Warren has been endorsed by nearly 50 Michigan progressive leaders and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, and seven Democratic state lawmakers. They argue that the 70-year-old former professor is the only candidate who can beat President Donald Trump in November and do better in Michigan than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, particularly in Macomb County.

"We were the first campaign to invest here," Warren's Michigan State Director Mike McCollum said in a statement, "and we're reaching voters in every congressional district every day to share Elizabeth's call to unify the Democratic Party behind big, structural change."

Levin noted how a portion of his congressional district in Macomb County went twice for former President Barack Obama before backing Trump.

"I was one of the first two members of Congress not from Massachusetts to endorse her way back in July," he said in a recent conference call with reporters.

"This election is about turnout. ...You have to have a bold economic vision about how we're going to take on the corruption in Washington, and she speaks to that better than anybody else and how we're going to actually raise the standard of living for working people in America," Levin said.

Warren has fared worse than her competitors in head-to-head polling match-ups in Michigan with Trump. 

A Jan. 3-7 Glengariff Group survey of 600 likely Michigan voters found Warren led Trump 45%-43%, which was within the poll's margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points. Three competitors had larger leads over Trump, with former Vice President Joe Biden holding a 7-point advantage, Bloomberg a 6-point edge, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont a 4-point lead.

"She did get off to a faster start in the state than most of the other candidates, but she's kind of disappeared from Michigan," said Bill Ballenger, a longtime political analyst and head of the online Ballenger Report. "She's stretched so thin with all these other states, particularly the ones coming up on Super Tuesday after the first four states."  

Campaign themes

Warren has set herself apart from the Democratic presidential field on certain issues.

Last year, she proposed forgiving most of the country's student loan debt. Under her plan, all 45 million Americans with student debt would experience a significant cut in the balance they owe, while three-quarters of borrowers would have all their loans scrubbed.

Warren argued it would lift an excessive debt burden, but critics argue it penalizes families who pay for their schooling and those who pay off their loans. One Iowa voter who said he had paid off his daughter's loans told her: "We did the right thing, and we get screwed."

In April 2019, she became the first presidential candidate to call for the U.S. House to start impeachment proceedings against Trump following the release of the special counsel Robert Mueller's report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Warren explained her thinking when she reiterated her support for impeachment at a September presidential forum of the United Commercial and Food Workers union in Madison Heights.

"It's not about politics, it's about what our Constitution says, and that is that no one is above the law, not even the president of the United States," Warren told the union crowd, which applauded. "And the tool given to Congress to make sure that the president is held accountable if he breaks the law, if he doesn't fulfill his oath of office, is impeachment."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren walks alongside GM UAW members and supporters on the picket line at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.

After the Democratic-controlled House in December impeached the president on charges of "obstruction of Congress" and "abuse of power," the Republican-led Senate voted to acquit Trump. Critics have argued that impeachment has politically strengthened the president, but the senator has argued it was the right thing to do to try to protect democracy. 

A common theme of Warren's stump speeches is about the corruption culture in Washington, on Wall Street and within the Trump administration. She has joined Sanders on the far left of the political spectrum, pushing for a single-payer or government-dominated health plan that would cost an estimated $20.5 trillion — more than the federal government now spends on Social Security.

But Warren hasn't leaped ahead of competitors such as U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who accused Warren of being "evasive" on whether it would increase taxes on middle-class voters. She has responded by saying her opponents are thinking too small about reforming government and not charging large corporations enough in taxes.

Warren's political strengths

The Massachusetts senator, whom Trump has derisively mocked as "Pocahontas" for her claims to Native American ancestry, needs a big showing in an important state like Michigan, which Sanders narrowly won in 2016 over Clinton, Ballenger said.

Sanders has done a better job of getting the support of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Ballenger said.

Warren paid an unannounced visit last year to Detroit seeking the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat who describes herself as a democratic socialist. But Tlaib and two other progressive female "squad" members backed Sanders.

Klobuchar is splitting the female vote as well, which makes it a challenge for Warren, Ballenger added.

"She's not getting the exclusive female vote that she might have hoped for, and she's not getting the progressive vote that she'd hoped for, so she's got to do something dramatic," he said.

While Sanders is a front runner, Ballenger said, Warren would be a better candidate against Trump. 

"Maybe her views are too progressive, but I think she would be capable of catering to the center better than say Bernie," he said. "...She's a Hillary without the baggage."

'Not too far to left'

Juliet Hentschel, 58, of Bloomfield Hills, has always thought Warren was a formidable candidate. When she heard the senator speak at an event last summer in Detroit, it sold her candidacy, she said.

"I think she's the strongest candidate, she's the most qualified, she has the most experience," Hentschel said. "I'm confident she would be the best leader. I think Michiganders should give a shot at her because she's the best candidate with her knowledge and demeanor. She's professional. I have total confidence in her."

Heidi West, 43, of Ferndale, backs Warren and attended the debate in Detroit. The Detroit English teacher said the senator has always stood out.

"I'm drawn to her, I'm a teacher. She has one of the best plans for education," West said. "Being a teacher herself, she's down to earth. I think that's part of the appeal for Michiganders. She's not too far to the left."

West said she hopes Warren can appeal more to African American women with some of her ideas on universal preschool. 

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Warren eventually became a law professor at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in bankruptcy law and consumer protection.

At times, Warren has identified as a Native American on some paper work — a revelation that eventually was derided by conservatives and became fodder for comedians. She wrote "American Indian" in the race field of a 1986 form for the State Bar of Texas, according to the Washington Post.

Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, speaks as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gestures during a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas.

It led Trump to call her "Pocahontas," a reference to the Native American woman noted for her association with the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. In August 2019, Warren publicly apologized to Native Americans over her past claim to tribal heritage.

Her first foray into public office came when she beat Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in 2012, becoming the first female senator in Massachusetts. She landed a seat on the Senate Banking Committee, where she lambasted banking regulators on how they dealt with Wall Street and began to develop a following. In 2016, she backed Clinton for the White House.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, argues Warren can appeal to a wide variety of voters like those in her district, which includes parts of Detroit.

"For me as a progressive Democrat, as someone who has worked on social justice issues for my career, it really is astounding to me how strong her policy plans are when it comes to black maternal health and issues affecting black women," Chang said. "From her housing plan, which is the only one that addresses redlining."

"It's clear to me that she's the best candidate to address these social justice issues that I think will really drive the base out in my district," she added.


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Elizabeth Warren

State: Massachusetts

Age: 70

Claims to fame: Her calls for greater consumer protections led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Barack Obama. She was the first candidate to call for impeaching Trump. Her many policy plans prompted the slogan, "I’ve Got a Plan For That."

Biggest weaknesses: She had a muddled explanation for past assertions that she has Native American ancestry, later apologizing. As one of the most progressive candidates in the field, she may struggle to win moderate voters. 

Detroit debate moment: "That's what the Republicans are trying to do," she said about whether a Medicare for All plan would take away health care from people. "And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care."

Candidate visits to Michigan: June 4 in Detroit and Lansing; July 24 for the NAACP national convention in Detroit; July 30 for Detroit debate; Sept. 22 she joined a UAW picket line outside the Detroit-Hamtramck General Motors plant; Sept. 29 in Madison Heights