Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is fired up
Photos by Dominic Chavez
Prior to a town hall gathering of 1,200 people at Malden High School, north of Boston, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren sat down in a hushed classroom to talk on topics that matter greatly to her—from #MeToo to the environment to racism to medical care. Her passion for the Berkshires is apparent—she views Berkshire County as not only important to Massachusetts, but to the country. She started with what matters the most—the people.
How do you stay connected to your constituency with everything so polarized?
Part of it is town halls. I love doing town halls. The benefit is actually twofold: I get out there, and it’s completely unscripted. I make a few opening remarks, but it’s taking lots of questions from everybody in the room. I realize not everyone is going to be able to ask their question, but that takes me to the second half, and that is the photo line. People like to do selfies. We line up, and every single person who stops tells me something. People will stand for the picture and put an arm around me and say, “Please keep fighting for healthcare. I have a daughter with severe disabilities, if we lose Medicaid, it’s all over for us.” The next person may come up and say, “Please do something about the Social Security office, they’ve closed another one.” People talk to me about environmental issues, about funding the arts, about roads, about bridges, about North Korea, about the issues that are most urgent to them.
How do you connect with those who don’t like you?
(Laughs.) Part of it is to try to expose myself. I go out to eat a lot and in not very fancy places and wait to see who will walk up. You get to learn a lot from people who are at the Five Guys or the McDonald’s, but I’ll say this: Even people who don’t agree with me on every issue are still pretty thoughtful and pretty generous when they talk to me. So I have a lot of folks who will say, “Now, I can’t go with you on”—and they will name the issue, but then say—“but I appreciate that you are out there fighting for what you believe in.”
How have the social dynamics changed?
I worry about the visibility of racism in this country. We’ve known for a very long time that we are an imperfect country, but in the past year, the way that ugly feelings and terrible accusations have been thrown into the public dialogue has been so destructive for this country. It’s been hard.
International Women’s Day is March 8. How has the game changed—are we any better or worse now?
I see this moment as the study in contrasts. Just about a year ago right now, Donald Trump was elected president of United States. A man who had openly bragged about assaulting women. A man who treated women with contempt and yet the very next day, the largest march in the history of the world occurred, led by women. The #MeToo movement has changed workplaces across the country. The thousands of women now running for office, throwing themselves in the hard battles and saying, “I’m ready,” changes our whole perception of who can lead and how they’re going to do it.
Has it changed you?
Oh, absolutely. I’ll tell you a story: Back in 2011, when I had come back from Washington, I set up the Consumer Agency, the Republicans had pre-rejected me, saying, “If you make that woman the head of this agency she will never get confirmed.” And the president said, “Give me someone else,” and so I suggested Richard Cordray. I had come back to Massachusetts, to go back to teaching. So lots of people were calling and saying, “Get into the Senate race, against Scott Brown. You can speak, you care about these issues, you can do this.” And in 2011, I received multiple phone calls from friends who said, “Don’t run. Massachusetts is not ready to elect a woman.” It was such a shock to me the first time I got the call. And these were friends, not people who are trying to dissuade me because they didn’t like me. They just said, “Elizabeth take a breath. Massachusetts is not ready, and it won’t happen.” That may be what maybe pushed me over. I think of it this way: I have been the teacher for all of my adult life, and I see that as a position of responsibility. My job is to be a role model for my women students and for my men students.
How do you see this all shake out? We have to get back to our better selves. I believe that Americans embrace fairness, deep down all the way. Right now, Washington is working for a thin slice at the top and kicking dirt in everyone else’s face. That’s not fair. And Americans are coming together to push back and to say, I want a country that works, not just for those who are already rich, but a country that works for all of us. I want to country that builds a future for all of our children. I want a country that invests not just in today and tomorrow but in next year and the next decade and the next century.
What do you think about when you think about the Berkshires?
I think about two things: I think about the environmental challenges. I think about the gas pipelines, I think about the Housatonic River cleanup, I think about the area that is beautiful and that people are working hard to keep it beautiful. I think about the Berkshires as a place that invests in the long-term future, that’s looking to the long-term future. The other thing I think about when I think about the Berkshires, I think of where the federal government should be a good partner. I’ll give you examples of that. The federal government should be a good partner on healthcare so that hospitals are state-of-the-art, economically secure, even in less-densely populated areas. It’s important that everyone have healthcare coverage. It’s important that the Children’s Health Insurance Program is fully funded. That community health centers are fully funded.
I’ll give you a second one: the arts. So a year ago, the Trump administration put out their first budget. In the budget was zero funding for the NEA and NEH. Nothing. Donald Trump believes that the richest country on earth could not afford to put a few dollars into supporting the arts. So, I got into this and I rounded 19 senators starting on funding for healthcare. That’s what I got them together on to fight back because they were going to cut back on the National Institute of Health. So I thought, okay, we can make this work. Once we started pushing them back on healthcare, we got them to reinstate the funding for the arts. We ended up getting an extra $2 billion for medical research but also millions of dollars in extra funding for the NEA and NEH. It’s not headline news, but it makes a difference and it makes the federal government a good partner.
How do you have your finger on the pulse of the Berkshires?
The best is every time I get out to the Berkshires, to go have fun. To kick back, relax. To sit at a bar and have a beer and talk to the people next to me. My husband and I love to go out.
Where do you like to go?
Jacob’s Pillow. And we like to go to all the museums. We go see Shakespeare & Company. We just go out and take a hotel room for a few days and cruise around. There is the glass gallery, Schantz in Stockbridge, that has a great place across the street where you can get a sandwich. That is the absolute best way to stay in touch with the Berkshires.
Does the Berkshires matter to the rest of Massachusetts?
The Berkshires matter not only to Massachusetts, but to the whole country. The Berkshires are in touch with the soul. When I’m in the Berkshires, it’s about human beings, it’s about the things that matter most. It’s a chance to change the pace of activity a little. To take a little longer over dinner. To visit with the stranger. It’s also just a chance to absorb a beautiful place.
Do you plan to run for president?
I’m totally focused on running for Senate in 2018. This is something I want to be quite serious about, given what’s happening in Washington right now. What Donald Trump is doing, what the heads of every agency, the EPA, the Department of Education, the HHS, we’ve got to stay focused on the fights in front of us and stay focused on taking back the House and the Senate in 2018. A president that wants to kick 800,000 young people out of this country. Take away healthcare for tens of millions of people. Republicans that just ram through a tax giveaway to the biggest corporations and multinationals in the world. We’ve got to stay on the frontlines of those fights.
Who are your political heroes?
Both of the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. Teddy for being a trustbuster, for taking on the biggest businesses and saying we are going to break them up and make them work for the people. And Franklin for using government, using progressive taxation, to begin building economic opportunity for all of us. Can I add another one? Frances Perkins. Go, Frances Perkins! First secretary of labor, first woman cabinet member who was out there fighting for every part of what was then a radical agenda, like Social Security. An extraordinary woman.
How do we believe in the truth again in this world of fake news?
We try to hold ourselves to the truth and, over time, I think that matters.