Warren Controversy Fades, But What's Her Strategy?

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren (AP)

In recent weeks we’ve seen controversial stories about our famous local candidates — Mitt Romney bullying fellow students in his prep school days, and Elizabeth Warren claim to be 1/32 Cherokee according to “family lore.”

Partisans often feel such personal stories are overblown when it’s their candidate exposed, yet when it is a story about a candidate they oppose, they find it important and revealing. Both the Romney story and Warren story seem to be fading away. But those who oppose the candidates will likely keep the stories alive, at least through antisocial social media.

The significance of the Warren story is that it raised as many questions about her Senate campaign as about her personally.

A Problem With The Candidate… Or Campaign?

When the Boston Herald broke the story about Warren, she handled it ineptly, day after day. Her sound-bites became punch lines on talk radio and in ordinary conversation. She said proof of her being part Native American was having “high cheek bones,” and she said she claimed 1/32 minority status in the hope she could socialize with others like her.

Her preposterous answers turned a two-day story into a two-week story. The question became: Did her campaign staff fail to ask her about it in preparing for possible criticism? Did they know about it, but not prepare an answer to minimize the predictable controversy?

Or was it the candidate who failed to disclose to the staff that UPenn and Harvard cited her in claiming to have faculty diversity — despite her not having any documents to prove Native American ancestry?

And once the story exploded, was she so out-of-touch with how voters would view such a claim that she thought she could get away with saying – as recently as Monday — that “I’m proud of my Native American heritage?”

Can Warren Defend Her Claims In Debate?

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi was unusually blunt in judging Warren’s claims:

The truth is something she probably prefers not to confront. Harvard doesn’t come calling just because you’re a smart lawyer and a terrific teacher — not with Warren’s modest, Oklahoma upbringing and non-Ivy League education. She is not your typical Harvard professor. At a certain point, when the law school was under pressure to promote diversity, she represented a three-fer: a great lawyer with a national profile, a woman, and a minority, at least by virtue of family lore.

Diversity is a desirable goal, and it benefits an organization as much as it does applicants who are at a disadvantage because they don’t have connections or get full consideration. But if Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Warren consider a “family lore” claim of 1/32 Native American ancestry to be sufficient for minority status, doesn’t that erode the credibility of diversity programs that are honest and successful?

It’s hard to imagine how Warren can explain her ancestry claim in a debate without reviving the controversy and mockery.

Will There Be A Campaign Shakeup?

Vennochi reported strong “strategy disagreements” between Warren’s local campaign consultant, Doug Rubin, and a Washington-based adviser, Mandy Grunwald. Surely the staff of the national Democratic Party committees must be concerned that Warren’s candidacy increasingly seems like that of Martha Coakley, the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Scott Brown in the special Senate election.

Warren’s consultant was not Coakley’s consultant. In fact, Rubin ran a Democrat against Coakley in that Senate primary, Steve Pagliuca. He came in fourth out of four.

The question in national Democratic circles is probably not whether the Warren campaign needs a new strategy, but rather: do they even have one?

What Is The Warren Strategy?

Apparently the Warren strategy is to grab President Obama’s coattails — and don’t let go. Their latest TV spot features Obama praising Warren for her rise from being a “janitor’s daughter.” (Doesn’t that sound a bit elitist; implying it’s demeaning being a custodian?)

But is grab-the-coattails just a stopgap strategy — meant to change the subject so Warren is not on defense? Or is that the message for the next six months, that Warren is Obama’s choice for Massachusetts? If so, what about Tip O’Neill’s adage, “All politics is local”? Brown would be happy to be perceived as the local guy concerned with local issues, opposed by the D.C. establishment.

Warren is popular with liberals throughout the country, and when she first announced her candidacy for the Senate, she raised a lot of expectations. Many supporters felt that they finally had the inspirational kind of candidate they found in Obama in 2008. But now her campaign has reversed course. Their strategy seems to be: lower expectations, and keep the candidate low-profile.

For an outspoken consumer advocate, it seems surprisingly like old, political packaging.

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  • manderso

    Gosh Todd, she could have just said she didn’t remember it.

  • TroubadorTobor

    This. Is. Insane.

    Why are you talking about this? The woman is part Cherokee. She doesn’t have documentation. It wasn’t a factor in her hiring–DESPITE what Venocchi, BUR, Brown or anyone else says. How do I know? I pay attention to what the people who ACTUALLY HIRED HER said. They said, “Sorry, race had no role.”
    Why are you talking as if it did? Because you just can’t believe that anyone who is part native and looks white would ever find solidarity with that small part of their identity? I would love to see you bring on a scholar on race/politics/identity to talk about these issues, and not just chase after some blood line documentation. 

    Try that. We are in Boston. We have amazing scholars all over the place, and many who have talked and thought about the intersections of privilege, race, class, gender. They might have a thing or two to say on this subject. 

    Meanwhile, this is just the same old Boston Herald drivel dressed up in BUR clothes. I’m disappointed. 

    • Jimmy

      Let’s see. You’re an employer and you hire someone based, in part, on race. Probably not the main factor, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Later, someone confronts you and asks if race played a role. What would you say?

      If you answer anything other than “race played no role”, you come off as very racist. There is no possibility of another answer. It would be a PR nightmare, not just for the employee, but for you. So honestly, the people who hired her saying that race played no role are saying a self-serving thing. It may or may not be true, but you can’t simply trust them on their word when it would be monumentally embarrassing at the least, possibly illegal at the worst to say that race played a factor.

      As a Massachusetts voter, I can say honestly that I don’t really care about Harvard’s hiring policies. They can hire whomever they want on whatever criteria they want. What I do care about is whether I can trust this candidate. Honestly, she sounds a bit naive if she thinks family stories are all she needs to confirm she’s Native American.

      • Deb Nam-Krane

        I am 1/64th Virginia Creek. I don’t have any documentation to prove that, but it’s true. I also don’t have any documentation for my Asian, Jewish or English ancestry, but it’s still true.

        Explain why you need proof for someone’s ancestry, please.

      • TroubadorTobor

        You’ve got to be kidding. 

  • Bcanndid

    In the US Senate race here in Massachusetts, it’s time for voters to look at the bigger picture beyond just the GOP Brown and Dem Warren — there’s an Independent running!  Perhaps these gaffs will get Independent candidate Bill Cimbrelo some much deserved media attention so voters will see they have a far better choice!!!

  • Deb Nam-Krane

    Being 1/32nd Cherokee is a matter of controversy and mockery? Bill John Baker, the current principal chief of the Cherokee will be surprised to hear that as this is exactly his ancestry.

    The Romney story lasted about three days. Obviously, the press would rather snicker about someone’s heritage than address a well-documented and -researched episode of homophobic bullying.

    What the Herald, the Globe and now BUR don’t want to confront is that they have zero proof that her heritage was a factor in her hiring. In fact, they have proof that the exact opposite is true, as the person responsible for hiring her has insisted that her heritage had nothing to do with her hiring. Ladies and gentleman, if you think there’s a story to be found at HLS, go dig for it. That would make you look like journalists, not gossip columnists.

    BUR, I expected better from you- speaking of lowered expectations.

    • TroubadorTobor

      Exactly right. If there’s a story here, it’s not with Warren. It’s with the hiring universities. Ace reporters, get your notebooks and start wearing out some shoeleather. Otherwise, all this is is nonsense with an agenda and troubling overtones of institutional racial privilege on the part of the media.

    • Deb Nam-Krane

      Why am I not surprised to find that the author of this piece also wrote a book calked The Conservative’s Dictionary?

      Wow, BUR.

    • Whos_on_First

      D id Ms Warren ever apply for tribal citizenship?
      Did she ever attend any native American events or belong to any associations/groups?
      Did she ever make a charitable contribution to a Native American group?

      Ms Warren identified herself(for 9 years) as a minority in a law directory in hopes of meeting other with the same heritage- (The directory did not identify her as native American- just as a minority) How would she find others of like ancestry? Was it moral or ethical for her to ID herself (as a MINORITY) without documentation or meeting the LEGAL definition of a Native American?  (Isn’t she a lawyer?)

      How did Penn and Harvard come to identify her as a minority? 
      Did she send Harvard a memo to correct their misconception?

      Why was she white – native American- white (and no mention of  her ancestry during her campaign)?

      When something smells rotten, it usually is.

      She needs to stop making excuses, answer the questions (tell the truth) and move FORWARD!


      • Deb Nam-Krane

        I am Asian-American, but I have no documentation for that.  Or do I?  What kind of documentation do you want?  I’ve got a birth certificate, but it doesn’t list my father’s birth country.  Sadly, I also don’t have his birth certificate either.

        What litmus test do I need to pass to be able to id myself as such?  Or maybe I don’t have to worry about that because *you* could probably id me as that without documentation.

        So, if you can id me but I don’t have any proof, is it still ethical for me to id myself on an application?

        • Whos_on_First

           This isn’t about you and I do not want documentation. The native tribes and the Federal Government do. Look up the Federal Government requirements to be listed as a Native American.  Did Warren meet any of those?

          BTW, I am sure there are other ways you could demonstrate your ethnicity.

          How would you feel if I claimed to be Asian-American of 1/32 while I am  31/32 white?   It would be a complete affront to the Affirmative Action Program.

          If you believe Ms Warren is a minority,  then potentially millions of whites could claim to be a minority. Then what?

          When my son applies to college should he call himself an African-American because a great grandmother was listed as  Moroccan on birth certificate (although family was French)?  

          Ms Warren misrepresented herself (she lied, as she is not a minority) and hurt a system that was meant to help. She needs to come clean  (or else she may lose contributions and possibly waste a good opportunity for election).

          This isn’t about right or left, it is about right or wrong. What she did was wrong.

          • Ethan E

            Since every department and their grandma has said that race had ZERO role in hiring this extraordinary legal scholar and teacher, your insistence that this is an “affirmative action” issue is as relevant as Zuckerburg’s hoodie.

          • Whos_on_First

             Do you believe Ms Warren is a minority?

            Read my post, I never said this was an affirmative action issue.  I implied it hurt affirmative action.

            And you trust that what they say? Especially when some are contributors to her campaign?
            Why not a fast release of Penn/Harvard records to end this? Remember 2008 -”Honesty and transparency”.

            Blind faith gets you no-place.

            In the end “this extraordinary legal scholar” is just a liar. 

            Unfortunately,” High Cheekbones”  will be remembered along with “I did not have sex with Lewinsky”


          • TroubadorTobor

            I don’t care if Ms. Warren is a minority. The fact that her family’s ancestral oral history identifies her as a Cherokee is, to me, interesting and an opportunity for learning. I don’t care if you can or cannot produce the right papers to “prove” it. Again, she was not recruited or hired (or even known) to be a mixed race Indian at the time of her hire. Your insinuation that she is guilty of lying is completely off base. Furthermore, you insult those of mixed heritage who don’t fit into your neat boxes of “white”/”minority”. When is minority no longer minority in self-identification? Remember, we are NOT talking about affirmative action. (Because she was not an affirmative action hire).

          • Whos_on_First

             By law of the US Government, Ms Warren is not a native American
            nor a minority. We live in a country of laws and regulations. Without them we are no better than animals.

            Why did she allow Harvard to tout her as a “Woman of Color” and how did the school find out (that she is a minority)?  Why didn’t she correct their misrepresentation?

            By you own words, if everone can self identify as a minority, where does one start being a minority and where does one stop being a minority? Every one can claim to be a minority. Your words make a good case to abolish affirmative action and equal opportunity programs.

            I have spent a career as a trained equal opportunity officer and what Ms Warren did, was a misrepresentation (LIE).  

            But I will now concede that you are right and I am wrong. Now I am officially related to Mick Jagger!!  I have big lips and my family lore relates ancestry from Britain. Have some “Sympathy for the Devil”!!!

             I also was born in Gary, Indiana, so I also must be related to Michael Jackson. “Just Beat It”.

            I will now start teaching my son “it’s only wrong if its a crime (and if you get caught)”.

          • TroubadorTobor

            Since she never applied to or claimed to be part of Cherokee nation, your insistence on documentation is irrelevant. Since she did not receive any “special benefits” accorded to “official” Indians, your outrage is misplaced. 

            Move on in your life. 

        • Ethan E

          Quibble: faculty hires at elite institutions do not involve “applications.” They come out of professional reputation and networking, and not even a little out of checked boxes.

    • Gwytutsi

      Chief Bill John Baker, Cherokee Nation, is not 1/32, facts wrong here… He is 3/32 blood quantum Cherokee.

  • Jen

    I agree with Mr. Domke that Elizabeth Warren has handled this matter rather clumsily, but for me the real debate centers around affirmative action. While it is certainly a noble goal to seek to diversify our universities and work places, it becomes awkward when you are asked to classify yourself by checking a box on an application. It may be quite true that growing up in Oklahoma, which has the second highest Native American population behind California and comes in second behind Alaska percentage-wise, Elizabeth Warren identified much more strongly with her Cherokee heritage than she would have had she grown up in a less Native American state. To say that she shouldn’t be allowed to identify herself as Cherokee, based on the small blood percentage, lack of documents, or skin color, seems rather unfair to me. On no applications that I have seen do they ask you to break down your heritage by percentage, or provide documents certifying your race,  they simply ask what you identify yourself as. How are you supposed to answer that ambiguous question, especially if you are of mixed race? 

    That said, I think this idea that “the person who hired her claimed race was not a factor, so therefore this must be the truth,” is quite naive. Of course Harvard would not admit to hiring her based on race. Can you imagine ANY university saying such a thing about a student or employee? “Oh yes, our reason for accepting/hiring that person was because he/she is a minority, and not because of his/her qualifications.” What an insult that would be. The fact that they were promoting her as a minority faculty member means that they were trying to use her “minority” status to further their own diversity claims, whether or not that was their main reason for hiring her. 

    I believe we should focus more on what we are actually trying to achieve when we seek to “diversify” our institutions, and what it means to “identify” with a certain race or heritage, rather than attacking those who aren’t quite sure how to answer these difficult questions. 

  • Chris

    Both the Warren and Romney stories were ridiculous and irrelevant. Stop covering them.

  • comment

    This sounds like it came straight from the Brown/Romney political machine. And readers please note the use of question marks? Does this guy also write for Fox and Friends?

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