By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; C01
Somewhere along the line, Elizabeth Warren became a symbol.
She's either the plain-spoken, supremely smart crusader for middle-class families that her supporters adore, or she's the power-hungry headline seeker her critics loathe, a fiery zealot disguised in professorial glasses and pastel cardigans.
But no one disputes that she's the most prominent and polarizing candidate to lead the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The idea for an independent federal agency to protect ordinary borrowers from abuses by lenders was largely Warren's idea, and Congress made it a reality as part of the legislation adopted last month to overhaul financial regulations. The bureau's director will be the most powerful new banking regulator in decades and the first with the exclusive mission of focusing on consumers.
As President Obama considers whom to nominate for that role, the debate has become less about who might get the job and more about whether Warren will or won't.
Warren met Thursday at the White House with senior Obama advisers, but a presidential spokeswoman said no decision had been made. If Obama doesn't choose her, he risks infuriating his already-agitated liberal supporters who see Warren as the only logical candidate.
If he gives her the nod, Obama risks deepening the financial community's distrust of his administration and sparking a confirmation fight. He would be elevating a woman who, despite her mild manner, has repeatedly proven herself a thorn in the administration's side during her tenure as watchdog over the government's $700 billion bank bailout program.
The real Elizabeth Warren doesn't so neatly fit the labels others readily attach to her.
She was the child of a cash-strapped family on the Oklahoma plains, a teenage wife and young mother who became the only member of her immediate family to graduate from college, then went on to teach at Harvard Law School. Drawn to the field of bankruptcy, she initially took a jaundiced view of the irresponsible spendthrifts she believed were gaming the system, only to discover during her research a humanity in their stories that altered her life's work. She has long maintained the bearing of a straight-shooting, "aw shucks" Washington outsider, even though she began showing her Beltway savvy as a political infighter more than a decade ago.
So just how did Elizabeth Herring from Norman, Okla., become Elizabeth Warren, test case for whether Washington is really serious about reforming Wall Street?
Hard work and happenstance.On the move
Betsy, as her family always called her, was born in 1949. Her parents were hardscrabble Okies, forever haunted by the Dust Bowl poverty that had defined their early lives.
"They hadn't recovered from the Depression, and I guess in many ways they never did," Warren, who declined to be interviewed for this story, recalled during a 2007 interview at the University of California at Berkeley as part of its "Conversations With History" series. "Those were the stories that permeated my childhood -- what it was like to have seven years of drought, what it was like when nobody had any money, what it was like when all your neighbors left to go to California or someplace where they thought there might be jobs."
Warren's parents had lost most of their savings when a business partner in a car dealership ran off with the money. Afterward, her father worked a series of jobs around Oklahoma City, including as a carpet salesman at Montgomery Ward and later as a maintenance man at an apartment complex. At one point, her mother took a job in the catalogue order department at Sears.
Around the dinner table, the conversation revolved less around politics and more around carburetors.
The Herrings' only daughter was no shrinking violet. "She was tougher than a snake, partner," said her brother David Herring. "She'd argue with anybody."
The family eventually moved from Norman to Oklahoma City, where Warren became a local phenom, as driven as she was intelligent.
"She won debating awards and all this and that. She won the Betty Crocker award. She won everything. . . . She always just achieved," Herring said, calling his sister "probably the most tenacious person I've ever known."
One brother entered the Air Force. Another worked construction. The youngest went into the oil business.
Warren graduated from high school at 16 and earned a full debating scholarship at George Washington University. In D.C., she studied speech pathology, aiming for a teaching career working with brain-injured children. She left GWU after two years, got married at age 19 to a high school boyfriend who worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, finished her degree at the University of Houston and had a daughter.
"I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years, and I was really casting about, thinking, 'What am I going to do?' " Warren said in the Berkeley interview. "My husband's view of it was, 'Stay home. . . . We'll have more children, you'll love this.' And I was very restless about it."
She carried that restlessness to New Jersey, where her husband's work had taken them, and earned a law degree from Rutgers University. When her husband was transferred back to Houston, Warren landed her first tenure-track post at the University of Houston and she stumbled into the cause that would define her career.
Warren became intrigued by the new bankruptcy code that took effect in 1979. She partnered with a fellow law professor, Jay Lawrence Westbrook, and sociologist Teresa A. Sullivan, now the president of the University of Virginia, to study the Americans who were ending up in bankruptcy court.
"I set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters," Warren said in the 2007 interview. "I was going to expose these people who were taking advantage of the rest of us by hauling off to bankruptcy and just charging debts that they really could repay, or who'd been irresponsible in running up debts."
The trio visited courthouses in different parts of the country, carrying with them a portable copying machine they called R2-D2.
"We're sitting there reading these files, entering data from hundreds of people, interviewing bankruptcy lawyers and such," Westbrook recalled. "You have a human story that goes together with all the numbers."
What they found shook Warren's assumptions.
"These were hardworking middle-class families who, by and large, had lost jobs, gotten sick, had family breakups, and that's what was driving them over the edge financially. Most of them were in complete economic collapse when they filed for bankruptcy," she said. "It changed my vision."
Warren divorced, remarried and moved on to teaching posts at the University of Texas, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania before settling at Harvard in 1995. All the while, she continued to dig deeper into what she has called the hollowing out of the American middle class, writing about the effects of bankruptcy on ordinary Americans and the dangers of predatory lending, warning about a collapse that was sure to come.Another D.C. education
Warren navigated the capital's political waters long before the current crisis.
Back in 1995, former Oklahoma Rep. Mike Synar (D), who was heading up the new National Bankruptcy Review Commission, recruited Warren to become the group's senior adviser.
Warren demurred. "I didn't want anything to do with it. I wanted to stay in my office and focus on my academic research," she once recalled in an interview with the magazine the Progressive. "Mike promised that if I worked with the commission he would insulate me from any of the political parts to it. So I agreed on those terms to come work with him."
Synar soon died of brain cancer, but Warren pressed on, helping draft the commission's report and testifying before Congress, trying to beat back legislative efforts to restrict the right of consumers to file for bankruptcy.
This was the Washington education of Elizabeth Warren, according to Westbrook, her longtime research partner, and it soured her on Wall Street's influence.
In a book she wrote with her daughter, Warren tells the story of how first lady Hillary Clinton vowed in a private meeting to help fight a bankruptcy bill pending in Congress that Warren warned would dismantle vital protections for families. President Bill Clinton subsequently vetoed the bill. But when the bankruptcy bill came back before the Senate in 2001, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted in favor. The lesson for Warren was that even a sympathetic ally could be swayed by wealthy special interests. "As New York's newest senator, however, it seems that Hillary Clinton could not afford such a principled position. . . . Big banks were now part of Senator Clinton's constituency. She wanted their support, and they wanted hers," Warren wrote.
A Clinton spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
By the time the financial crisis hit in 2008, Warren had studied the plight of middle-class families for decades and written extensively about the about the ways that lenders preyed on ordinary Americans. She had crisscrossed the country sermonizing about her findings and pitching her idea for a new consumer agency to the Democratic presidential campaigns, including the staffs for Clinton, Obama and John Edwards.
"It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house," she wrote in a now-famous 2007 article in the journal Democracy proposing such an agency. "But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street."
After the economy nearly collapsed, Warren seemed like a prophet.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid ((D-Nev.) recruited her to become the lead watchdog over the government's $700 billion bailout fund. Soon, Warren was working out of a dingy office near Union Station, holding public hearings, churning out reports that criticized the government's handling of some aspects of the bailouts and mixing it up on TV with everyone from Charlie Rose to Jon Stewart.'This grubby job'
The financial overhaul bill signed last month by Obama gives him authority to appoint an independent director of the new consumer bureau to a five-year term, subject to Senate confirmation. That director will have broad authority to shape the new bureau and remarkable autonomy after it is up and running to write and enforce rules governing credit cards, mortgages and other such loans.
The administration has floated several candidates for the job, including Assistant Treasury Secretary Michael S. Barr and Eugene Kimmelman, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Antitrust Division. But Warren has drawn the most public support -- and the most ire.
She has received fervent backing from consumer advocates, labor unions, academics and scores of Democratic lawmakers. Tens of thousands of people have signed online petitions urging Obama to choose her. Her endorsements have ranged from the New York Times to MoveOn.org to Dr. Phil.
Others have made no secret about their distaste for Warren, questioning her qualifications and describing her as an ideologue.
"I get disgusted every time I hear her speak. It's like she's sitting in some ivory tower, not understanding the ramifications of anything she says," Anton Schutz, president of Mendon Capital Advisors, recently told Reuters -- a sentiment shared by others in the financial industry, though rarely so candidly. "Any person you put in that role really ought to have some industry experience."
For her part, Warren has spent much of the summer outside of the public spotlight, declining interview requests and visiting family in California and Oklahoma.
"I asked her point-blank, 'Do you want this grubby job or not? Why do you want this thing?' " her brother David Herring said. He said it was clear that if she were to end up leading the consumer bureau, it would be out of a sense of duty.
Warren's daughter and co-author on two books, Amelia Warren Tyagi, agreed that her mother has little appetite for politics or public life, and only her passion for consumer issues and the urgency of the crisis have kept her from returning to her quiet, tenured life at Harvard.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to do the thing she cares about most," Tyagi said. "If she didn't think she could make a difference in Washington right now, she wouldn't be there."