Saturday, July 23, 2011

38 Minutes With Elizabeth Warren

Waxing diplomatic as she makes a premature exit from Washington, the consumer advocate still can’t manage to entirely hold her fire.

By Reid Cherlin Published Jul 22, 2011

For someone who’s just had her dream job snatched away from her, Elizabeth Warren is remarkably upbeat as she gives a sort of farewell tour of her offices at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The agency, chartered to fight consumer abuse by banks, is her brainchild, and her strenuous advocacy for its creation—against just-as-strenuous objections from the financial lobby—has made her the closest thing to a rock star the American left has seen since 2008. But when the CFPB opens the following day, Warren won’t be running it. And when a director finally does take the helm, she won’t even be in the building.

(Photo: Gary Fabiano/Sipa Press/Newscom)
“We have our Zoo Pals plates,” Warren says, holding up a stack of animal-themed paper plates, each with articulated cardboard lobes like little ears. “This is a birthday-party kind of place.” The analysts whose office she’s popped into nod adoringly and recount a particularly elaborate prank on a colleague carried out six months ago, when a menacing (even job-threatening) e-mail turned out to be just a pretext for a “Happy Birthday” sing-along. Warren describes it as a “punking.”

You could say the same thing about what’s happened to her in recent months, as President Obama declined to nominate Warren to run the agency she conceived, built, and valiantly defended over the past year. Just two days before, Warren stood in the Rose Garden as the president announced his nominee for director, Richard Cordray. Obama praised Warren as a longtime champion of the middle class and called her “very tough” in the face of “a fair amount of heat.” He did not offer his reasons for choosing someone else, though they are clear enough: Congressional Republicans deeply dislike Warren for relentlessly calling out the banking sector, and a protracted fight over her nomination would have led nowhere.


If Warren bears any grudges about being passed over, she’s not showing it today or the rest of the week, which is full of good-soldier meetings with staff, members of Congress, and disgruntled Democratic groups, whom she addressed en masse the previous evening. “It was fun!” she reports.

Indeed, one day away from seeing her political baby walk on its own, Warren seems genuinely starry-eyed. In a flowing white cardigan and a youthful blonde bob, the 62-year-old radiates the energy of the schoolteacher she was at 21. “I walk around these halls, and we have a real agency—and it is up and flying,” she says. We have arrived at her plain office, where she is sipping from a cup of tea. A plug-in hot pot balances on the desk behind her; aside from a few houseplants, it’s the only comfort item in this expanse of binders and stacked reports. “Tomorrow we get more tools to be able to make a bigger impact, and when we get a director in place, we get even more tools to make a bigger impact.”

One problem is that the CFPB is not likely to get a director anytime soon. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced that he’ll filibuster any nominee until the agency is given a board designed to veto anything the CFPB might want to do. When I ask for her reaction to McConnell’s demand that it be made “more accountable and transparent to the American people,” Warren whips her head around, incredulous.

“Oh, excuse me? Accountable?” she scoffs. “He wants this agency to be more accountable to the banks. He wants us to have a funding stream that will give the banks lobbying power over this agency. And the second thing he wants with this five-person board, he wants bankers running this place.”

This is the kind of biting, no-apologies criticism that has so endeared Warren to her supporters, who have in turn fanned speculation that she may soon run for Senate, against Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts. But she is circumspect when asked directly about a potential run, as all Washington stars learn to be, telling me only, “I need to get back to Massachusetts”—a line she’s been using a lot the past few days. When pressed again, she repeats, “I need to go home.”

Instead, Warren points to a shallow vase full of stones given to her this morning at Nancy Pelosi’s regular breakfast for new congressional Democrats, who would love to see her live to fight another day. “On Monday, when someone asked what I was going to do,” Warren explains, “I said, ‘Look, I’ve always done three things: I’ve taught school. I’ve worked on middle-class economic issues. And I’ve thrown rocks.’ ”

And now? She smiles, nudging her new ammunition. “I plan to go back, teach school, work on middle-class economic issues, and throw rocks.”

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