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LOWELL, Mass.—Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren emerged unscathed—but not the clear victor—in the first real test of her fledgling Senate campaign at a debate Tuesday night at UMass Lowell.
Warren faced off against the five other candidates for the Massachusetts Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate last night at a debate that heavily featured populist rhetoric and repeated calls for job creation. The need for tax reform—especially higher taxes on the wealthy—was another reoccurring theme, and in nearly every response candidates tried to circle back to the economy and the broken financial system.
“Like a lot of people in this audience I worked hard for everything I got,” Warren said. “I grew up in an America that was full of opportunity. We have lost our way.”
Alan Khazei ’83, arguably Warren’s most significant opponent, said that he would push for a home price insurance system and would help alleviate the home foreclosure crisis.
“Together we can put the American dream back in the hands of those who invented it,” Khazei said.
Members of the audience agreed that the economy was their number one concern and factor in determining their vote.
“It’s not just jobs, but good jobs,” said Dan McCarthy, a lawyer from Malden who was in the audience. “We need to find a way to get back on track.”
In one of the clearest examples of the evening’s populist overtones, Immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco said she was in the race “to fight for the people against the powerful.” DeFranco received a round of applause when she mentioned the importance of supporting and maintaining union jobs.
“We have a fundamentally broken system because of the money that is corrupting our politics,” said candidate Bob Massie, co-founder of the Global Reporting Initiative.
Candidate Herb Robinson, who has sold himself as “a regular American” said that one of his top priorities is “making Main Street American a better place for all of us.”
Warren, who played up her focus on the middle class at every turn, told the audience that she grew up “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” That phrase is quickly becoming something of a campaign slogan for Warren, who repeatedly used the term on-stage and off while shaking hands with supporters and carrying out post-debate interviews.
Warren’s experience in consumer finance setting up the recently minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau played well with the audience. “I stood toe to toe with these institutions,” Warren said of big banks, to an enthusiastic round of applause. “We need to stand up on behalf of middle class families.”
And that message seems to be playing well with voters.
“Banks hate her; Wall Street hates her,” said Marilyn Sicurella.
“And that’s why we love her,” interjected Elizabeth Twombly, a delegate to the Democratic convention,
The candidates were asked whether or not they would support Occupy Wall Street, a grassroots protest movement that has gathered momentum in the last week with demonstrations nationwide.
Warren stopped just short of endorsing the movement, emphasizing instead that Occupy Wall Street is a symptom of widespread frustration among Americans with the state of the economy and financial institutions.
“The people on Wall Street broke this country and they did it one mortgage at a time,” Warren said. “There is still no basic accountability.”
Warren came under heat when Massie called on her to refuse to accept funding from political action committees—a particularly hot topic after the Citizens United ruling transformed campaign finance law, making it legal for organizations to support a candidate through funds from their general treasuries.
Massie said he would reverse Citizens United if elected.
Warren has largely been considered a frontrunner in the campaign after she joined the race two weeks ago. Throughout the debate her responses were met with resounding applause, though she did not appear to emerge with a definite win.
“She didn’t outshine her opponents,” said McCarthy, the Malden lawyer. “I was impressed with almost all of them.”
Several audience members wore Warren campaign stickers and said they would vote for her.
“She’s on message—a message that I agree with.” said Chris Zellner, a public high school English teacher from Bedford. “She’s got a track record of public service and as a symbol she’s fantastic.”
The debate featured all six of the Democratic candidates. Although the debate was held at UMass Lowell, the city is a largely conservative, working class town that may be difficult for Warren win over.
—Staff writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at email@example.com.
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