Brian McGrory

New kind of contender

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / August 31, 2011

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It’s as if someone slipped a can of Red Bull into her triple espresso.

I spent an hour yesterday with Elizabeth Warren, the most talked-about Democrat nobody really knows, and before I get all wrapped up, please allow me to offer some disclaimers.

I don’t know if she’ll beat Scott Brown. I don’t know if she’ll even win the Democratic primary. I don’t know if she’ll end up telling voters they’re a bunch of morons who don’t deserve her. I don’t know if her head will explode from annoyance the 5,000th time she hears her opponent utter the meaningless phrase, “I’m a Scott Brown Republican.’’

But I do know this: Assuming Warren follows through on her not-quite-set plan to seek the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate, Massachusetts has never seen a candidate quite like her.

Think of Martha Coakley, all tailored and scripted, and now think of the exact opposite. Think of Brown, cautiously circling every critical issue before tiptoeing ahead with a last-minute stand, and think of the opposite of that as well. Think of our governor, preaching the virtues of togetherness in that pleasantly wispy voice of his, and think of the opposite.

She talks from her gut as well as her sizable brain. She bothers not with polls and focus groups. She far prefers to fight for what she believes in rather than compromise it all away. As I said, it may take a little while to get used to this.

There was a particularly telling moment in an interview chock full of them yesterday, one in which a Globe colleague informed Warren that in a campaign, she might have to be something more than the thorn that is her trademark.

Warren nodded vigorously and smiled. “Thorn,’’ she said. “I like that.’’

She’s your typical Oklahoma-born daughter of a carpet salesman and Sears worker who went on to become a state debating champion, attended public college, got married young, had kids early, graduated from law school while taking care of a toddler, earned a teaching position at Harvard Law School, and finally headed to Washington as the plainspoken voice of people getting crushed by so many predatory lenders and underregulated banks. She’s like Ralph Nader without the airs and self-obsession, sort of a Prairie Home professor. Then President Obama failed to appoint her this summer to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was her brainchild, after Republican senators threatened to filibuster her confirmation. Banks and their many backers in Congress are scared to death of her.

So here she is, mulling another way in. “I came out of a hardworking, middle-class family,’’ she said. “I came from an America that created opportunities for people like me, and I now see an America where the government works for people who already have money and power.’’

Washington is dysfunctional, she said, not necessarily for the partisanship, but for the moneyed interests and lobbyists who travel the corridors of Congress in hordes. “There are no lobbyists for middle-class families,’’ she said.

She is, for those of you wondering, charming. She is obviously smart. She is almost comically animated, her hands cutting the air, through her hair, slapping the table. She does this other thing that sets her apart from most politicians: When she is asked a question, any question, she looks the person in the eye and answers it.

She is in the throes of one of these clichéd listening tours that has gone a notch too long. I offer no prediction on how all this will end. There have been too many candidates whose best day is the one before they declared.

But for all those Democrats who wanted a more interesting contender, you may be about to get one. And if it’s a go, Massachusetts will get a fascinating race.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at