Seriously: Who do you think big business wants to win the Massachusetts US Senate race, Scott Brown or Elizabeth Warren?
I pose this seemingly lame-brain question because the Senate campaign has recently managed to produce an especially warped image of Warren as a greedy corporate tool.
Brown has focused attention on two legal cases Warren worked on the past. She represented Travelers Insurance Co. in asbestos litigation and LTV Steel in a case involving employee health benefits. The complicated Travelers case, covered in great detail by the Globe’s Noah Bierman, is not nearly as damning as Brown insists. But in the more odious LTV case, Warren appears to have had more a significant — albeit small — role.
Brown is trying to cast Warren in two incongruous roles: corporate villain stomping on the little guy and lefty scold who believes in nothing more than Big Government.
How can that be right? Of course, it can’t.
But the conflicts between the interests of big companies and average people make for a really good campaign issue. The catch: A better example in this race is Brown himself as an advocate for the financial services industry.
Brown quickly became a favorite of big financial companies after his election, and the senator clearly advocated for some of their interests in Washington. Last week, The New York Times detailed how Brown and his staff had lobbied the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve behind the scenes to chip away at the Volcker Rule, intended to restrict banks from making risky financial bets and investing in hedge funds.
Sure, Brown was hardly the only politician trying to affect financial regulation, and he did ultimately cast an important vote in favor of Dodd-Frank. But there’s no doubt how Brown lobbied for the interests of financial service companies before and after the law was passed.
Not surprisingly, executives and other employees at big financial companies have become Brown’s leading campaign contributors. People working at FMR Corp., the parent of Fidelity Investments, were tops on that list by midsummer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Along with Fidelity, employees at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., Goldman Sachs Inc., and Liberty Mutual Life Insurance Co. all ranked in the top five of Brown’s campaign contribution list, with employees at JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bain Capital, and Bank of New York Mellon also big contributors.
Financial service executives are writing checks to Brown for two reasons. For starters, see above. Just as important: He’s not Elizabeth Warren.
Before she became a Senate candidate, Warren was best known as the creative force behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In fact, she conceived the idea of a government agency to look out for financial consumers because they had been so poorly served by existing regulators at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere.
Warren lobbied relentlessly for the new bureau against intense resistance from politicians and bankers. Eventually, President Obama passed her over in favor of a less controversial choice to become the bureau’s first director last year. At the time, I called that a mistake and described Warren as a “relentless and articulate advocate for average consumers.” I haven’t changed my mind.
It’s hard to overstate how much Wall Street has come to despise Warren. She was a Harvard professor who didn’t just talk and write about consumer protection ideas. She actually wanted to tell bankers how they can and can’t do business.
So it’s no surprise the people working at those big financial companies have failed to show up on Warren’s list of top campaign contributors (those ranks are dominated by a predictable cast of Democratic donors — law firms, EMILY’s list, Moveon.org, and the like).
Now her corporate legal work is getting a lot of attention. I don’t know what additional companies Warren may have represented over the years and what she may have done on their behalf.
But her enduring real-world accomplishment is the very idea that the federal government should protect consumers from abusive financial companies in a serious way. I doubt I’m going to learn anything new that would change my mind about that.
Opponents say a lot of dumb things about each other in close campaigns. The image of Elizabeth Warren as a phony advocate selling out working people fits into that category.
I don’t know who will win the Senate race this year. But I’m sure who big business would vote for.
Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.