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Joan Vennochi

Limousine liberal and a pickup truck

Senator Scott Brown is working hard to turn Elizabeth Warren into that dreaded species known as “limousine liberal.”

You know, someone who talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.

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His case against his Democratic challenger is two-pronged.

She believes in transparency. But she won’t release her personnel records and settle the controversy over her Native American heritage and whether it had anything do with her climb up the Ivy League career ladder.

She built a national reputation as a passionate advocate for the little guy. But as a Harvard law professor, she represented corporate interests.

His attacks may be distorted and unfair. But an old political adage rings true once again: If you don’t paint the picture first, your rival is happy to do it for you. Brown threw out assorted dots and the media connected them, with little rebuttal from Warren — just a lot of sighing about how unimportant it all is.

Brown’s efforts were undercut when his aides were recently caught on video making tomahawk chops and war whoops. That juvenile show of ethnic insensitivity, plus the surge of Bay State voters expected to turn out for President Obama, may yet help Warren prevail on election day. But if she loses, she will have to look in the mirror.

Revelations about her heritage were mishandled from the start. First came headlines in the Boston Herald that Harvard Law School touted her as a Native American professor. Then it was revealed that Warren listed herself as a minority in a major legal directory from 1986 to 1995, before Harvard hired her. Her explanation — that she wanted to “meet others like me” — sounds as lame now as it did then.

Warren supporters continue to insist this is a trivial matter that resonates only with the small-minded, but there’s a reason it refuses to fade away.

You can accept her understanding of family lore and believe she has some tiny claim to Native American status. But the same unsatisfactory answers persist to the same questions: Why did she check the box, and why did Harvard list her as a minority?

She is, as billed, a smart and accomplished lawyer. She’s a nationally recognized expert on matters of bankruptcy and personal finance. She’s the author of best-selling books and the recent inspiration behind the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Check out the YouTube video; she did make Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner squirm.

But at the time she was launching her career, being a woman with some claim to minority status would make her stand out even more in the cloistered, mostly male, Ivy League world. If she acknowledged that reality months ago, she might have turned off some voters — but more voters probably would have moved on. Instead, the heritage issue lingers, as voters try to sort out who this relative newcomer to Massachusetts politics really is.

Brown threw something new in the mix during their first debate, questioning her representation of Travelers Insurance. Now Warren, who is known as a star advocate for consumer interests, is trying to explain what she did on behalf of corporate ones.

As the Globe reported, Travelers hired Warren to represent it in its fight to gain permanent immunity from asbestos-related lawsuits; in exchange for that immunity, the insurance company said it would establish a $500 million trust for current and future victims of asbestos poisoning. Warren successfully argued the Travelers case before the US Supreme Court. After she left the case, a separate court ruled that Travelers did not have to pay.

Brown opened a second front with questions about Warren’s work on behalf of LTV Steel. In the 1990s, she helped the company fight a congressional requirement that it pay millions of dollars in a fund for its retired coal miners’ health care. But according to a Globe report, she was also fighting for a legal principle to protect less powerful people with claims against bankrupt companies. The case, said a Warren spokeswoman, revolved around who would pay what into the health care fund.

It’s complicated and getting more so for Warren, as the senator in the pickup truck tries to slam the door shut on the liberal in the limousine. It’s time for Warren to take the air out of his tires.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.
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