Dogged by weeks of questions about whether her claims of Native American heritage helped advance her career, Elizabeth Warren now faces skepticism from some of Boston's black ministers whose appearance with Scott Brown just after his 2010 election to US Senate helped shape Brown's image as a different breed of Republican.
"It will take more than an impromptu endorsement by Governor Patrick to make an intellectually compelling case why Elizabeth Warren deserves to be the next senator," said the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, referring to the state's governor, Deval Patrick, who is black. Rivers said he will ask Warren and Brown to meet with the black community to address its concerns. "The support she receives should be earned."
The pressure comes at a difficult time for Warren, a white Harvard Law bankruptcy professor who has spent five weeks deflecting criticism for identifying herself as having Native American heritage.
Warren, a nationally known consumer advocate who led a federal oversight committee on bank bailout funds, has been unable to provide proof of her heritage and has been hounded by the suggestion that her minority status brought her a hiring preference, though Warren and some of her past employers have denied that.
As a result, a hot-button issue of past decades — affirmative action — has taken center stage in a recession-era campaign that Warren had hoped to focus on defending the middle class.
"There's a back-to-the future element in terms of the substance of the issue," said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane. "You do suddenly feel like you're back in the 1980s having a debate about something that people have long ago moved past."
Warren's Democratic defenders suggest that the persistent line of questioning on diversity hiring is being used by Republicans to inflame voter anger, in a manner that's tantamount to "race-baiting," as veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told Politico.
"It's clear that Scott Brown is trying to go after white, working-class Reagan Democrats, playing divide-and-conquer politics," said Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "In tough economic times, when people are out of work and looking for jobs, that's the kind of politics Republicans play."
But Rivers said the questions are legitimate and could affect Warren's image in the black community and the public at large.
"It is within bounds to raise the question of whether or not a white woman used the minority card for her professional advantage," said Rivers.
"Ancestry is not the issue," Rivers added, saying that Warren's handling of the controversy raises questions beyond her heritage. "Did you tell the truth? Because you marketed yourself as the good-guy, straight-shooting-populist, representing-poor-people candidate."
"Affirmative action — that issue becomes important because it points to who you are," added the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the TenPoint Coalition, who pointed to an assertion that she is 1/32 Cherokee. "I'm thinking to myself, if I was 1/32 white, or of European descent, would I be able to put on an application that I was white? And if you look at a picture of me, you see what I'm talking about. The question is not a trivial one, or one that can just be dismissed as a Republican tactic. And I say this as someone who campaigned for Martha Coakley and I'm independent in terms of my political status."
Five weeks ago Warren dismissed a Boston Herald report that she had been touted as a minority professor by Harvard Law School, saying that was the first she had learned of the identification. It soon emerged that she had been self-identifying in professional directories as a minority, citing her family's belief that some of their ancestors were Native American. Then on Wednesday, she acknowledged to the Globe that she had declared herself Native American to Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.
Polls have shown that Warren's support has not been dampened by the issue; she and Brown are running neck and neck. But many have questioned her campaign's handling of the sensitive issue, and opponents have hammered her on her explanations. On Friday, the Massachusetts Republican Party released a web ad called "deceitful," using news clips of the emerging story to cast doubt on her claims.
Republican analyst Todd Domke said that the issue could tarnish the features that made Warren such an attractive candidate.
"Her claim to fame was both integrity and intellect. That's what set her apart. That's what made her appear a higher level over other politicians around the country," said Domke. "This fiasco has seriously undermined both. Integrity in that she hasn't come out and told the whole truth, and intellect in that she's basically claiming to be ignorant of what was going on around her."
The controversy also gains steam because it involves Harvard — an elite institution that represents the intellectual capital of the country and, to conservatives, the center of liberal idealism.
"Harvard as an institution, as part of Massachusetts' self-image, is colossal," said Domke. "Whether people want to joke about it, criticize it, or exalt it, it's still bigger than this Senate race in terms of the whole reputation of the state. It won't go away because of that — because people feel there's something a little scandalous about Harvard claiming diversity with a woman who is, according to her family lore, 31/32 Caucasian."
To Marsh, the issue is reminiscent of the controversial 1990 ad by the late US Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, showing a white fist crumpling a job application. "You needed that job," the message went, "but they had to give it to a minority."
However, Marsh suggested, the doubts raised about Warren's heritage make the target audience even broader.
"The message Scott Brown is trying to communicate with African-American and Hispanic voters who will come out and vote for Barack Obama is to say, 'that job could have been yours, too,' " Marsh said. "It's divide-and-conquer politics at its worst. And he's using it to try to cobble together a victory."
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieebbert.