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Warren, chief critic of GE’s actions, offers muted welcome

Senator Elizabeth Warren has characterized GE as a corporate tax dodger.
Senator Elizabeth Warren has characterized GE as a corporate tax dodger. (Getty Images file 2015)

For the first time in years, Elizabeth Warren had almost nothing to say about General Electric.

Since she launched her campaign for US Senate in 2011, Warren had cast GE as the leading villain in the story of an American economy balanced on the backs of the middle class.

“Washington is rigged for big corporations that hire armies of lobbyists. A big company like GE pays nothing in taxes and we’re asking college students to take on even more debt to get an education?” Warren charged in her campaign announcement.

But on Wednesday, as the mayor and governor basked in the news that GE would move its corporate headquarters to Boston, Warren did not comment to the Globe and emitted only a bland hurrah to another news outlet.

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“Boston is a great fit for GE,” Warren said in a statement to Politico Wednesday night. “Our innovation economy leads the nation, and GE already has long benefited from a dedicated workforce in Lynn and throughout the Commonwealth. I’m glad that the company will be able to draw on the tremendous resources in the Greater Boston area as it continues to grow.”

Her spokesman gave the same statement to the Globe on Thursday, rather than making her available for an interview.

The industry giant is seeking to rebrand itself with a move to Boston’s Innovation District. Once there, General Electric will be represented by the state’s senior senator, who for years has publicly scolded it for not paying its fair share.

The company’s corporate culture, already satirized by Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy on NBC’s “30 Rock,” was blasted in a 2011 New York Times series that suggested its
aggressive maneuvers to lower its corporate tax burden allowed it to avoid paying taxes altogether.

Warren, a bankruptcy law expert and consumer advocate who conceived of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 financial crisis, seized upon the Times piece during her campaign, and she hasn’t quit since she took office.

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In remarks at the National Press Club in November, Warren continued to criticize GE, characterizing the company as a corporate tax dodger.

“Boeing, GE, and Verizon paid nothing in net federal income taxes,” she said. “That’s across a five-year period. These three Fortune 500 companies reported nearly $80 billion in combined profits and actually got tax rebates from the federal government.”

A spokeswoman for GE did not comment directly about Warren’s past criticism and how it might affect GE’s dealings in Massachusetts. Instead, the spokeswoman, Jennifer Erickson, said in a statement: “We value our relationships with elected leaders at all levels wherever we have a presence and look forward to working more closely with Senator Warren, Senator [Edward J.] Markey, Governor [Charlie] Baker, and other Massachusetts officials. That said, the city itself — its universities, its workforce, and its commitment to innovation — were the determining factors in our decision to locate our new headquarters in Boston.”

Warren now faces a rather awkward scenario. The political establishment has rallied around a deal put together with the help of Baker, the Republican governor, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a Democrat. Markey, Warren’s counterpart in the Senate, gushed Wednesday that GE’s new motto should be “We Bring Good Things to Mass.”

Warren, a popular outspoken liberal who has herself been demonized by business and Wall Street interests, would be an outlier among Massachusetts pols if she threw water on GE’s move.

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“I think one of the key elements in all this ... is the fact that GE found the folks in public life here to be collaborative and cooperative,” Baker told the Globe Thursday. “There are plenty of places where you can go in this country where that’s pretty hard to find these days.”

What Warren offered was something less than an endorsement, but appropriately favorable, said one observer from the development arena.

“She is a US senator representing Massachusetts and certainly for Massachusetts, this is a very big win,” said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate trade group.

“I think she would find it very difficult to say ‘GE should never have come to Massachusetts, we should have closed the door on it,’ ” Begelfer added.

Still, he said, he did not expect Warren to shrink from future criticism of GE.

“I don’t think she’s going to say, ‘Now that they’re in Mass., I’m going to turn a blind eye,’” he said. “Somehow that doesn’t quite sound like the Elizabeth Warren that I know.”

One of Warren’s proteges, Boston’s new City Council President Michelle Wu, was similarly supportive of the news and did not question Warren’s stance.

Though she said she’ll be closely following conversations about tax breaks, Wu added, “This is a move that should be celebrated.”

“I think it can be transformational for Boston,” said Wu, noting she expects GE to be a community player as well. “The economy, tech sector, and business community in Boston has a very strong culture of stepping up and being part of the community and contributing to the well-being of residents across the city.“

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Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert