LAWRENCE — In her first appearances of the 2020 campaign last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren often opened with a story about her mother back in Oklahoma putting on her nicest dress to get a minimum wage job and keep the family afloat after her father fell ill.
But on Saturday, when Warren made her presidential candidacy official in this industrial city, she told an older story, of the immigrant workers who toiled in squalid, deadly conditions in the old textile mills around her, and who launched the Bread and Roses strike of 1912 that ultimately led to higher wages and improved conditions.
“Like the women of Lawrence, we are here to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Warren said. “We are here to take on a fight that will shape our lives, our children’s lives, and our grandchildren’s lives.”
After a week in which she was again haunted by her claims to Native American heritage, the Lawrence event was a moment for Warren to define her candidacy. And she went big, presenting her longtime focus on inequality as a universal concern that connects the women and immigrants from a century ago with the sprawling coalition of Democratic voters today.
She hit on many of the policy ideas animating Democrats, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and forcefully called out racial discrimination for holding back minority families. And she sought to present her message as unifying and inclusive, particularly for core Democratic blocs that she is trying to assemble into a broad front against the wealthy and powerful who have “paid off politicians to tilt the system just a little more in their direction” year after year.
“When I talk about this, some rich guys scream ‘class warfare!’ ” Warren said to a cheering crowd of several thousand. “These same rich guys have been waging class warfare against hard-working people for decades. I say it’s time to fight back.”
Such lines were “Elizabeth Warren unvarnished,” said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. “This speech was a chance to remind Democrats of why they like her.”
Warren called for “big, structural change,” and said President Trump was a symptom, not a cause, of problems in the country. But there is a question of whether her expansive call will appeal to Democrats laser-focused on beating Trump.
“We need candidates who can appeal to the majority of the country,” said Tracy Schroeder, 63, who went to see Warren at her second stop Saturday, in Dover, N.H. Schroeder said she was worried the Native American controversy would damage Warren’s electability. But after hearing her in Dover, Schroeder said she was encouraged by Warren’s optimistic vision.
The announcement kicked off a seven-state tour for Warren, whose already muscular campaign operation has drawn droves of enthusiastic voters and established her as a top-tier candidate in a deep field.
Still, the event followed another week of controversy around her ancestry claims. She recently apologized to the Cherokee Nation for calling herself Native American during parts of her career, even though she is not a member of the tribe. The issue surfaced again last week when a previously undisclosed document came to light, a registration card for the Texas state bar association on which she wrote her race was “American Indian.”
And Trump himself greeted her speech with a tweet late Saturday in which he again referred to Warren as Pocahontas.
“Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore?” Trump wrote. “See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”
Oscar Burgos, 18, said he admired Warren for standing up to Trump.
“She doesn’t hold back what she wants to say, she defends herself, she defends the people,” Burgos said. “She’s just a strong woman. She just reminds me of the people from here, from Lawrence.”
Other candidates have also generated intense enthusiasm among voters. Senator Kamala Harris of California drew 22,000 people to her announcement in Oakland in January and raised $1.5 million in her first day as a declared candidate. Big names waiting in the wings include former vice president Joe Biden and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. And Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator who in 2016 ran an insurgent campaign on populist themes similar to Warren, could also siphon off support for her if he runs.
Some who saw Warren in Lawrence were still perusing the buffet of candidates. To John Mara, 64, Warren represented the Democrats’ drift to the left.
“I want to see what lane she carves out for herself and if it can be successful,” Mara said, adding that he liked Biden more.
Warren was introduced in Lawrence by Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who suggested she is the heir to the populism of his grandfather Robert F. Kennedy. He recalled how the elder Kennedy used to observe that the main measure of the US economy, gross national product, “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.”
“Half a century later,” the younger Kennedy continued, “economic injustice remains the challenge of our time, tangled with every other cause we carry: racial discrimination, immigration, climate change, health care.” Warren, more than any other candidate, he added, has “dedicated her life to this battle.”
During her speech, Warren braided her family’s modest Oklahoma upbringing with her academic work on bankruptcy; she mixed an academic proclivity for statistics — minority
homeownership rates, death rates in the Lawrence mills — with a full-throated call for new economic rules.
“Year after year, the path to economic security had gotten tougher and rockier for working families, and even tougher and even rockier for people of color,” she said. “I also found out this wasn’t an accident.”
Flavia Jiminian, a Dominican immigrant who lives in Lawrence, said Warren’s choice to make her official launch in this city, where more than 70 percent of the population is Latino, was an expression of “faith in all of us, immigrants, middle-class people, working people.”
“She’s bringing the message directly to us, the working people, to immigrants she’s trying to include everybody, black, white, poor,” Jiminian said.
In her speech, Warren blamed corruption for Washington gridlock on issues such as climate change and gun control. She drew on personal accomplishments, from potty-training her daughter to creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to make her case as the champion of sweeping reform, including new restrictions on lobbyists, limitations on banks, rules to empower workers, and protections of voting rights.
And in the end, she compared her efforts to those of the women in the Lawrence mill who a century ago also embarked on an uncertain campaign of protest.
“When the women of Everett Mill walked away from their machines and out into the cold January air all those years ago, they knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Warren said, adding, “Today, we gather on those same streets, ready to stand united again.”