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Elizabeth Warren goes back to Oklahoma to emphasize her family roots

Alonzo Adams for The Boston Globe

Elizabeth Warren went to her childhood home in Norman, Okla., to shoot a recent video.

By Globe Staff 

NORMAN, Okla. — When a group appeared with a video camera among the single-story bungalows on their street, the neighbors were mystified. Delores Clark was dirty from tending the garden. Sheena Jones had just moved in. Neither of them recognized the woman who was being filmed.

It was not until last week, when Senator Elizabeth Warren’s biographical video about her family history rocketed around the Internet, that they realized who had been standing outside Clark’s house. It was Warren herself, gathering footage to emphasize her family’s roots on the Oklahoma plains.

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“I never knew she had any connection to Oklahoma at all,” Stephanie Comer, Clark’s daughter, said as she stood in front of her mother’s house — where Warren lived more than 50 years ago — the other day.

By showing her walking by her old house here and weaving her family history into that of Oklahoma, the video highlighted her ties to the city of Norman, pulling a place that is 1,700 miles from Cambridge to the center of her origin story. That subtle point was perhaps equally as important in the long run than the more prominent goal of the video: It was part of a strategy to quiet the questions over her claims of Native American ancestry by revealing a DNA test that showed she likely had a distant indigenous ancestor.

“Any serious presidential candidate’s going to have a biography like this,” said Michael Crespin, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. “She needs to throw off the, ‘I’m an elite liberal from Massachusetts.’ ”

For some of the 120,000 residents in this city of wide roads, numerous weather monitors, and water towers, it came as a surprise. Could Elizabeth Warren — that Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, Harvard, and liberal firebrand status — really be an Okie?

Alonzo Adams for The Boston Globe

Warren spent the first 17 years of her life in Oklahoma, including eight years in Norman.

Some families in Warren’s old neighborhood and around the area have memories of the family’s time in Norman, where they lived from 1952 to 1960. But it has taken time for them to connect Betsy Herring, the whip-smart and tough girl they knew, with the outsize political figure now known as Elizabeth Warren, a potential presidential candidate seeking a second term in the Senate.

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“People acknowledge that she’s from here and she’s a part of the community, but I don’t feel like there’s a strong public sense of being connected to her on a deeply personal level,” said Caleb Slinkard, the editor of the Norman Transcript, the city’s daily newspaper.

Warren said she visits as often as she can, and noted that the city has grown significantly since she lived there. Her trips here, she said, are about seeing her family, not making public appearances. “This is where my brothers are, where my cousins gather, where we sit on my brother David’s back porch and drink beer and eat barbecue and talk about our lives together,” Warren said, in an interview with the Globe.

Warren spent the first 17 years of her life in Oklahoma, although it has been difficult to bring up in recent years without evoking the thorny questions about her ancestry claims. Taking on those questions more directly allows her to bring Oklahoma to the fore, as she did with the video and with a rally at her old high school in Oklahoma City last month — her first public event in the state since she became a senator.

“I am in the cafeteria of my high school. The site of multiple hours of detention. And I am just about two blocks away from the church where I got married at 19,” Warren said, speaking to the state’s teachers, who won raises and new education funding by walking out of their classrooms earlier this year. “I am living proof that Oklahoma’s public schools prepare their kids for pretty much anything that comes along.”

Warren is up for reelection to her Senate seat in November, and it is most unusual for a Senate candidate in Massachusetts to play up links to this particular heartland. Rather, it has fueled speculation that Warren is tweaking her image ahead of a presidential run.

There is a long tradition of presidential candidates linking themselves to a down-home past. Bill Clinton introduced himself to voters at the 1992 Democratic National Convention with “The Man from Hope,” a 14-minute film that lingered on small-town values and his family’s financial struggles. An ad for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Democratic primary emphasized his farming background in Plains, Ga.

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Warren’s video shows her walking through the low-slung, small houses on Haddock Street, where her family lived when she was between the ages of about 3 and 10. In it, she speaks of growing up on the “ragged edge of the middle class” here. She meets with her brothers — including one, David Herring, who still lives in Norman — and other family members.

The family has several memories of small-town hijinks. Warren recalled David’s paper route, and how he once went flying off his scooter when the neighbors rolled a tire in front of it. David once told Norman Magazine he “might have” been involved in putting a pig on a motorcycle in Norman High School. He declined to comment for this story.

In the video, Warren says her mother was born in Eastern Oklahoma, and her father’s family bitterly opposed the marriage because her mother had some Native American heritage. There are piles of family photos and even a gun in one frame of the video.

Warren’s family moved from Norman to Oklahoma City in 1960, where she built such a fearsome reputation as a debater, people around here still talk about it. Warren was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2011. Still, those who see Warren around when she visits her family say she has hardly tried to be a local celebrity.

“If she’d been hugging Barry Switzer around the ‘Welcome to Norman’ highway sign, that would spark some interest,” said Darrol Ray, the co-owner of a barbecue joint Warren likes, referring to the legendary University of Oklahoma football coach. “She doesn’t draw a crowd just because she walks in.”

Elizabeth Warren campaign

A screen grab from a video called "Elizabeth Warren's family story."

Norman, which is about half an hour south of Oklahoma City, was incorporated after the Land Run of 1889, when white settlers moved in to claim land that had previously been allotted to Indian tribes. The economy grew with the founding of the University of Oklahoma, as well as hospitals, naval bases, and the National Weather Center; Native American tribes are also credited as economic engines here. Cars with tribal license plates pass through the streets, and many residents here have their own family stories of Native American heritage.

It is also a place that is grappling with its past. The annual 89er Day Parade was recently discontinued after protests that its focus on the land run was offensive to Native Americans. Local historians say that when Warren’s family lived here, in the 1950s, it was still a “sundown town,” where African-Americans were expected to leave by the end of the day.

These days, Norman contains both rural expanse and a college town with Bird scooters on the streets and busy brunch spots. There is a statue of the actor James Garner — a better-known former resident — right near the Sooner Theater where Warren used to line up for movies. Politically, Norman is more progressive than most of the state. Although Cleveland County, where it is located, supported President Trump in 2016 — like every county in the state — some precincts in the city supported Hillary Clinton.

The city’s population has more than quadrupled since Warren lived here.

The road in her childhood neighborhood is no longer gravel, as it was then, and there are more rows of houses than there used to be. But it is still fairly quiet, save for the rumble of the freight trains that pass through town, or the tapping of the drum line practicing at a high school that is now several blocks a way.

Some of the neighbors, like Clark and Jones, had no idea Warren had ever lived here. (Clark said she declined an offer to meet Warren when she was filming by her house, because she was dirty and did not realize who she was.) Others had faded memories of someone with a different name: Betsy Herring, an energetic, brown-haired girl with three older brothers.

“We used to play hide-and-go-seek in her house,” said Patti Mayes, 71, who still lives on Haddock Street. Mayes did not realize the senator from Massachusetts was her fondly remembered childhood friend until a friend of hers looked it up. “She said, ‘Do you know who she is?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘That’s Betsy.’ ”

Alma Thomas, 96, and her daughter, Danice Bowers, 69, who lived two doors down from the Herrings, had similar realizations, but their memories of Warren are less rosy. Thomas recalled Warren correcting other children when they said something wrong.

“When someone is that much smarter than the rest of the kids, they kind of rule the roost,” said Bowers, who did not specifically remember the correcting, but recalled Warren once making a joke at her expense.

Bowers, a library manager now living in Shawnee who said she is very supportive of Trump, said the two played often at Warren’s house, often with a dollhouse. Years later, she says she has no memory of hearing that Warren’s family claimed they had Native American ancestors.

“My grandmother was Native American on my father’s side. My dad used to take us to powwows,” Bowers said. “I never heard anything about her family being Native American or anything.”

Warren said she could not comment specifically, but that the family’s stories about their heritage had been part of her life since she was a child.

Elsewhere in town, the renewed focus on Warren’s connections to the area drew a mixture of excitement, bemusement, and disbelief.

“This is just such a red state, and she’s — that doesn’t really fit with me,” said Greg Iman, a Democrat who owns property and car washes in the area, as he ate lunch in downtown Norman last week. “I didn’t even know that. And I’m an Elizabeth Warren fan!”

Starla Van Winkle, a Republican who is an interior designer at the Mister Robert furniture store, said she was about as skeptical of Warren’s stated connection to Oklahoma as she is of the claims of Native American ancestry.

“It doesn’t impress me that she states she comes from Norman,” Van Winkle said, who called her “an East Coast person — just somebody that didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt.”

But others here could not claim her fast enough.

“She’s got lots of character, she’s got lots of grit, that’s Oklahoma,” said John Smitson, 66, a Democrat and a carpenter. “Oklahoma people, they’re tough people.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at jess.bidgood@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.