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Elizabeth Warren’s brothers are a silent fixture of her campaign

Elizabeth Warren pictured with her three older brothers John Herring (left), Don Herring (middle), and David Herring (right) in 2011.
Elizabeth Warren pictured with her three older brothers John Herring (left), Don Herring (middle), and David Herring (right) in 2011. Darren Durlach/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Update: A new Elizabeth Warren video highlights conservative supporters: Her brothers

NEWCASTLE, Okla. — It feels as far away as possible from the chaos and choreography of a presidential campaign: a little red house in a neighborhood surrounded by fields, where almost nothing breaks the straight line of the horizon.

But the man who lives here, a decorated Air Force veteran who the neighbors don’t see very often, has a crucial role to play in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. So do his two brothers, who live their own quiet lives in Oklahoma City and nearby Norman.

The men are Warren’s older brothers — Don Reed Herring, John Herring, and David Herring — and, at nearly every campaign stop, she introduces herself to voters by talking about them, weaving folksy family stories with details about their military service, conservative politics, and agreement around her big ideas. Over the past year, they have become a fixture of her pitch, a living link to her upbringing in a financially strained world she says is an indelible part of who she is.

They also do more: They are a key part of her effort to show she can find common ground with Republicans, offering them as a rejoinder to questions about her electability.

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“The boys, only one is a Democrat,” she said this weekend in Cedar Rapids. She paused for laughs. “Do the math.”

But, for all she talks about them, Warren’s brothers are mostly a mystery to the public, frozen-like set pieces in her speeches. None of them has spoken with reporters since 2012, and, one by one, they declined to do so for this story. None had appeared at an event for Warren’s presidential campaign until Sunday, when John and David sat next to the stage at a campaign event at her high school in Oklahoma City and waved as Warren introduced them to a crowd of 2,200 people. They are central to her narrative but it is a story only she tells.

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“They just feel like this is not their world,” Warren said in an interview. “I’ve invited them to be more active in it, and none of the three of them wants that. They love me, and they care about me. But they recognize that — they don’t want to be part of it.”

A closer look at the lives of Warren’s brothers complicates and illuminates the personal story that undergirds their sister’s presidential campaign, and the way she has guarded it carefully. They made their way through the military and into middle- or working-class jobs, their lives underscoring just how remarkable her rise has been. But her reliance on them as a bridge to her Oklahoma upbringing also stands as a reminder of how far away that life seems for her now.

Elizabeth warren is pictured with one of her three brothers and her parents, Donald and Pauline in 1955.
Elizabeth warren is pictured with one of her three brothers and her parents, Donald and Pauline in 1955.elizabeth warren campaign

Families can also disagree on the details of a shared life. According to a family friend, David has disagreed with the way Warren calls herself the daughter of a janitor as she describes the work he found after losing a job as a salesman after his heart attack.

“When she called her dad a janitor during the early stages of this, David was furious,” said Pamela Winblood, 78, a longtime friend of David who had fallen out with him and supports Warren’s presidential bid. “He said, ‘My Dad was never a janitor.’ I said, ‘Well, he was a maintenance man.’ ” (In an interview, Warren said she had no idea why that characterization would bother her brother; she has referred to their father as a “maintenance man” in her 2014 autobiography but often as a “janitor” on the campaign trail.)

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In recent weeks, as Warren’s polling numbers have dropped, she has altered her campaign strategy to show more of her personality, which means she may need her brothers more than ever. Her event on Sunday, in a packed gymnasium, ushered her biography ever more to the fore of a campaign that has long emphasized the heartland over Harvard.

“She wants to situate herself in the working class, not in the Ivy-League professional upper-middle class,” said David Kusnet, a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, who recast his 1992 presidential campaign by branding him the “Man from Hope.” “Her brothers, they are her siblings, they’re a big part of the story.”

On Sunday, Warren was introduced by her nephew, Mark Herring, who said he would call her “President Aunt Betsy” when she wins. Don Reed, 86, was not able to attend, but the full head of white hair on John, 82, shined from the front row. He and David, 78, rose to their feet as Warren entered the gym in front of a roaring crowd. David seemed to giggle as his sister told a familiar story about how, as a former combat medic, he thinks he can still perform an emergency tracheotomy; he put a finger in the air as if to say, “I can!”

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Elizabeth Warren is greeted on stage by her nephew Mark Herring during her campaign stop in Oklahoma City at Northwest Classen High School, her alma mater on Sunday.
Elizabeth Warren is greeted on stage by her nephew Mark Herring during her campaign stop in Oklahoma City at Northwest Classen High School, her alma mater on Sunday.Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman via AP

The Boston Globe visited Oklahoma earlier this year, seeking interviews with Warren’s brothers or their family members. Don Reed Herring came to the door in Newcastle, a medium-sized fluffy dog at his feet, and declined to comment. David Herring quickly shut his door, saying he could not speak, as his golden retriever bounded about in the yard. John Herring answered his door in a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Boston,” a dog with a brindle coat at his side, and said he was sorry he could not talk. He stuck to his stance when the reporter pointed out Warren frequently discussed him on the campaign trail.

“I know,” he said.

The brothers are private citizens entitled to private lives, and Warren says she has gotten their permission to talk about them. They notably appeared in a video meant to support her contention that the family has stories of distant Native American heritage. And they have not all always been so press shy; in 2012, David gave an interview to a local magazine, which wrote that he “said he had to be careful about what he said so as not to upset his sister or the campaign.”

On the campaign trail, Warren speaks admiringly of her brothers’ military service and sometimes tells voters she has just spoken with them on the phone.

She also sometimes evokes them to suggest her ideas are not so polarizing. This weekend in Iowa, she made a point of saying they all agree — even though two of them are Republicans — that behemoths like Amazon do not pay enough in taxes.

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“That gets all three of my brothers going,” she said.

Winblood said the brothers adored Warren growing up, and she loves them right back. “She thinks those boys hung the moon,” she said.

The oldest brother, Donald Reed Herring, was born in 1933 — 16 years before Warren — in Wetumka, Okla. John Hayne Herring came next, then David, and Warren arrived eight years after him.

The four siblings used to live in the same world, and when Warren dropped out of college and married, it seemed as if she might follow a similarly modest path through life. But she would go to law school, begin a climb through academia, and get divorced; her second husband, Bruce Mann, recalled meeting her brothers for the first time.

“They all came down to check out this Yankee who had dared to marry their baby sister,” Mann said of the extended family’s first Thanksgiving together, saying they emerged from an RV “like something out of a Marlboro ad.”

The brothers’ lives unfolded with certain parallels, sometimes tragically. They all briefly attended the University of Oklahoma, served in the military, and lost wives to cancer. Warren has suggested over the years that those experiences shaped her understanding of the problems that face American families.

“All three of my brothers lost their wives. All three of my brothers were widowers,” Warren said in the interview. “I watched it firsthand, how hard it is to lose your life’s partner. And how the financial impact of a long and serious medical battle can just crush a person.”

The Herring family moved to Norman, Okla., in 1951, so Don Reed could attend the University of Oklahoma, according to the interview David gave to Norman Magazine in 2012. The university’s records show he stayed about a year, and by 1953, he joined the Air Force, when Warren was a toddler.

“I got to know Don Reed much more through what his absence meant to my mother and daddy,” Warren said. Don Reed flew combat missions in Vietnam and became a lieutenant colonel, earning decorations such as the Air Force outstanding unit award and an Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters, according to military records.

John enrolled at the university for one semester, according to their records, and spent four years in the Air Force, before becoming a crane operator and a construction worker. Warren and others who know the family describe him as the quiet brother, a tall man with a beautiful singing voice. He is the Democrat.

And then there is David, probably the most colorful of the trio. “David was always kind of at the edge of trouble,” Warren said. Growing up, he kept a paper route in town, bought and sold old cars, and constantly came up with pranks.

“He was kind of rowdy,” said Winblood, who graduated from Norman High School with David in 1959. “Back in those days, rowdy was kind of breaking curfew, or taking someone’s car to lunch, or drag racing out behind the hospital.”

David spent six years in the Army Reserve. He later ran a business that delivered supplies to the state’s oil rigs, but it collapsed in the 1980s oil bust. He can be caustic and was once taken to court for allegedly stealing wicker patio furniture from his former stepson’s property, but the case was dismissed.

A Facebook page that appears to belong to David Herring suggests he consumes media deeply critical of his sister. He follows pages for such conservative organizations as the National Rifle Association and The Committee to Defend the President, as well as right-wing media personalities Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity.

But he also keeps a wall in the house reserved for articles and pictures celebrating Warren’s successes, according to Winblood and David’s interview with Norman Magazine.

“I think he’s very proud of her,” Winblood said. “He tries to act like, ‘I wouldn’t vote for her if she ran for president,’ and I said, ‘You’ll be the first one standing at the door!”

The brothers have generally stayed out of the news. In 2016, Warren’s previous practice of helping to buy or finance homes for family members, including her brothers, drew scrutiny from President Trump. She said she had helped family members buy homes and relatives who were construction workers struggling to make a living and declined to comment further for this story.

David is the only one of the brothers who has done media interviews — but they have not always gone well. In 2011, he told the Daily Beast, apparently without prompting, that he did not think Warren was a lesbian.

In 2012, he spoke with the Globe as the maelstrom over her claims of Native American ancestry boiled over during her first Senate race, calling the controversy “a bunch of baloney.”

The brothers’ most recent public appearance, before Sunday, came in the ill-fated video Warren released last year to document her small amount of Native American ancestry. In the video, which the campaign later removed from its website after it ignited fresh controversy, the brothers sit together in a living room, with John’s dog lying on the floor, dismissing Trump’s attacks on their family.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said David.

“Yep,” said John.

“It’s crap,” chimed in Don Reed.

Warren says she and her brothers don’t talk much about Trump’s attacks on the family.

She described the time she spends with her brothers as a welcome respite from the rigors of public life, a time when she can eat barbecue on the back porch and talk about their dogs, their children, and memories of their parents, who both died in the 1990s.

“Our families are our lives,” she said.

When Warren finished her campaign speech here Sunday night, John and David Herring lingered for a moment talking, John’s hand on David’s back. Then the two disappeared behind the American flag backdrop, back out of sight.


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