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Elizabeth Warren persists, but rough tackling lies ahead

In this file photo taken on Nov. 6, Senator Elizabeth Warren addresses the audience on Election Day at the Fairmont Copley Hotel in Boston.Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Nevertheless, she’s persisting.

“Pocahontas” is just the start of it for Elizabeth Warren. Now that the Massachusetts senator has announced plans to form an exploratory presidential committee, buckle up for more racial identity turbulence. Warren’s home state of Massachusetts is already being cast as an obstacle to her outreach to black voters because it’s “largely white,” reports The Washington Post — unlike, say, Vermont? And as one unnamed (of course) Democratic congressional staffer explained to the Post, Boston is seen as “the Mississippi of the North.”

Whatever Boston’s racial tensions, no one threw them at Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, or, for that matter, John F. Kennedy, when they launched presidential campaigns from a city that’s also known as the “cradle of liberty” and the “Athens of America.” And it wouldn’t work against former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who is African-American, if he chose to enter the 2020 race. But with some lists of potential Democratic presidential candidates long enough to field an NFL team or two, those who dare to run should brace for rough tackling.

Warren, the first major candidate to announce, seems ready to rumble. She’s not giving into haters on the right or to gripers on the left, unhappy over her decision to release results of a DNA test showing she had a very distant Native American ancestor. She’s ignoring people who don’t like her voice, along with doubters who believe she missed her moment to sell it, when she didn’t run in 2016 and Bernie Sanders did.


But a tough road lies ahead. Warren has to change the questionable narrative about a Cambridge elitist who snared an Ivy League law professorship with a phony claim of Native American ancestry — for which she won the derisive nickname “Pocahontas” — to one about a woman of the people, who made it from Rutgers School of Law to Harvard via hard work, brains, and good old-fashioned perseverance.


The video released by Warren to announce her exploratory presidential plans is a first effort to do that. The bulk of the video stresses a populist, anti-Wall Street theme. But in the chunk devoted to her Oklahoma roots, she talks about her older brothers joining the military and her “daddy” having a heart attack. After that, she says, “My mom found a minimum-wage job at Sears. That job saved our house and our family. My father ended up a janitor. But he raised a daughter who got to be a public school teacher, a law professor, and a senator.”

Yet politicians whose enemies managed to paint the picture of who they are before they do know how hard it is to change that image. The issue of Warren’s heritage has long dominated the headlines, not to mention President Trump’s tweets about her. She must also contend with the ideological baggage attached to her Bay State identity. Republicans turned “Massachusetts liberal” into a slur used against Dukakis and Kerry. Right-wingers in Romney’s own Republican Party used it against him, too. Putting out word that Warren was a registered Republican until she was in her 40s won’t remove the curse of what it means, in much of the country, to be a Massachusetts liberal. If Boston, with its history of racial strife, becomes another line of attack against Warren, she will need all her famous persistence to take it on. An assist from African-Americans who are willing to dispute negative, Boston-targeted connotations would also help.


Thanks to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, persistence is Warren’s most endearing brand. McConnell ensured that, when he explained the Senate vote to silence her objections to confirming Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general with these words: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

That much Warren continues to do, no matter what the doubters and detractors have to say about her.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.