For the city’s Democratic donor class, it can be a dreary procession. Night after night, candidates for high office from around the country make their way to Manhattan to rattle the tip cup. The same hors d’oeuvres, the same bromides, the same canned answers to the same audience of well-heeled party types who can cough up the couple-grand entrance fee.
But this year, local Democrats say, a new figure has emerged on the scene, someone who has sparked interest and enthusiasm in the city not seen since Barack Obama’s presidential run, or perhaps even Hillary Clinton’s first Senate run, a slight woman from the Oklahoma Plains, by way of Harvard Yard, named Elizabeth Warren.
Her fund-raising appearances here seem part revival meeting, part think-tank policy session. At an appearance at the Rockefeller Center-area law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, Ms. Warren surprised the overflow crowd of 50 or so by going around the room and asking each person who they were and what brought them there, lending the proceedings the air of summer camp reunion, a feeling only enhanced when a dozen or so of the people in attendance said that they were in fact students of Ms. Warren’s from her two decades on the faculty of Harvard Law School.
“That was personally to me, very, I don’t want to say moving—that is a little bit of an exaggeration—but it was telling,” said Marc Weiss, the president of Digital Innovations Group, a nonprofit think thank that supports innovation on the web and a regular contributor to Democratic candidates. “Former students standing up and saying how she had impacted the decisions they made about what kind of law they practice. How many college professors can you say that about?”
Part of the appeal of Ms. Warren, her donors say, is the manner in which she has become a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. One of the nation’s leading consumer advocates and experts on bankruptcy law, Ms. Warren was hand-picked by Barack Obama to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that she helped found (and which she certainly provided the intellectual underpinnings for) only then to have her nomination to lead the bureau blocked by Republicans at the behest of the financial industry.
“This is like Hillary Clinton. It has that flavor to it,” said one contributor who dropped the $2,500 maximum but asked not to be named for fear of angering his employer. “She is a lightning rod for the right for trying to stick up to the big bully of Wall Street, and she took it on the chops as a result. And so she decides to take a pass at [a Senate campaign]. She is like David going up against Goliath, and so far she is wielding her slingshot pretty well.”
The Goliath in this case is Scott Brown, who galled Democrats around the country by winning a special election for the Senate seat formerly held by the late Ted Kennedy. That result gave the tea party its first real scalp, and nearly derailed Mr. Obama’s efforts to reform health care.
Mr. Brown has been no stranger to New York, either. He has been here as often as Ms. Warren, and even has a New York City finance committee. Wall Streeters have rallied to his side, not so much, they say, because of Mr. Brown but more in an effort to stymie Ms. Warren.
“It is a town-gown kind of election, where Elizabeth Warren represents the gown at Harvard—elite school, elite thoughts—and here is the way the world should be organized, and the country should be organized and we know how to do it. You the people don’t know how to do it, we will impose our will on you,” said Ed Cox, the chairman of the New York State Republican Party and a contributor to Mr. Brown’s campaign. “That is her snotty, elitist attitude, while you got this guy Scott Brown, who’s everyman, who is talking for the town, if you will.”
The race between the two of them has garnered so much attention on both sides of the aisle that a number of donors suggested it was as if it were a battle to become the third senator from New York. Many donors The Observer spoke with confessed that they had maxed out to Ms. Warren or Mr. Brown, but hadn’t given to Chuck Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand or to any of the Republicans who have challenged them (for fear of getting quick phone calls from their fund-raisers, they asked that their names not be used).
“I like Chuck and Kirsten, but let’s face it, they don’t need my money,” said one, echoing an oft-heard sentiment.
And then, of course, there is the matter of Ms. Warren herself. For New York Democrats, Ms. Warren—who once distilled the fight over the CFPB thusly: “My first choice is a strong consumer agency. My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor”—is able to articulate, or at least symbolize, what so many of them have felt but what so few of their elected leaders have been able to say.
“When I heard that I wanted to stand up and cheer,” said Tobias Frere-Jones, the famed typeface designer. “She sounds like someone who is not going to apologize for being smart, and for knowing her stuff when Republicans start making stuff up about her.”
A YouTube clip of her pushing back against GOP arguments over “class warfare” is approaching cute-cat-video view numbers. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” she inveighs in the footage.
“I would put her in a small group of national progressive leaders who I think have really captured the imagination of a lot of progressive activists both in New York and nationally,” explained Jonathan Rosen, the head of progressive consulting firm Berlin Rosen, which was the driving force behind the election of New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman and New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio. “I am not a part of the quote-unquote fund-raiser money network of New York, but I think a lot of people who have heard her speak and have seen her work over the years think she is exactly the kind of candidate we need to build the Democratic Party nationally.” He gave the maximum, as did his wife.
Darren Rigger, a Democratic fund-raiser, attended Ms. Warren’s debut NYC appearance, at the well-appointed home of top Democratic donors Dennis and Karen Mehiel.
“I do this for a living,” he said. “I don’t actually make contributions to candidates and I don’t go to fund-raisers if I don’t have to. And I cut her a personal check and went. It was like going to see a celebrity.”
The leaders of the effort behind Ms. Warren are two well-known figures on the high-dollar Democratic donor circuit: Anne Hess and Sarah Kovner.
Ms. Kovner cohosted Ms. Warren’s first event in New York, and so many people wanted to go that she organized subsequent ones, and has found that she hasn’t needed to solicit people to come.
“Candidates come here all the time, but she is sui generis. She has just excited people’s imaginations. No, not their imaginations—their thinking,” she said. “A senator is a senator no matter where they come from—a senator from Hawaii is just as important as one from here in terms of the vote, but certain people are going to be able to carry a message. People feel like she’s got a message they want to hear.”
The base of financial support for Ms. Warren consists of many of the same people who early got behind Ms. Clinton’s Senate candidacy and then helped her raise massive sums for her presidential bid.
“It’s a little bit the Hillary Clinton follow-up,” said Gale Brewer, a New York City Council woman who has given $1,000 to Ms. Warren. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, she is a carpetbagger, her hair is funny, she wears pants suits,’ and we gave her money and we organized events and we loved her.”
But Ms. Warren has tapped into networks beyond Hillary-land into realms that don’t often donate to Senate candidates, much less Senate candidates from elsewhere. A number of her supporters here trace their roots back to Massachusetts. There is a cadre of bankruptcy attorneys, and number of former Harvard law students, and now she is beginning to make in-roads into the city’s tech scene.
Many of the names on Ms. Warren’s latest report are familiar ones to New York Democrats—Agnes Gund, Leo Hindery, Franklin Roosevelt III, Eric Schneiderman’s mother and late father, the Soros clan. Others are less so, including the artist Robert Longo, marketing guru Seth Godin and TV personality Catherine Crier.
Recently, web entrepreneurs Sheila Marcelo and Kevin Ryan, the founder of Gilt Groupe, were enlisted to host a dinner for her in New York.
“My sense is that there are a group of people who would love to have more women in the Senate, a group who would just want more Democrats, and there is a group that feels like she, in particular, is quite liberal and quite good and quite principled. So she is attracting a lot of interest,” Mr. Ryan said.
Ms. Warren may be all of that, but that might be enough for voters, even in deep-blue Massachusetts. Unlike Ms. Gillibrand or Mr. Schumer, Ms. Warren may very well lose (polls show her and Mr. Brown essentially tied) and if she does, it could jeopardize Democratic efforts to hold onto the Senate. Which of course only leads donors here to double down further on their own giving and in trying to get their friends to do the same.
“That would be devastating,” Ms. Brewer said.
The city’s donors are doing their best to prevent such a possibility.
At the Mehiel’s fund-raiser, Ms. Brewer grabbed Ms. Warren afterward to tell her simply, “You are going to win.”
Ms. Warren smiled and shot back, “Only with your help.”
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