For most job candidates, time spent at Harvard University would be front and center on their resumes.
But as Sen. Elizabeth Warren stumps across the country seeking the presidency, her time as an Ivy League law professor is strikingly absent from the story she tells voters, replaced by her hardscrabble Oklahoma roots, her three brothers’ military service and the year she taught K-12 special education in the 1970s.
In fact, Ms. Warren’s 16 years at Harvard — the springboard for her jump into public life — has been missing in action.
She also glosses over her past as a Republican. She switched her party registration in 1996, soon after joining Harvard Law full time. She has largely hidden her work as a corporate lawyer, revealing only this week that she made nearly $2 million over her lifetime representing clients that included some of the country’s biggest corporations.
As Democratic voters search for the right person to challenge President Trump, Ms. Warren’s attempts to carve a new image remain stumbling blocks.
“She never settles on an identity,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, a former executive director of National Nurses United who said she is backing Sen. Bernard Sanders in the primary. “Regrettably, she is actually working hard at trying to be a politician. And people loathe politicians. A ‘staged’ persona does not resonate with working people. Authenticity is fundamental, and that is the primary problem for Warren.”
The problem isn’t new for the senator from Massachusetts, who since her first campaign in 2012 has been dogged by her claims of American Indian ancestry while she climbed the career ladder. Harvard touted her native heritage, something she apparently told officials there and at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Ms. Warren has apologized for the claims, though she didn’t back away from them.
She released a DNA test suggesting she may have a native ancestor six or more generations back. That only brought more scrutiny to her claims and left some party stalwarts worried about the ammunition she is giving Mr. Trump in a general election campaign.
Others say her decision to highlight her roots makes sense.
“I think that if you are playing long ball, you probably want to emphasize those things that you feel people will more closely identify with, and so from a strategy standpoint I think it’s a smart move on her part if that is what she wants to emphasize,” said South Carolina state Rep. Jerry N. Govan Jr., chairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus.
Perhaps more than identity, what Ms. Warren most wants to emphasize in the campaign is her massive binders of policy plans.
She has ideas on just about everything, including a “Medicare for All” health care proposal, free college tuition, breaking up big internet companies and slapping an annual tax on the wealthy.
Her confidence in her plans has drawn fire from fellow candidates.
“Your idea is not the only idea,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told her in an October debate. She said Ms. Warren needed “a reality check.”
Being the champion of policy may be Ms. Warren’s best counter to her personality, which comes off as contrived in other areas. Her attempt to relate to average voters with a New Year’s Eve video of her cracking a beer in her Cambridge home fell flat, particularly the part where she offered one to her husband and he declined.
She also has called on her rivals to forgo big-money fundraisers during the campaign, as she has done. But critics point out that she held those kinds of big-dollar events during her 2018 Senate reelection campaign, stockpiling cash from them and then transferring $10 million as seed money for her White House bid.
While portraying herself as a public education advocate, Ms. Warren has had to acknowledge that her son attended an expensive private school for most of his schooling.
Questions have been raised over Ms. Warren’s claim that she was forced out of her special education teaching job because she was visibly pregnant. That story is a staple of her campaign stump speech.
Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and a fan of Ms. Warren’s, said she doesn’t shy away from her Harvard years at her campaign events and talks about them as part of her experience “going from teaching younger kids to older kids in law school.”
“Have you been to her speeches?” he said.
Speaking in Iowa last week, Ms. Warren said that after she graduated from law school she “practiced law for 45 minutes” and then returned to the classroom.
“I traded little ones for big ones and spent almost my whole grown-up life teaching in law school,” she said before quickly pivoting to her concerns about the middle class being hallowed out and her vision for the nation.
Yet Ms. Warren continued to take well-heeled clients while a professor, charging as much as $675 an hour to act as a legal consultant for clients from coal-burning energy companies and the insurance industry.
This week, after years of prodding, she revealed that she collected at least $1.9 million from decades of legal work, chiefly on bankruptcy cases.
Her campaign said it released the information to promote transparency and help with a contrast between her and Mr. Trump.
She would much rather talk about her life before she joined Harvard’s faculty in 1995.
“When I was growing up in Oklahoma, all three of my brothers went off to the military. That was their ticket to the middle class,” Ms. Warren said in the opening of her first campaign ad. “Now me, my dream was to be a teacher. I got a scholarship and went off to school, but dropped out and got married at 19. My second chance was a commuter college that cost $50 a semester.”
She has driven home that same message in several of the Democratic debates but has not mentioned Harvard once during her 15 hours on the debate stage.
“Harvard polls horribly,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist in Massachusetts. “The words out of a candidate’s mouth that campaign aides hate to hear is, ‘During my time at Harvard.'”
He said Ms. Warren was able to avoid major damage from her Harvard ties in her Senate bids because she was running in Massachusetts, where voters are used to politicians with ties to their most prestigious school.
It would be a different story in a national general election, he said.
“The only thing worse is if she talks about being a die-hard Patriots fan,” he said, alluding to the six-time Super Bowl champions.
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