Oklahoma debate champion and advocate for middle class families becomes Senate hopeful
By Darla Shelden
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau architect Elizabeth Warren, an Oklahoma City native, was recently honored by being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. Energy entrepreneur, T. Boone Pickens, presented Warren for induction – one of seven people in the 2011 class.
Warren has made fighting for middle class families her life’s work. TIME magazine called her a “New Sheriff of Wall Street” and twice included her among America’s 100 most influential people in the world. She’s taken on big banks and financial institutions to win historic new financial protections for consumers.
Elizabeth learned first-hand about the economic pressures facing middle class families.
When she was 12years old, her dad suffered a heart attack. The store where he worked changed his job and cut his pay, and medical bills piled up. The family lost their car, and her mom went to work answering phones at Sears to pay the mortgage. Elizabeth began babysitting at nine.
Wallace Collins, Oklahoma Democratic State Party Chair said, “Elizabeth Warren would make a great U.S. Senator. Her family suffered through some hard times in her younger years, giving her some life lessons about austerity and hardship. In my opinion, that gives her compassion for people that are suffering now.
“I think she will do all in her power to help American working people. I don’t think she is “anti-business”, I think she wants to help create more jobs, to help out-of-work people meet their own needs.”
Born in Oklahoma City, Warren attended grade school in Norman and graduated from Northwest Classen High School, in Oklahoma City, where she was named “Oklahoma’s top high-school debater.”
Karl Johnson, former high school debate partner, now an attorney at Luebben Johnson & Barnhouse in New Mexico said,” During the 1960s, Elizabeth Warren (then known as Liz Herring) and I were debate partners for three years in a very active and successful speech and debate program at Northwest Classen High School.”
“We may as well have been joined at the hip for those three years, spending countless days, evenings and weekends together preparing for and attending debate tournaments throughout Oklahoma and elsewhere. “Yet I never tired of working with her – not for an instant – and ever since have measured each subsequent relationship with a professional colleague by my collaboration with Liz,” said Johnson.
Joe Pryor, Edmond real estate consultant and former debate team member said, “Northwest Classen was the No. 1 debate team in the state and Elizabeth was on the number one team with Karl Johnson. We debated some pretty weighty topics like socialized medicine, free trade, and proliferation of nuclear weapons.
“Elizabeth was certainly easy to like and she was always about the smartest person in the room.”
Warren said in an interview at UC Berkeley, “I was 16 years old when I graduated from high school and I got a full scholarship in debate that included room, board, tuition, books and a little spending money. It was a fabulous scholarship at George Washington University, if I would debate for them.”
Warren married, started teaching children with disabilities in the public school system and had a daughter Amelia when she was 22. During a trip back to Oklahoma for Christmas, she was encouraged by her former debate teammates to study law.
“Elizabeth had, and by accounts still has, an extremely quick, sharp and inquisitive mind,a drive for excellence that was never satisfied with less than her very best, and a remarkable work ethic. Those qualities, combined with an uncanny power of persuasion, made her a formidable debater indeed, and I was grateful every day that she was my colleague and not my opponent,” said Johnson.
Warren said that she “took to law school like a pig takes to mud,” and went on to receive her Juris Doctorate from Rutgers School of Law in 1976.
In the summer of 1987, Warren waged a high-profile public debate on the subject of bankruptcy with another young bankruptcy specialist named Douglas Baird. The debate was published in the University of Chicago Law Review, a high profile journal that put Warren’s ideas in front of the biggest audience she’d ever had, and established her as a rising star in the field.
“I cannot count the number of debate rounds against talented teams when I was sure all was lost, only to see Liz take the podium and with razor-like analysis and wit, dismantle the opposition’s arguments one by one, leaving our audiences – and me – gape-jawed. And, she was able to do all that in a timed four-minute rebuttal that responded to twelve minutes of the other team’s presentation.” said Johnson.
In 1994, a former congressman from Oklahoma, Mike Synar, having just been made head of the new commission on bankruptcy by President Clinton, asked Warren to help the commission with research.
“Not a chance. That’s political. I want to be pure,” was Warren’s response.
Warren finally said yes, but only on the promise that Synar would keep her insulated from politics. When Synar died of cancer less than a year later, Warren considered quitting the commission, but worried that, “it would be taken over by the credit industry.”
Warren stepped up to the task by incorporating much of her research into public policy and later felt the political involvement enlightened her understanding of the scope of the problems.
Wallace Collins recently got to meet Elizabeth Warren.He said she recounted the experience of former Representative Mike Synar, from Muskogee, introducing her as “the debater who defeated me three years in a row back in high school.”
“I never got to meet Mike Synar, but I’ve seen and heard his oratory and thought he was great and certainly he is one of my idols, so I thought if she beat him she must be terrific,” said Collins.
Appointed the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard in 1995, she is currently the only tenured member of the law faculty to have received her training from an American public university.
Warren was the Chief Adviser to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission and she was appointed by Chief Justice Rehnquist as the first academic member of the Federal Judicial Education Committee.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Warren served as Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
Warren has been credited for the relentless persistence that led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
The bureau is designed to hold accountable even trillion-dollar financial institutions and to protect consumers from traps hidden in mortgages, credit card agreements, and other financial products.
She served as Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury for the CFPB from February to July 2011.
Warren has written nine books and more than 100 scholarly articles about credit and economic stress. Her most recent two books, “The Two-Income Trap” and “All Your Worth,” were national best sellers.
At 62, Warren, the Northwest Classen debate champion, is a leading advocate for reforming the financial industry, and a formidable Democratic contender for next year’s Massachusetts Senate race.
When asked why she is running, Warren says, “We have a chance to help rebuild America’s middle class. We have a chance to put Washington on the side of families.”
“I have no doubt that this is not something that she just thought of suddenly, but rather based on what she believes. You could see that in her, even as a teenager. I hope she does well and I’m rooting for her,” said Pryor.
Elizabeth and her husband Bruce Mann have three grandchildren and live in Cambridge with their golden retriever, Otis.
“I have never had as great a professional colleague as Liz Herring. I envy those who will have the opportunity to work with her, and commiserate with those who will face her in debate, on the campaign trail and the floor of the U.S. Senate,” said Johnson.