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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

These Chicagoans Are Pushing Elizabeth Warren to Run for President

While Hillary Clinton is still the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, a few local activists are working to get Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race in 2016.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).  Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

It’s still very early in the presidential race for 2016, but already Hillary Clinton seems to have a lock on the Democratic nomination—though a few local activists are hoping another candidate decides to run. That’s Massachusetts superstar senator Elizabeth Warren, and the three people who are pushing for her are Ilya Sheyman, a former candidate for Congress, and Erica Sagrans and Christopher Hass, both veterans of the Obama campaign.

Warren, 65, is only a couple of years younger than Hillary, but she seems almost a different generation—a fresh, natural face, rangy, and an energetic engine of progressive, populist, anti-Wall Street ideas. She captivates the left-of-center segment of the Democratic party that seems tired of Bill and Hillary’s triangulating centrism. 

The former Harvard Law professor was reared in an Oklahoma family subsisting on the edge of bankruptcy. She was educated at the University of Houston and Rutgers Law—in other words, not the typical HLS prof—and elected to the Senate in 2012. She also says repeatedly that she is not running for president, but because she usually insists on keeping it in the present tense—“I am not running for president”—her supporters, many of them millennials, refuse to believe her. They interpret Warren’s present-tense declaration to mean “I am not currently running.” Her supporters, especially the three Chicagoans, aim to show her that she alone will have the hyper-energetic, door-knocking, out-organizing-the-opposition who graced the first Obama campaign. (Warren supporter Van Jones compares the “Run, Liz, run!” roar that greeted Warren at a Netroots convention last summer to “Beatlemania”) 

It’s not hard to understand her appeal. A Senate floor speech Warren gave last month was one of the best I’ve ever seen. She blasted a $1.1 trillion “cromnibus” government spending bill that included a clause, reportedly written by a Citigroup lobbyist, that weakened the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Law. Warren charged that its addition benefited big banks by allowing them to use FDIC-insured deposits to fund high-risk derivative trading. The speech popped with indignation against banks such as Citigroup and its “unprecedented” influence or “grip over economic policy making in the executive branch.” She denounced the “revolving door” that sent bank honchos into the government, often as treasury secretary—an example she cited was Citibank alum Robert Rubin during the Clinton administration: “Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position.” The law passed but Warren’s opposition made her even more a hero to the Left.

Erica Sagrans, 32, originally from Massachusetts, came to Chicago more than three years ago—she now lives in Logan Square—and worked on the digital side for the Obama 2012 campaign. She also managed the Democratic primary campaign for state rep of Will Guzzardi, an outsider who beat the incumbent, Toni Berrios, the daughter of machine-backed Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. (Both Sagrans and Guzzardi attended Brown University, although not at the same time)

Sagrans is the campaign manager of Ready for Warren, a Chicago-based super PAC urging the senator to run. She’s one of two paid staffers, the other her deputy. Sagrans told me in a telephone interview that Warren has not asked the group to stop pushing her candidacy. “We know she’s listening,” she insists, pointing to a profile in People last October in which Warren “indicated…she’s listening and open to the idea.” (“If there’s any lesson I’ve learned in the last five years,” Warren told People’s Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, “it’s don’t be so sure about what lies ahead. There are amazing doors that could open.”

“We believe we can convince Warren to run,” Sagrans says, “if we show her enough support. In 2012 she didn’t set out to run for the Senate, but when she saw opportunity she decided to do it.”

Warren’s issues are ones that resonate with across generations, Sagrans says, and certainly with young voters: student debt, women’s rights, money in politics, holding Wall Street accountable, climate change. Sagrans dismisses discouraging poll numbers, such as one that showed Hillary leading Warren in a Democratic primary in New Hampshire by 49 points. “I think as we introduce Warren to more people, they’ll get excited about her and her numbers will go up fast.”

Since the November 2014 midterms, Christopher Hass has volunteered for Ready for Warren. Before that, he was digital director for Pat Quinn’s race against Bruce Rauner. (Hass attributes the loss to low turnout, especially in Chicago—an “enthusiasm gap” of voters not motivated by the Democrats’ arguments to get to the polls; all exacerbated by the millions Rauner and his ultra-wealthy friends poured into his campaign coffers.) Before that, he worked on the digital side for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. A native of Bloomington, Indiana, Hass, 39, moved to Chicago in 2000. He now also lives in Logan Square.

Like Sagrans, Hass has never met Warren, but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm. Warren was a “reluctant candidate” for the Senate, he told me in a telephone interview, and had to be “compelled and convinced to run. That gives groups like Ready for Warren a blueprint….I wouldn’t be spending my time on this if I didn’t think there was a chance she’d decide to run.”

The issues that Warren has embraced, Hass says, are the right ones, the “compelling” ones: “The economic recovery has not been complete. A lot of people feel they’ve been left behind. Student debt is a huge problem, rising costs of college tuition, we still certainly have a housing crisis, underwater on mortgages, need to raise minimum wage…..People feel government isn’t working for them, feel the system is rigged. People lose hope and that diminishes the American dream. For voters, that’s the decision. Who’s going to look out for me?” Hass describes voters as “hungry for a politician who can speak to issues.” He says that should she not run, “there might not be a person in the race who speaks to them….I don’t think the movement has a back-up candidate.”

As for the huge gap in the polls between Warren and Hillary Clinton, Hass agrees with Sagrans: “There’s still a lot of Americans who don’t know much about her. I believe that if Warren were to announce tomorrow, those polls would close very quickly. I remember we were down at least 30 points in Iowa when I was working for Obama in ’07.

The third activist, Ilya Sheyman, 28, refused an interview when contacted last month, but promised to talk later this year. I interviewed him in 2011 when he was campaigning in the Democratic primary for the 10th congressional district; he came in second to Brad Schneider, who went on to win the general election. Sheyman has since moved to D.C. and returned to MoveOn.org, climbing from National Mobilization Director to Executive Director. From that perch he is pushing the Warren candidacy. Late last year, MoveOn invested more than $1 million in its “Run Warren Run” campaign.

From a family that came here as Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, Sheyman was a top student at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. When we talked in 2011 he described himself as a “community organizer” who advocates for tax hikes for the rich and Medicare for all. 

They have a year until the first primaries start up, but it will be a tough challenge to persuade Warren to run. In a just-published Q&A with former FDIC chairman Sheila Bair, Warren might be seen as having shifted tenses to the future. The Warren/Bair exchange went as follows:

SB: So are you going to run for President?
EW: No.

My hunch is that Warren ends up not running; that she will continue purposefully to avoid making a Shermanesque statement and a request to Sagrans/Hass/Sheyman to cease and desist. Once she does that her influence instantly shrinks. At this moment she is forcing Hillary Clinton to the left on such issues as income inequality. At some level, I think, her supporters recognize her gameplan.

Christopher Hass doesn’t agree with that plan if it’s happening: “You don’t have people making this commitment in time and money and energy to push Hillary left. The people I see and talk to and interact with want to see Warren run for president.” Sagrans is a bit squishier on the subject: “Our primary goal is to get Warren to run…to draft Warren. In addition we want to push the issues, income equality, Wall Street, front and center in 2016.”

Just how worried Hillary is about Warren was evident in the awkward pronouncement she made at a 2014 midterm campaign event that also featured Elizabeth Warren: “Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” Hillary quickly had to walk that back, in the process appearing to lack Warren’s most prominent quality: the courage of her convictions.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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