Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks policy and ‘building a party of the people’ in Iowa City

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Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks during a campaign event at the Iowa Memorial Union. Sunday, Feb 10, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“I’m here for exactly one reason,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said as she took the stage for her campaign rally at the Iowa Memorial Union on Sunday afternoon. “I’m tired of a government that works for a thin slice at the top, and not for anyone else. I’m here to make a change, I’m here to make a government that works for all of us.”

That message — that government is failing most Americans — was driven home by the two speakers who had preceded Warren. At the formal announcement of her candidacy for the Democrat nomination for president Saturday, in her home state of Massachusetts, Warren was introduced by politicians. But at the Iowa City rally, that role was filled by two individuals discussing the challenges they face in their daily lives.

Erin Doughtery focused on the difficulty Johnson County families face finding child care, and Herbert Meisner talked about having to work three jobs and take out loans to afford his education at the University of Iowa.

Warren contrasted those experiences with her own upbringing in Oklahoma. A single income could sustain a family then. Even when her father couldn’t work following a heart attack, her mother was able to secure a minimum wage job that allowed her family to keep their home and access basic necessities.

After initially dropping out of college to get married, Warren was able to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a school teacher by attending a “commuter college” where the tuition was $50 a semester. She was able to pay for college with a part-time job as a waitress.

“Then when I was home with babies, I decided another crazy thing. I decided to go to law school,” Warren said. A public university provided her with an affordable opportunity to study law. Warren went on to a distinguished career as a law professor, and one of the country’s leading experts on bankruptcy law and consumer protection.

Warren noted that her father had ended his working life as a janitor, but thanks to opportunities she had, she’d been able to go from school teacher to law professor to U.S. senator and, now, candidate for president.

“That is an America that makes my heart sing. That is an America that’s about our best dreams and our best opportunities,” Warren said. “And it is not the America of today. And that is why I’m in this fight.”

Turning to an issue that has particular resonance in Iowa City, Warren said, “Today in America, there is $1.5 trillion outstanding in student loan debt.”

That debt can last for decades.

“There are people whose Social Security checks are being garnished to pay for student loans,” Warren said.

“This has become part of America,” she continued. “And understand, it didn’t have to be this way. The difference between when I grew up, and my opportunity to go to school that cost 50 bucks a semester, and what’s happening today in America is about a series of decisions that were made by our government. It’s a series of decisions to favor the rich and the powerful over everyone else.”

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The senator explained that, today, people who work as hard as her parents did cannot achieve the same level of financial security and material success they did. People “now encounter a path that is rockier and steeper than ever before in history. And for people of color, it is even rockier and even steeper.”

“And that is why I’m in this fight, to fight back against that.”

Since the 1970s, wages (adjusted for inflation) have remained basically flat, Warren said. During the same time, costs for basic items, adjusted for inflation, have grown substantially. Housing costs have increased by two-thirds. The cost of health insurance has more than doubled, and the cost of a college education has more than tripled.

Creating an America that works for those who can’t afford “an army of lobbyists and lawyers,” will require major structural changes, Warren said. That begins, she explained, by calling the way Washington currently works “what it is: corruption.”

“I have the biggest anti-corruption proposal since Watergate,” Warren said.

Although the crowd of more than 200 gathered in the IMU ballroom had enthusiastically applauded throughout Warren’s speech, the loudest applause came as she explained parts of her anti-corruption proposals.

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter speaks with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren following a campaign event at the Iowa Memorial Union. Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

As president, Warren would make major changes to how lobbying works, she said, including a ban on foreign governments hiring lobbyist to influence the federal government.

“And close the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street,” she continued. “You’re playing for one team or the other, not both at the same time.”

Warren also proposed banning members of Congress and people who work in the White House from trading stocks, as well as making everyone who runs for federal office publish their taxes online.

In addition to those reforms, Warren proposed structural changes to the economy needed to create opportunities for average Americans.

“Let’s start with power,” Warren said. “Giant corporations in this country have way too much power. And that means they roll over everybody else — their employees, small businesses, small farms, everybody.”

Regulations are part of the answer, Warren said. But there also needs to a renewed balance of power between people and corporations in the marketplace.

“We need stronger unions in America,” Warren said to sustained applause. “Unions built America’s middle class, and unions will rebuild America’s middle class.”

By changing the way power is distributed in the economy, “we can attack head-on the things that are hitting families every day,” Warren said. Those things include providing health care for everyone (“a basic human right,” Warren called it), child care, debt-free college and breaking the hold the NRA has on Congress in order to address gun safety.

“No one who works full-time should live in poverty,” Warren said. “That’s why we need to raise the minimum wage.”

Many people argue making major changes to how Washington and the economy work will be too difficult and impractical, Warren conceded. But then she listed others in American history who were told their goals were impractical, such as abolitionists and suffragettes.

In order to make those big structural changes, it’s important to start changing how people run for office, Warren said.

“I’m not taking a thin dime of PAC money. I’m not taking a thin dime of federal lobbyist money. And I’m not smooching up to any billionaires, hoping that they will fund super PACs on my behalf,” Warren said, challenging other Democrat candidates who do the same.

“It’s because we need to walk the walk on building a party of the people, a grassroots party,” the senator explained. She added, “That is not only how you win in 2020, it’s how we’ll be in a position to make the changes we need to make in January 2021.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks during a campaign event at the Iowa Memorial Union. Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Warren’s speech focused on structural problems and their solutions, rather than President Trump (although she did say, “Hatred and bigotry have no place in the White House”). Warren is well-known for being able to discuss her policy proposals in detail — none of the questions reporters asked her during a brief press availability after her speech were about her policies.

One of the three questions invited Warren to criticize other Democratic primary candidates for their policy proposals. Warren didn’t. The other two questions focused on President Trump. Warren declined to speculate on whether Trump should be impeached, in response to one of the question, and declined to respond to Trump’s latest racist tweet directed at her, in response to the other question.

“[Donald Trump] is a symptom of what’s wrong,” Warren told reporters. She stressed again that structural changes were needed to treat the underlying problem.

“And as Democrats, that’s what we better be in here talking about, every single chance we get.”

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