By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., spoke to a packed auditorium at Brown University the day after winning a second term in office. But the event was more of a classroom lecture than a campaign rally stoking the controversies surrounding President Trump and Election Day.
Warren stuck to a middle-class economic message that drew on her humble formative years. She described the financial crisis her family endured after her father suffered a heart attack. With the family’s breadwinner out of work, her mother took a minimum-wage job at Sears to support the family of six. Warren, a former public-school teacher and university professor, gave a compelling oration on how deregulation of the banking sector and political deference to corporate earnings have eroded a once-livable income.
“That minimum-wage job saved our home and it saved our family,” she said.
Today a minimum-wage job can’t pay rent anywhere in the country, while income for the top 10 percent of wage-earners has skyrocketed since deregulation began in 1980 under President Ronald Reagan. As trickle-down economics were embraced, taxes were cut, infrastructure spending dropped, and income growth stopped for the middle and lower classes. After shrinking, the black-white wealth gap tripled between 1980 and 2016.
Warren said government plays a role in how income is distributed in the economy.
“Government matters and it matters enormously,” she said. “And it’s this fundamental question of who this government works for.”
In her 40 minutes on stage — and opting not to use the lectern — Warren barely addressed the controversies of the moment, such as the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and what might happen in Congress now that the House has switched party control. She didn’t mention Massachusetts or Rhode Island, or refer much to regionally significant issues such as climate change.
Student interest in seeing Warren speak was strong and tickets to the free event were claimed quickly. There were several rounds of applause, but the event had the polite mood of a Ted Talk rather than the spirit of a campaign rally.
Warren took questions submitted online on topics relevant to the 600-plus students in the Salomon Center Auditorium, such as student debt and the cost of housing.
Warren, a consumer rights advocate, said student debt is getting worse, growing by $100 billion annually. She described dropping out of college after getting married at 19. The marriage failed but she paid for her modest tuition at a community college with wages from a part-time job as a waitress.
She suggested spending $1.5 trillion from the recent tax cut to shrink student debt and reduce college tuition. She referenced her bill to boost affordable homeownership for families that live in neighborhoods once intentionally shunned by banks. The program would be funded by restoring the estate tax on the wealthiest 10,000 families.
Warren was prepared for the inevitable question about her recent ancestry test, calling it part of sharing information with voters.
“Donald Trump has attacked me for a long time based on my ancestry,” Warren said. “My response to attacks is to just try to be as transparent as possible.”
She noted that she has released 10 years of tax returns and her employment records, “and now I took a DNA test and I put it all out on the Internet and let them see it and make of it what they want.
“I get it. I am not going to keep Donald Trump from hurling racial insults. I am not going to stop Donald Trump from trying to turn Americans against each other.”
She called for unity in the face of the president’s divisive agenda.
“I am not a tribal citizen. Tribes, and only tribes, determine tribal citizenship,” Warren said. “But every single one of us should be outraged when Donald Trump attacks Native Americans. I am not a person of color, but every single one of us should acknowledge that communities of color are under assault.”
She redirected the issue to morally shameful policies and actions surrounding the Trump administration, such as separating young children from their parents at border crossings. She described the firing/resignation of Sessions as Trump trying to “build a runway to be able to escape an investigation of his activities.”
Warren supports taking action on climate change but her populist message largely focuses on reforming corporations, and banks in particular, to operate more equitably.
Warren’s bill, the Climate Risk Disclosure Act, follows her call for corporate responsibility by requiring companies to report — in filings with the Securities Exchange Commission — their greenhouse-gas emissions, fossil-fuel assets, and the impacts of climate change on earnings.
Warren and other Democrats may be strategically avoiding the issue of climate change. One early narrative from the Nov. 6 election shows public support for addressing climate change but voters have mixed feelings about supporting politicians and referendums that offer solutions. For a second time, the state of Washington rejected a carbon-tax program.
Far-right conservative pundits are pointing to support for climate policies as the reason a couple of moderate Republicans who backed bipartisan action on climate change lost their re-election bids. Many of those pundits are funded by fossil-fuel companies.
In a brief press gaggle after the talk, Warren declined to state her plans about running for president in 2020.
After initially prohibiting the media from taking photos and making audio and video recordings, Brown University allowed reporters to use their audio and video equipment from their seats.