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Mass. Senate Candidate Elizabeth Warren Asks, ‘Who Are You Fighting For?’

September 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Gwen Ifill talks to Massachusetts senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, a keynote speaker at the convention on Wednesday. Warren, a consumer advocate, talks about discouraging partisanship, supporting working families over Wall Street billionaires and the special campaign finance deal she made with her opponent, Sen. Scott Brown.
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GWEN IFILL: One of tomorrow night’s headline speakers is Massachusetts Senate challenger Elizabeth Warren, who is trying to oust the Republican who succeeded Ted Kennedy.

I sat down with her earlier today at her Charlotte hotel.

Elizabeth Warren, thank you for joining us.

ELIZABETH WARREN (D), Massachusetts Senatorial Candidate:  Oh, thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: Your reputation nationally is that of a regulator, someone who took on Wall Street and championed reform. How much in this campaign, either in your campaign or Massachusetts or nationally, is regulation a central part of this argument anymore? 

ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, I think regulation is a part of it, particularly when Mitt Romney says that, if he gets elected, he wants to roll back all of the reforms on Wall Street.

Think about that for a minute. What he’s saying is, I want to tell Wall Street they can go back to doing exactly what they were doing on the day before they crashed the economy. So, in that sense, the Republicans have made regulation a part of the argument.

But, look, at the end of the day, what this is really about is about whose side you stand on, about working families or the billionaires, the hedge funds, the Wall Street guys.   

GWEN IFILL: That’s the argument Democrats want to make against Mitt Romney, no question. Does that translate to a race like the Massachusetts Senate race where perhaps the voters aren’t quite as polarized as they are nationally? 

ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, I think the question about what’s happening to our families is really important in Massachusetts.

You know, part of being out on the campaign trail is that I talk, but I also listen a lot. And people tell me what’s important. I met a kid in Worcester a few weeks ago who said, I did everything you wanted me to do, I went to college, I worked hard, I got my diploma, and now I’m $54,000 in debt. I’m working a part-time job. And I’m beginning to wonder, does America have a future for me? 

I talk to seniors who are having a hard time keeping it pulled together. And they now see a little bit of relief with these new health care reforms. They get a free exam every year. In Massachusetts, we have got about 11,000 seniors who are getting an average of about $650 in help every year on paying for their prescription drugs.

And Scott Brown and the Republicans have said, no, they want to repeal that, they want to go back to square one, they want to get rid of them. So these are core issues that I hear about from people all over the commonwealth.

GWEN IFILL: Both you and Scott Brown have a national drag, in some way, on your ambitions, which is to say when it comes to Barack Obama, the economy is a drag.

Today, he said that his report card was incomplete. When it comes to Mitt Romney, there are people who say that he is too beholden to his party’s conservative wing. Which is the bigger drag? 

ELIZABETH WARREN: Yes, I just don’t see it that way.

I really see this as who you’re fighting for. I didn’t get into this race because of me. I got pulled into this race because of what I see as the urgency of the moment. America’s working families have just been pounded. And it’s been going on for a generation, flat wages, rising expenses in housing and health care and sending a kid to school.

And it’s just — it’s just put families in a vice. And at the same time, at the same time, there have been those in the federal government who said, hey, big tax breaks for oil companies, billionaire can pay taxes at half the rate of everyone else, regulations will be designed with loopholes and places that people can thread through if they can hire the right lobbyists.

It’s a system that isn’t working anymore for American families. It works for those who hire lobbyists. For me, that’s what this race is about.

GWEN IFILL: In other states, battleground states, states with are bigger battlegrounds than Massachusetts, a lot of the argument you’re making is being paid for by third-party groups.

ELIZABETH WARREN: I know.

GWEN IFILL: You and Scott Brown have signed kind of a nonaggression pact on this matter. How is that working?  How is it that you can control whether an outside group pours money into your race and influences the outcome? 

ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, what we agreed to was that if an outside group came in, that the one who was helped would pay half of the cost of the advertising to a charity chosen by the other side.

So in other words, the next time Karl Rove comes in — because Karl Rove had already been in Massachusetts — if Karl Rove comes back in, Scott Brown agrees that he will pay half the cost of the ad buy and pay it to a charity that I choose. It was a way of saying to the outside groups, we’re serious about wanting you to stay out. It’s not just talk, talk.

Stay out, because we want to be the ones to talk to the voters of Massachusetts. And I think voters of Massachusetts deserve that. I think it’s a good way to go.

GWEN IFILL: This seems almost like a shocking example of bipartisanship. Are there merits and are there limits to the values of bipartisanship, either in your race or just nationally? 

ELIZABETH WARREN: I think that — I believe in bipartisanship.

Remember, when I first went to Washington, it was during the financial crisis. I went to try to bring some accountability to what was going on. And I was asked to head up a bipartisan commission, Democrats and Republicans.

We turned out recommendations and reports every 30 days on some of the most contentious issues of that whole crisis. And, you know, a lot of our reports, I don’t know, maybe about half, were unanimous. Now, that’s because we saw a principle that we agreed on and worked from there.

So, yes, I think those were strong reports when we could be bipartisan. But there were times we didn’t agree. We couldn’t find that basic place where we started in the same place. And there was a majority report and a minority report.

GWEN IFILL: But you want to go to the Senate, where there isn’t a lot of that. How do you propose to change the partisanship that you would find on Capitol Hill? 

ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, I think you don’t start on Capitol Hill. I think that the change really starts back in New Bedford and Pittsfield and in Boston.

It starts all over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in towns all over this country. And it’s about people getting more involved, about putting the wind in our own sails. In part, what you’re asking about, it’s not just something that is happening in Washington. It’s that people have to be involved. They have got to be involved again in the issues of the day. We have got to make our voices heard.

GWEN IFILL: I have a final question for you. You’re here at this convention to speak in part on behalf of Barack Obama. What do you say to Americans who voted for him four years ago who are just not that enthusiastic this time? 

ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, I tell them I believe the direction our country’s going to go for the next half-century will be decided in this election.

We have really come to it. And this is going to be a race about our values, about what kind of a people we are and what kind of a country we’re trying to build. If — if you believe that the way to build this country and the kind of country it is, is that it’s from the top down, more tax cuts for those at the top, more deregulation, so they have more power, and somehow that is going to trickle down for everyone else, then Mitt Romney is your guy.

But I will point out we tried that, and we got the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Barack Obama is on the side of working families. He’s there for America’s middle class. He believes that the way we build a future is we make those investments together, so that our kids have chances, all of our kids have chances.

We invest in schools. We invest in roads and bridges. We invest in basic research, so our kids can do a little better than we did and their kids can do a little better than they did. It’s this fundamental difference in how you think we build the future. And I stand with President Obama on that.

GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth Warren, thank you so much.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Thank you.