Campaign Controversy

Cherokee Heritage Debate Snares Mass. Senate Hopeful Elizabeth Warren

Jesse Singal on candidate Elizabeth Warren and the question dominating the Massachusetts Senate race.

If you want a prime example of how a seemingly forgettable controversy can tell you all you need to know about a political campaign, you could do worse than the debate over Cherokee ancestry now roiling the Senate race in Massachusetts.

The imbroglio kicked off after the Boston Herald reported that Harvard Law School had listed Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking to unseat Republican Scott Brown, as a minority professor to deflect criticism that it lacked diverse faculty. Brown’s campaign pounced, and it has since been reported that Warren, one of the driving intellectual forces behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is one 32nd Cherokee.

While few appear to think the issue will have staying power, it does point to two important aspects of the campaign: many Massachusetts voters have a better sense of who Brown is—he won the seat held by Ted Kennedy until his death and has since taken mostly moderate positions in the Senate—than who Warren is. And it’s vital for the Brown campaign to find an effective way to paint her in a negative light, given the uphill battle it faces to hold on to what was long referred to as “Teddy’s seat.”

“She is still being defined as a person,” said Marty Linsky, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “and the question is whether this glitch will stick as part of the definition of who she is.”

Linsky said he doesn’t think it will. “It’s so out of the wheelhouse of what one would expect would become a character issue that unless there’s a ton of other supportive stuff, it’s not going to stick in any way that will play a role in the campaign,” he said.

The Cherokee debate underscores Brown’s delicate position. In 2010, shortly after Kennedy’s death, Brown won under conditions so unusual as to be once in a lifetime. He was able to campaign as the potential 41st vote against Obamacare at the height of Tea Party outrage over the bill, and his opponent, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, bungled her campaign.

Now the state and national Democratic Party sees the GOP’s seizure of “Teddy’s seat” as a painful open sore—especially given that Massachusetts hadn’t elected a Republican senator since 1972—and they want it back. Brown will have to do everything he can to play himself as a good-guy moderate Republican to hold on, and that includes stoking issues like this one just enough to keep the base energized, but not so aggressively as to turn off Massachusetts’s more liberal Republicans and independents.

Brown has largely been coy on the question of whether Warren’s status as a minority helped her get a position as Harvard. But his campaign has been sending out emails to reporters updating them on the latest developments. And on Friday he did say, “The question is whether and how she used a minority status to gain or not gain access to employment. And only she and Harvard can answer any of these questions.”

Politics aside, Linsky and Maurice Cunningham, chairman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, don’t buy the notion that Warren got a job at Harvard because she is one 32nd Cherokee.

“It’s an absurdity,” said Cunningham. “She’s a great attorney. There’s no question about it. Logic does not play an overwhelming role in these political controversies.”

Linsky said, “She had all the qualification that someone in that role would need, and they choose from a gazillion candidates.”

But while the accusation might not be valid, Warren’s response has been far from deft. At first, it wasn’t clear whether Harvard had simply listed Warren as a minority without her knowledge or whether she had played a part in that designation. But when it was disclosed that she had checked herself off as a minority professor for a legal-directory listing, she said she did so because she hoped to “meet others like me” and referred to the “high cheekbones” of her grandfather as a sign of her Cherokee heritage.

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“She hasn’t handled it well overall,” said Cunningham.

Still, it’s worth noting that while one 32nd worth of ancestry being a meaningful part of one’s identity may seem laughable, Cherokee identity permeates the culture in Oklahoma, where Warren was raised, in ways that might be surprising to the rest of the country.

“Here in Oklahoma there are plenty of people who are enrolled members of Cherokee Nation and have the same blood quantum (or less) as Elizabeth Warren,” said Fay Yarbrough, a University of Oklahoma history professor who has written at length about issues of race and identity among the Cherokee.

For Brown, finding ways to get voters to look past Warren’s impressive credentials and appealing pro-consumer populism is key.

And keeping the base energized “will be particularly critical in November,” said Linsky, “because it’s unlikely that the Republican campaign will spend a lot of time in Massachusetts.”

The Brown campaign is urgently seeking out ways to portray Warren as an elitist and to reinforce his “regular guy” bona fides, said Cunningham. One example: the senator’s recent letter to Whole Foods accusing the supermarket chain of “political correctness” for selling only sustainably caught fish, likely in an attempt to court the state’s fishing industry.

The Cherokee fracas is in that same category—it’s a small, ultimately non-policy-substantive piece of ammunition in Brown’s quest to define himself as a self-made man and depict his opponent as a coddled intellectual.

“They’ve kind of looked for these rather trivial issues, and I think they’ve hit on this one,” said Cunningham. “It’s a little bit like a Mel Brooks film. You keep telling bad jokes until you find one that people really laugh at.”