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Last week at the Broadway T station in South Boston, a "blonde lady with glasses" smiled and shook hands with dozens of commuters. Most South Boston residents did not know who she was, but the event marked the beginning of Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for the U.S. Senate and the beginning of her battle to win the votes of South Boston.
"That’s the first time I had seen her and I didn’t know who she was," Southie resident Paul Llewellyn said.
South Boston, a long-time stronghold of conservative Democrats, will likely be a key battle ground in the upcoming 2012 Senate race between incumbent Republican Scott Brown and Warren, the undisputed Democratic front runner.
In the special election following the death of long-time senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-56, South Boston voted heavily Republican, helping propel Brown to victory. About 30 percent of residents in Boston voted for Brown, but in South Boston the number was closer to 56 percent.
Brown’s upset win against Attorney General Martha Coakley was in large part attributed to his ability to carry out an aggressive campaign heavy on retail politics. During the election, Brown barnstormed across the state in his pick-up truck, effectively casting himself as an ordinary man with the common touch necessary to understand the problems of regular people. That message resonated particularly well among the people of South Boston, and if she wants to win in November, Warren will have to win back those votes.
But to do that, Warren faces many challenges. In South Boston, Warren is still an unknown, and many of its residents say they are skeptical of her Harvard background.
When asked if they would vote for her, neighborhood residents expressed mixed feelings, with many saying they did not have sufficient knowledge of the candidate.
Matt Sances, a gruff military veteran who voted for Brown in 2010, came to the door in a tight fitting black t-shirt and a military crew cut. A Marine Corps flag hangs from his house. Sances said he hadn’t heard about Warren, who launched her campaign a thirty minute walk from his house.
"I don’t know enough about her to be honest," Sances said.
While Warren is a well-known figure within the national Democratic establishment, she does not have the same name recognition in local communities, including South Boston.
"All I know is that she’s from Oklahoma, and she’s a law professor at Harvard," said Brendan Price, a native Southie, affecting a Boston Brahmin accent for the word Harvard. "They have a kind of elitist attitude, so I don’t think it helps that she’s from Oklahoma, and she teaches at Harvard. She needs to be a little more in touch with the local people."
But Warren’s Harvard connection is far from a kiss of death in South Boston. One resident said that he thought being a Harvard professor might be a positive, raising the possibility that the Warren campaign could subtly spin Warren’s professorship in a positive light.
"She’s smarter than the average politician," John Morris said. "She’s a smart cookie."
In a recent video that became a viral hit on the internet, Warren spoke in favor of progressive tax rates by arguing that the social contract obligates people to share their wealth with their fellow citizens while mixing it with a folksy message of how the rich benefit from the state.
Warren follows in a long line of Harvard graduates and affiliates who have sought statewide and national office, and like many of those candidates Warren has so far played down her Cambridge ties and sought to portray herself as a regular, middle class American.
"Robert Frost said to John F. Kennedy: ‘be more Irish than Harvard,’" former Boston City Councillor Lawrence S. DiCara ’71 said. "Maybe she should be more grandmother than professor."
Warren has emphasized that she is the daughter of a maintenance worker and that she grew up "on the ragged edge of the middle class," a reference to her hardscrabble Oklahoma upbringing.
"On the one hand she’s a Harvard professor and clearly an advocate of government regulation, but on the other hand she does come from a working class background and claims that the regulations were for the middle class," said David Luberoff, the executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard Kennedy School. "She has a potentially populist message that could conceptually resonate with the residents of a place like South Boston."
Like most other Americans, the neighborhood’s residents said that the state of the economy and job-creation are at the top of their list of concerns going into the election, which Warren has worked hard to capitalize upon.
Bernie Ordway works at a barber shop and said that he has witnessed small businesses struggle in the difficult financial climate. In particular, insurance rates have become very costly, he said.
Kathleen, who works as a waitress and declined to give her last name, said that she has noticed a decrease in customers recently, and that her boyfriend, an iron worker, has struggled to find work.
Fears like these—and an ineffectual campaign by Coakley—allowed Brown to win what has long been a Democratic seat. According to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, Warren currently leads Brown by two percentage points state-wide, leading 46 percent to Brown’s still strong 44 percent.
"I think [the people of South Boston] are enamored by that other clown in his barn coat and pick up truck," South Boston resident Sean Connelly said, referring to Brown. "He buffaloed Southie in the last election."
DiCara said that Brown has done an admirable job of making himself known in Boston neighborhoods, which will make him a tough candidate to defeat.
"That’s the sort of thing Ted Kennedy did. People felt they knew him really well even if they didn’t, and they get that feeling from Scott Brown," DiCara said. "Scott Brown has extraordinary appeal to the common man."
"If she really wants [to win], she’s got to get out on the streets and talk to people," life-long South Boston resident Steve O’Brien said.