Elizabeth Warren on Running for Office: ‘It’s Been a Hard Learning Curve for Me’

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Tom Williams / Roll Call via Getty Images

Massachusetts Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Elizabeth Warren on March 16, 2011.

Elizabeth Warren says she’s struggled with the “hard learning curve” of electoral politics and was blindsided by the controversy over her decision to report her ethnicity as Native American during her career as a law professor. The issue sent the Massachusetts Senate race on wild detour for more than a month, sucking up column inches and hours of talk radio time as reporters tried to confirm Warren’s ancestry and determine whether her 1/32nd Cherokee claim, which she says was accepted lore in her family, had afforded her any professional advantages, a charge Warren denies.

The frenzy of the story has since worn off and Warren’s campaign insists its effects never materialized in polling or fundraising. But with Warren locked in a dead-even contest with Republican Scott Brown and 72% of voters aware of the issue according to a Suffolk University poll conducted in May, the distraction undoubtedly stung. “Scott Brown could not have bought this coverage,” Mary Anne Marsh, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist in Massachusetts, told me in June, adding that Warren’s halting response was indicative of “a first-time candidate [running] into her first big problem.”

“If I’d been more experienced, I would have moved faster to respond to non-substantive issues,” Warren says in an interview at a campaign office in Newton. The heritage flap was not one she foresaw: “I wish I’d seen this coming. I just didn’t see it coming. OK? I thought this would be all about middle-class economic issues,” she says of the race, revealing more naivety about electoral politics than you might expect from a veteran of a few Washington battles. Asked what she could have done differently in the campaign, Warren struggles to find an answer: “My life I thought was clear. I just don’t know how to answer this, I tried to answer it, but I don’t know how to answer it,” before finally conceding, “I wish I just stood up, told the story faster and said. ‘There it is.'”

Deviating from her regimen of wonky populism is difficult for Warren and she expresses discomfort talking about the minutiae that often inundate a high-profile race like the one in Massachusetts. “When people want to talk about what I’m wearing, it’s hard on me. I don’t want to talk about what I’m wearing. I don’t want to talk about my haircut. I don’t want to talk about whether I move my head too much or wave my hands a lot,” she says. Not 15 minutes before, a supporter in a nearby coffee shop had told Warren she was “too school teachery.”

That’s just part of electoral politics, a game that Warren says she’s still figuring out. “I’m a first time candidate, I’m not a real politician. I say this over and over. I guess the way to describe it is that it’s been a hard learning curve for me,” she says, pausing before she circles back to a populist soundbite, “to understand that parts of the race would not be about what’s happening to our working families.”