'Sheriff of Wall Street' Elizabeth Warren takes aim at trade pact

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren's spat with the White House over the TPP had raised her political profile, observers noted. That in turn has given her more power to make a push on such issues as income equality.
Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren's spat with the White House over the TPP had raised her political profile, observers noted. That in turn has given her more power to make a push on such issues as income equality.PHOTO: REUTERS

Senator Elizabeth Warren fires back at Obama over Trans-Pacific Partnership

LESS than a year ago, US Senator Elizabeth Warren implied at a forum hosted by the Politico news group that Washington DC was still an old boys club where female politicians like herself still encountered old-fashioned sexism.

"It's an old institution. And there are changes that need to be made and I think we're making progress," Ms Warren said at the event last September. She went on to note, perhaps not with tongue wholly in cheek, that "we now have a bigger ladies' room in the United States Senate".

Last week, her words sounded as relevant as ever to many ears. None other than fellow liberal Democrat President Barack Obama criticised her opposition to the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal when he said: "The truth of the matter is that "Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else", and "absolutely wrong" on trade.

That prompted fellow liberal Democrat and even more staunch critic of the TPP, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to again raise the sexism spectre. "I think the president was disrespectful to her," he said on Tuesday. "I think referring to her (by her) first name, when he might not have done that for a male senator, perhaps?"

Mr Obama's spokesman responded quickly that the president often called senators, both male and female, by their first names in public. Nevertheless, observers were just as quick to note the spat had raised Ms Warren's political profile. That in turn has given her more power to push the president and 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton on such issues as minimum wage hikes, efforts to rein in Wall Street, and income equality.

Ms Warren is the first woman to be elected to the US Senate from Massachusetts. Although relatively new to politics, winning the powerful seat in Congress in 2012 at the age of 62, she had earlier served in various government positions. She was chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel that was created to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Programme, better known as Tarp, following the 2008 financial crisis. She later served as assistant to Mr Obama and special adviser to the treasury secretary for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Born Elizabeth Ann Herring deep in the American heartland - Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - in 1949, Ms Warren certainly knows what it's like to be a female in an "old boys club". She was the only daughter of parents who already had three sons.

She did not seem to think her gender was a problem, however. As Ms Warren told voters during her 2012 Senate campaign, she "came up the hard way … out of a hardworking middle-class family in an America that created opportunities for kids like me".

According to her website, she learnt first-hand about the economic pressures facing middle- class families when she was 12 and her dad had a heart attack. The store where he worked responded by changing his job and cutting his pay. As the medical bills piled up, the family lost their car, so her mum showed her that women could work too; she took a job answering phones at Sears.

The website goes on to note that Ms Warren herself first went to work at age nine, as a baby-sitter. At 13 she became a waitress at an aunt's restaurant. By 19, she was married to high school boyfriend Jim Warren. By age 22, she had her own daughter, Amelia.

But that did not slow down Ms Warren. She started law school at Rutgers. The second of her two children, Alex, was born after she graduated, so she practised law out of her living room after passing the Bar exam.

Her main interest, though, was teaching. After positions at numerous universities, she moved to Harvard where she became one of the most distinguished law professors in the US. Although she and Mr Warren divorced in 1978, she kept his surname. She married Mr Bruce Mann in 1980.

Ms Warren is widely credited with leading the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which holds financial institutions accountable for their actions. It protects consumers from financial tricks and traps often hidden in mortgages, credit cards and other financial products.

Indeed, Time magazine, twice naming her among America's 100 most influential people, called her the "New Sheriff of Wall Street".

Her concerns over predatory lenders and under-regulated banks have fuelled her fierce opposition to the TPP. Not only do Ms Warren and other Democratic opponents fear it would undermine Wall Street reforms while weakening US regulations, they also expressed concerns with enforcement of provisions in the Bill pertaining to worker and child labour protections in the countries involved.

Ms Warren refused to be cowed by Mr Obama's remarks - sexist or not. She fired back at him in a Washington Post interview. If, she said, he's "so confident it's a good deal, he should declassify the text and let people see it before asking Congress to tie its hands on fixing it".

When the president's spokesman shot back that she and her allies should "take the responsibility to read the document", he quickly learnt Ms Warren was as formidable as any senator - man or woman. She had studied the proposed treaty - line by line.

zach@sph.com.sg