Like Clinton's emails, doubts about Warren's ancestry claim aren't going away

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6, 2019. (CNN Newsource)

    As Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., prepares to hit the road promoting her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, her failure to definitively resolve long-standing questions about her dubious claims of Native American heritage has some critics declaring her campaign dead before it even begins.

    “She’s done as a 2020 presidential candidate,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

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    Days before its official kickoff event in Massachusetts, Warren’s nascent presidential campaign was shaken Tuesday by a Washington Post report that she identified herself as “American Indian” on a 1986 Texas Bar registration form. A registration card obtained by The Post provided documentary confirmation that Warren asserted her contested Native American ancestry early in her legal career.

    “It’s the visual of the document,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor at Boston University who has followed the Warren ancestry controversy from the start. “You can write 1,000 words in The Boston Globe, but as they say, one picture is worth 1,000 words. It reinforces all the questions some people have about her.”

    The latest news hit at a critical time, not only overshadowing her campaign launch plans but also reviving the subject when she seemed to finally be putting last fall’s DNA test debacle behind her. When Warren released a video in October claiming genetic testing indicated she had a Native American ancestor six to ten generations back, pundits were unimpressed and some tribal groups were outraged.

    Warren apologized privately to the leader of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker, last week for claiming tribal identity based solely on genetic markers, and she repeated the apology publicly this week.

    "I told Chief Baker that I am sorry that I extended confusion about tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty, and for harm caused. I am also sorry for not being more mindful of this decades ago," she told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

    This was always going to be a problem for Warren’s presidential ambitions. Her claim to Native American ethnicity has hounded her political career since it was first reported during her 2012 Senate race. Warren maintains the decision to identify herself that way was based on family lore she believed was true at the time.

    The New England Historic Genealogical Society said in 2012 it had found no evidence Warren’s ancestors were of Cherokee descent, and the senator has been unable to produce definitive proof. This has led to years of mockery and criticism from the right, culminating with President Donald Trump referring to her as “Pocahontas” at every opportunity.

    There is typically some benefit in airing all a candidate’s baggage early in a campaign, but Berkovitz said this week is a little too early for Warren.

    “What she needed to do is have a decent launch and then have the crisis management team ready in three months The worst times are now and two weeks before Iowa,” he said.

    Warren has been staffing up her campaign with top talent for months and she launched an exploratory committee at the beginning of the year. She has been hyping Saturday’s Lawrence, Massachusetts launch event, which will be held at the site of a 1912 strike by female factory workers, in an effort to regain momentum after a rocky rollout on New Year’s Eve that included a much-derided Instagram video where Warren drank beer and answered questions from supporters.

    From Lawrence, Warren is set to embark on a six-state tour, hitting early primary states like Iowa and California. However, some Republicans say there is no point.

    “She just doesn’t have the credibility to move forward with this presidential run. It’s become obviously and painfully clear to people across the country that she just doesn’t have the credibility to lead,” Geoff Diehl, Warren’s opponent in her 2018 re-election race, told the Boston Herald.

    In field of more than 20 potential contenders for the Democratic nomination, O’Connell predicted Warren will never survive with this controversy around her neck.

    “She may be a solid progressive but she’s damaged goods as a nominee,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the White House was praying she is the nominee.”

    Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said Warren might overcome this if she can communicate more about herself and her platform to voters over time so this is no longer the first thing people associate with her. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s plagiarism of speeches, which sank his 1988 presidential campaign, has largely been forgotten, for example.

    “As she starts to go out... carving out her own lane, this can fall down the list. The problem is, it’s the bad penny. It keeps showing up at the worst possible times,” Ferson said.

    At this point, with several top Democratic candidates issuing apologies for one thing or another in their past, Berkovitz said Warren has nothing to lose by waiting to see if there is anything worse in her opponents’ backgrounds.

    “Probably, in the world of opposition research and social media and right-wing and left-wing media, every candidate is going to get hammered on something sooner or later,” he said. “She’s too far into the game at this point to withdraw.”

    Supporters argue the revelation that Warren declared her race “American Indian” on a form that was meant to be confidential and had no bearing on her admission by the Texas Bar adds little to the narrative that was not already known. It appears to be consistent with her assertion that she believed she had Native American blood at the time.

    It is true Warren has long acknowledged she started declaring Native American heritage at that time in her career as a law professor, but experts say the political impact is greater when you can see it on paper in her own handwriting.

    “It becomes a powerful visual because it’s in her handwriting,” Ferson said. “Part of this has been, if Harvard identified her, that’s one thing... but to affirmatively claim on an application you’re a Native American in your own writing I think is the starkest example we’ve seen.”

    O’Connell, who is also an attorney, argued a bar registration card carries significantly more weight than a legal directory listing.

    “The bar card, as a lawyer, is really you attesting to yourself and really doing it by your own hand,” he said.

    Warren acknowledged Wednesday there could be more documents out there on which she identified herself as Native American.

    “All I know is, during this time period, this is consistent with what I did because it was based on my understanding from my family stories,” she told reporters.

    In the most extensive investigation to date of Warren’s heritage claims and their impact on her career, The Boston Globe reported last fall that documents from Harvard, Penn, and law schools in Texas indicate her self-declared status as Native American was never considered during any hiring process. Some records suggest her gender did give her an edge at times but not her ethnicity.

    The 5,700-word Boston Globe story lays out this timeline, backed up by documents and interviews:

    • 1978: Warren is hired at University of Houston. On a form that only lists black, Oriental, Mexican-American, or “other” as options, she chooses “other.”
    • 1981: Warren becomes a visiting professor at the University of Texas in Austin. “White” is checked on personnel forms.
    • 1984: The University of Pennsylvania first approaches Warren about becoming a visiting professor, but she turns the offer down.
    • 1986: Warren first lists herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools annual directory.
    • 1987: Warren and her husband are offered teaching jobs at the University of Pennsylvania. An equal opportunity compliance statement details efforts made to hire a black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian candidate before hiring Warren, who is described as “white.”
    • 1990: Warren has Penn change her ethnicity to Native American. It appears she was then counted in the university’s federal affirmative action report as a Native American in 1991, 1992, and 1994.
    • 1993: Harvard Law School professors meet to discuss whether to offer Warren a job. Thirty professors who were in the room say her Native American heritage never came up. One says it may have been mentioned but was not a factor in the decision.
    • 1995: Warren begins teaching at Harvard. Four months later she is first noted as Native-American in personnel records. The university then counts her as Native-American in its affirmative action report from 1995 to 2004.

    According to Warren, she began identifying herself as Native American as older members of her family who had taught her about her supposed ancestry began dying in the 1980s. It also happened around the time she was preparing to move from Texas to Pennsylvania and leave the West behind.

    “When I get to Penn and Harvard, I look around and think this is not a club that I’m likely to be able to join,” Warren told The Boston Globe last year. “I had different heritage than most of the people there... You can try to keep your head down or say: This is who I am. Different from the rest of you, but this is who I am.”

    Republicans remain skeptical that Warren made the ethnicity change without at least the expectation it would advance her career.

    “You have to ask yourself, why else would you declare Native American status three decades ago if you weren’t trying to use it to your advantage?” O’Connell asked.

    The media attention drilling down on the Texas Bar registration card over the last 48 hours—and the promise of unknown numbers of additional documents that could receive breathless coverage in the future—is giving some Democrats traumatic flashbacks to 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails. Released in monthly tranches throughout much of the race, emails from Clinton’s time as secretary of state continually dominated coverage of her campaign.

    “The Elizabeth Warren controversy has a distinct ‘BUT HER EMAILS’ vibe. The press has learned nothing. She believed what her family told her at the time. She didn’t use it to her advantage. Move on,” Topher Spiro, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, tweeted Wednesday.

    Democrats who blame the media for Clinton’s 2016 loss have already chided reporters for stories exploring Warren’s likeability, and they are now questioning the focus on the controversy over her ethnicity in early campaign coverage.

    “The fact that she made the claim on a form that was meant to be unlogged and confidential actually underscores her point that she identified as she did out of sincere belief–which means her critics are wrong or lying,” said Brian Beutler, editor-in-chief at Crooked Media, on Twitter.

    O’Connell rejected those complaints and suggested Warren’s ancestry claim is an even bigger detriment than Clinton’s emails because it undercuts the central narrative of her biography.

    “Hillary Clinton didn’t build her backstory on her emails,” he said. “[Warren’s] whole narrative is, ‘I rose to the top.’”

    Berkovitz credited Trump for making this a volatile issue beyond the airwaves of Boston conservative talk radio, and he expects the president will continue to do so as long as Warren is on the national stage.

    “Donald Trump is like a dog with a bone when it comes to Elizabeth Warren, so he gives it constant traction,” he said. “It used to be the politicians, the Republicans, the media in Massachusetts, but now Trump started nationalizing it and Warren’s interest in running for the presidency further gave it impetus.”

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