‘Liz Was a Diehard Conservative’Elizabeth Warren doesn’t like to talk about it, but for years she was a registered Republican. Why she left the GOP—and what it means for her campaign.
By ALEX THOMPSON April 12, 2019
“Fight.” It’s the signature word of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s short but consequential political career.
It’s in the title of both of the books she has published as a senator: A Fighting Chance and This Fight Is Our Fight. In her speech declaring her presidential candidacy in February, Warren told the crowd, “This is the fight of our lives” and, “I’ve been in this fight for a long time.” Her 2020 campaign asks voters to “Join the Fight.” Kate McKinnon-as-Warren on “Saturday Night Live” explained, “That’s the only f-word I know.”
But Warren used to be on the other side of the fight she is now waging. For many years before she entered politics, the woman now at the forefront of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was a Republican.
County governments in New Jersey and Texas, where Warren lived in the 1970s and ’80s, could not locate Warren’s voter registration records, and the senator herself is circumspect about her political past. But records from the time Warren spent living in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts make clear that she was a registered Republican for at least several years of her midcareer adult life. It was not until 1996—when Warren was 47 years old and a newly minted Harvard law professor—that she changed her registration from Republican to Democrat.
Warren has acknowledged her Republican past before, but she does not often discuss it, or else downplays it. In a recent interview over tea at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she said she assumes the first time she registered as a Democrat was 1996, but added, “I’m not even 100 percent sure what I was registered as.” According to Warren, in the six presidential elections she voted in before 1996, she cast her ballot for just one GOP nominee, Gerald Ford in 1976. She does not talk about her Republican past in either of her books or as part of the biography she recounts in her stump speech; the information often comes as a surprise even to Beltway politicos and longtime Warren allies.
“I was just never very political,” is how Warren explains her Republican years. “I just never thought much about the political end.”
Friends and colleagues agree that Warren wasn’t much of a political activist in her youth or the early part of her career. But Warren’s intellectual journey is more complicated than the apathy-to-activism route she often presents.
Some on the left have already pointed out the less-than-progressive stances in her 2003 book, The Two Income Trap, including the rejection of a “quasi-socialist safety net to rival the European model.” But a review of Warren’s early scholarship and interviews with more than 20 friends and colleagues from her high school years through her academic career reveal a longer conservative track record that has not been fully explored. Warren’s conservatism centered not on social issues like abortion or gay rights, friends say, but on economic policy, the dominant focus of her academic work and now her presidential candidacy.
Katrina Harry, one of Warren’s best friends in high school in Oklahoma, remembers that she and Warren “talked politics a lot, taxes and welfare and such, and I was just a flaming liberal back then.” Harry adds, “Liz was a diehard conservative in those days. … Now we’ve swapped—a 180-degree turn and an about-face.”
“Liz was sometimes surprisingly anti-consumer in her attitude,” says law professor Calvin Johnson, a colleague of Warren’s at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1980s, who was also her neighbor and carpooled with Warren and her husband, Bruce Mann.
“I remember the first time I became aware of her as a political person and heard her speak, I almost fell off my chair,” says Rutgers law professor Gary Francione, who was a colleague of Warren’s at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s. “She’s definitely changed. It’s absolutely clear that something happened.”
Voting records from the time Warren spent living in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are pictured.
Voter records from the time Warren spent living in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts make clear that she was a registered Republican for at least several years of her adult life. It was not until 1996, when she was 47, that she changed her registration to Democrat.
The story of Warren’s awakening—from a true believer in free markets to a business-bashing enforcer of fair markets; from a moderate Republican who occasionally missed an election to one of the most liberal senators in America vying to lead the Democratic Party—breaks the mold of the traditional White House contender and is key to understanding how she sees the world: with a willingness to change when presented with new data, and the anger of someone who trusted the system and felt betrayed.
Warren herself says that in her early academic work she was merely following the dominant theory of the time, which emphasized the efficiency of free markets and unrestrained businesses, rather than holding strong conservative beliefs herself. Still, she acknowledged in our interview that she underwent a profound change in how she viewed public policy early in her academic career, describing the experience as “worse than disillusionment” and “like being shocked at a deep-down level.”
Her conversion was ideological before it turned partisan. The first shift came in the mid-’80s, as she traveled to bankruptcy courts across the country to review thousands of individual cases—a departure from the more theoretical academic approach—and saw that Americans filing for bankruptcy more closely resembled her own family, who struggled financially, rather than the irresponsible deadbeats she had expected.
It wasn’t until Warren was recruited onto a federal commission to help reform the bankruptcy code in the mid-1990s—and then fought for those reforms and lost that battle in 2005—that she became the unapologetic partisan brawler she was in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, serving in the Senate and, now, stumping on the 2020 campaign trail. “I realize nonpartisan just isn’t working,” she recalls of that second conversion moment. “By then it’s clear: The only allies I have are in the Democratic Party, and it’s not even the majority of Democrats.”
Some friends and colleagues say Warren became radicalized, equating her change to a religious experience, to being born again. “She really did have a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion when she saw the bankrupt consumers really were suffering—forced into bankruptcy by illness, firing or divorce—and not predators,” Johnson says. Other friends argue Warren’s shift has been more gradual, and that she is not the extremist her opponents have sought to portray her as. “It drives me crazy when she’s described as a radical left-winger. She moved from being moderately conservative to being moderately liberal,” says Warren’s co-author and longtime collaborator Jay Westbrook. “When you look at consumer debt and what happens to consumers in America, you begin to think the capitalist machine is out of line.”
A yearbook photo showing Elizabeth Warren at George Washington University.
After a childhood she describes as not very political, Warren attended George Washington University on a debate scholarship. Above, she is pictured second from left in the front row in the 1967 GWU yearbook as “Liz Herring” (her maiden name). | George Washington University Library
The fact that Warren likely has spent more of her voting years outside the Democratic Party than in it distinguishes her from her 2020 primary opponents. She and Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, share many policy objectives and an inclination to rail against the powerful. The Vermont senator, however, largely decided what he believed 50 years ago and has been remarkably consistent ever since. Warren is ever-evolving, questioning her own assumptions and hungry for new information—even today, as she sets the pace of the 2020 policy debate with detailed new proposals on childcare, taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, and a call for a new era of trust-busting in sectors from tech to agriculture.
“Her worldview is very informed by data,” says Angela Littwin, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was Warren’s student in the late ’90s and became a mentee of both Warren and Westbrook. “What changed [Warren’s ideology] was the stories of ordinary people filing for bankruptcy. That speaks really well of her that she was presented with information contrary to her worldview and adopted it.”Warren’s ideological and political transformations also occurred well before she entertained running for public office—lending them an authenticity often lacking in politicians who change their policy positions out of self-interest.
“If you had to pick a professor at Harvard to become a progressive icon in a decade,” says Littwin, “she wouldn’t have even been on the short list.”
Warren didn’t inherit the Republican Party from her parents or from her home state. Oklahoma was mostly a blue state while Warren was growing up there. Although partisan politics wasn’t much discussed at home, she speculated in a 2018 interview with the Intercept that her parents were New Deal Democrats. Yet Harry, one of Warren’s best friends in high school, distinctly remembers Warren being an “ice-cold Republican,” as she would sometimes tease her. (Warren joked back that Harry had “socialist” friends.)
It’s unclear exactly why Warren chose to become a Republican in the first place, given her family’s background. When I asked her, she said, “I voted—sometimes voted for Democrats, sometimes voted for Republicans—but never thought of myself, never had to frame myself, in political terms.”
In the late 1970s and ’80s, while Warren was in law school at Rutgers and then began her legal career, the right and Reaganomics were ascendant. In legal academia, this manifested itself in part through the “Law and Economics” movement, which sought to integrate the study of economics into law to emphasize efficiency and economic impact. In 1986, Columbia Law School professor Bruce Ackerman—now at Yale Law School—described the movement as “the most important thing in legal education since the birth of Harvard Law School.”
A picture of a young Elizabeth Warren sitting at a table with other women.
Colleagues from her early years as a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin recall Warren, second from left, as “surprisingly anti-consumer” and “believing much of what the corporate folks say about how the free markets work.” | Tarlton Law Library Digital Collections
The movement and its campus programs were fueled in part by funding from wealthy conservatives and corporations eager to inject some business-oriented thinking into the relatively liberal environs of elite American law schools. John Olin, a multimillionaire business tycoon who backed many conservative causes, began funding one of the movement’s intellectual founders, law professor Henry Manne, in the early ’70s and poured $68 million into Law and Economics programs at schools across the country in the late ’80s. “Economic analysis tends to have conservatizing effects,” James Pierson, the longtime director of Olin’s foundation, which distributed the funds, once explained to the New York Times.
A key component of the Law and Economics movement were frequent “summer camps” or “Manne camps”—conferences for law professors and judges hosted by Manne’s Law and Economics Center. The camps received funding from more than a hundred corporate donors, many of whom would later become favorite targets of Warren. In her first years as a self-described “baby law professor,” Warren attended a Manne camp, which she describes vaguely in A Fighting Chance as “an intensive course for law professors who wanted to learn more about economics.” It was there that Warren met her second husband, Bruce Mann, a fellow law professor.
“As we’ve always said, something good came from Law and Economics,” Warren says now. “I found my sweetie. That should be a good country-western song don’t you think? ‘I Found My Sweetie at Law and Economics Camp.’”
Warren joined the faculty at the University of Houston in 1978, and soon jumped to the University of Texas at Austin, where colleagues recall Law and Economics having a strong influence early on. “She did begin, as a student and as a young lawyer, sort of believing much of what the corporate folks say about how the free markets work, and they have to be left free to do what they want,” says Doug Laycock, who had the office next to Warren’s at UT-Austin and is married to Warren’s longtime co-author, Teresa Sullivan, a sociologist who later became president of the University of Virginia.
A paper by Elizabeth Warren is pictured, entitled: "Regulated Industries' Automatic Cost of Service Adjustment Clauses: Do They Increase or Decrease Cost to the Consumer?"
In a 1980 paper she wrote at the University of Houston, Warren argued that utility companies were over-regulated, and described the arguments of consumer advocates on the other side of the debate as “fallacious” and based on “unscrutinized, long-accepted conventional wisdom.” | Notre Dame Law Review via HeinOnline
In 1980, one of Warren’s first papers as a full-time professor at the University of Houston took on one of the most divisive political issues of the time: utilities. A decade of energy crises and nearly unprecedented price hikes had made government-sanctioned monopolies a popular target for populist politicians. As Arkansas state attorney general in the late ’70s and then again in his gubernatorial campaigns in the early ’80s, Bill Clinton made utility companies the poster boy for corporate greed and political corruption. In the 1982 gubernatorial race, Clinton attacked his Republican opponent as “soft on utilities, tough on the elderly.”
In her paper, however, Warren argued that utility companies were over-regulated and that automatic utility rate increases should be institutionalized to avoid “regulatory lag,” in spite of consumer advocate concerns. “Eliminating regulatory lag will end the need for frequent rate hearings, and will, thus, reduce the administrative costs of regulation,” she wrote. On the other side of the debate were consumer advocates, whose arguments she described then as “fallacious” and based on “unscrutinized, long-accepted conventional wisdom.”
Steve Mitnick, editor-in-chief of the trade publication Public Utilities Fortnightly, reviewed the paper at Politico Magazine’s request and said he was shocked Warren had authored it. “That is such a pro-utility paper. It’s, like, awesome,” he told me. “She would never say this today. … If you’re a utility, you love that thing.” Barbara Alexander, a longtime consumer advocate in the utilities sector, also reviewed the paper, and blasted it: “What struck me was her lack of presentation of the consumer viewpoint and the underlying policies governing rate-making. She simplistically makes conclusions without any analysis of actual facts, just economic theory.”
In Warren’s prolific career, the article, originally published in the Notre Dame Law Review, has had a relatively long shelf life and has been cited in cases before the Ohio and Louisiana state Supreme Courts. The Texas Court of Appeals cited the paper approvingly in 2006.https://www.politico.com/magazine/story ... ent-226613