WASHINGTON – The campaign of U.S. Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, has done something that Elizabeth Warren, his main Democratic challenger for his seat in Congress, has failed to do for the past month as a major controversy has swirled over her self-reported Cherokee ancestry: it responded to inquiries from the American Indian press.
Jim Barnett, campaign manager for Scott Brown, said in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network on June 1 that Warren should have reached out to American Indians by now to explain herself.
“Elizabeth Warren has a lot of explaining to do to everyone, but I would think in particular to the Native American community, since that is the heritage that she has claimed without any evidence,” Barnett said. “It seems to me that any time a person tries to attach themselves to a group of people without rationale for doing so, except for maybe personal gain, it seems very seedy to me.”
Barnett believes Warren’s campaign has made a calculation to leave some facts about her background off the table because they might be politically harmful, so instead it has prolonged the controversy currently playing out in the press.
“I do think there are more facts to come out,” Barnett said. “There are presumably personnel files at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania that may shed some light on how she presented herself to those universities and when and under what circumstances. You have to assume that if those files would prove her case, she would have released them a long time ago.”
At the same time, Barnett said this isn’t all just a political game, although he is convinced that his candidate will be helped as a result of Warren’s mishandling of the situation.
“Throughout this, if there is greater attention paid to Native American culture and challenges, then that’s a good thing,” Barnett said. “At the end of the day, that’s really what this is in large degree about—has she assumed an identity to which she is not entitled and has she gained some benefit for which other people have paid a price?”
Since questions about Warren’s ancestry were first reported by the Boston Herald in late April, some Native Americans have grown increasingly skeptical of Warren’s self-identification and lack of evidence to back it up. Her “high cheekbones” recollection of family lore, her failed Native networking while in academia and odd explanations of it, the possibility that Harvard promoted her as a Native professor without any documentation, and attempts by her campaign to paint Indian concerns as a nonissue have all been problematic.
A Cherokee group has even vowed to protest Warren’s candidacy at the June 2 state convention in Massachusetts where Democrats will have to decide if she will be their candidate to face Brown in the fall.
Marisa DeFranco, an immigration lawyer and Democratic rival, is also aiming to get on the ballot. She needs to get 15 percent of the delegate vote to qualify for a primary against Warren.
DeFranco told ICTMN in an interview June 1 that Warren should be reaching out to Native American constituents, and that Brown should be doing more for them from office.
“We need a Democratic nominee who knows how to define herself before the GOP attack machine does it for her,” DeFranco said. “Elizabeth Warren has not been able to do that.”
DeFranco added that she believes Brown should be doing more on job creation and getting people back to work—both issues that tend to disproportionately impact Native Americans.
As so much Native attention has been directed toward Warren’s Cherokee fiasco, Brown’s own record on Native issues since being elected in 2010 has rarely been mentioned in the mainstream press.
Brown’s office says he has a strong record on Native issues. “Senator Brown and his staff meet regularly with local tribal leaders,” Marcie Kinzel, a spokeswoman for Brown, told ICTMN on June 1. “The senator led the effort to ensure that Massachusetts tribes receive fair and equitable treatment from the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] and the federal government, on issues ranging from grant funding requests to land rights.”
Brown wrote a letter to the BIA in November 2011 on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which called on the federal agency to explain why the Mashpee have been unfairly treated compared to other tribes, his office said. And Brown hosted a meeting where the BIA briefed staff as to how the Mashpee can get fairer treatment from the BIA and how to apply for grant funds.
Brown also supports the Wampanoag of southeastern Massachusetts in their opposition to Cape Wind, an offshore wind farm on Nantucket Sound, and he regularly meets with tribal leaders to assist them on all issues of federal concern, according to his office.
Warren, meanwhile, continues to duck Natives, while seeming to sense danger on looming questions. Her campaign sent out a plea to supporters to stick with her on May 31, and she told the Boston Globe in an interview the same day that she is concerned about her campaign.
“Of course I’m concerned,’’ she told the paper. “I decided to run for the Senate because the middle class has been hammered, and Washington doesn’t get it. I want to talk about Scott Brown’s voting record.
“He has worked hard to make this campaign about anything else, even my heritage, and he’s not spending time on what Massachusetts voters are concerned about,’’ she added.
At the same time, Warren has continued to muddy her response on her self-reported ancestry and Indian concerns about it. Asked in the same Globe interview how Harvard ended up listing her as a Native American while she was a visiting professor in the 1992-1993 academic year, Warren replied, “I don’t recall telling them. But I never tried to hide it. I don’t want to mislead in any way on this.’’
The question continues to be pertinent because Warren has said she never told Harvard about being Indian before the institution hired her.
Warren also said in the interview that she wasn’t trying to mislead when she told reporters on April 27 that she first learned that Harvard claimed her as a Native American by reading the Boston Herald: “I misunderstood the question,’’ she said.
When the Globe asked Warren why she stopped listing herself as a minority in a national law directory in 1995, shortly after she accepted a tenured position at Harvard, Warren said, “Listing is about identification,” and soon ended the call to attend a speech. Before hanging up, the Globe said Warren added, “Nothing happened,’’ in reference to the law school directory.
Warren’s answers on the issues raised by the paper were viewed by the reporter conducting the interview as “no more enlightening” than previous muddied responses she has given.
Another problem not raised in the Globe interview, happened on May 30, when the Warren campaign issued a statement that said in part, “Growing up, my mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles often talked about our family’s Native American heritage. As a kid, I never thought to ask them for documentation – what kid would? – but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a part of who I am and part of my family heritage.”
However, Native American children often know that to be a tribal citizen, documentation is needed. Warren’s campaign has not responded to requests for clarification from ICTMN on that and other issues.