It was a grim, sleety day in Chicopee, a gritty postindustrial town in western Massachusetts, where paint flakes off worn-out bridges and boarded-up factories. At a community relations luncheon, kind security guards were opening back doors and holding out umbrellas for the few willing to brave the freezing slush. This was not a campaign stop, we reporters were told decisively by Alice Buckner, the business and community liaison at the nonpartisan, federally funded Westover Job Corps Center. If Elizabeth Warren showed up, she would be visiting with students, not campaigning.
Around us, upbeat young Jobs Corps enrollees—ages 16 to 24, brown and black and white, skinny and fat, tattooed and pierced and dyed—were setting up the room and the banquet table. Among our handouts were heartbreaking student essays about choosing jobs over drugs; gastric bypass surgery over helplessness; and overcoming bullying by practicing the new skills of energy, enthusiasm and hard work.
Chicopee’s mayor, Michael Bissonnette, took the podium to tell the students that he had grown up in the projects, and he knew their biggest problem—themselves. They had to look themselves in the mirror each day and say, “I can do it.” Then he introduced his “good friend” Elizabeth Warren, who was running for US Senate and who had something to say about all this.
Cue the movie music. The shining candidate stepped forth, tall and thin, with her no-fuss bob and warm blue eyes. Her kind voice and earnest enthusiasm lit up the room. She told her humble story as if it simultaneously meant nothing and everything. She came from hard-working middle-class parents. Her father had a heart attack that landed him in a lower-paying job; the resulting medical bills meant they lost the family car. She married at 19—maybe not the best decision, she said, smiling as she met students’ eyes—and was a mother by 22. After teaching special ed, which she loved, she took a big leap and decided to go to law school, at which point she discovered that her future depended on potty-training. She could only afford childcare—and therefore, could only go to law school—at the lower rate offered for children who were “reliably toilet trained.” It took three bags of M&Ms, she said, but by the day her daughter turned 2, the girl was potty-trained and enrolled in daycare. On that same day, Warren started law school.
The tattooed girl with crossed arms relaxed and leaned forward. The young women sitting at Warren’s table nodded enthusiastically. This was inspiration they understood.
And that is what will win or lose the election for Warren or incumbent Republican Scott Brown. Not their sharply different political philosophies; the people who would be swayed by those have already chosen sides. Most of the electorate is not really paying attention yet. And when they do, they are not deciding the way you and I do. Ideology and policy are not how these independents select a candidate. They’re not watching The Rachel Maddow Show or The O’Reilly Factor; they’re not reading The Nation or National Review. They’re getting dinner on the table, racing from work to pick up kids after school and following the Sox, Bruins and Pats. They pick candidates the way they pick friends: which one is honest, straightforward and sincere? Which one understands their lives?