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NEW YORK — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in a speech that drew thousands of supporters to a historic site in Lower Manhattan, on Monday made one of her most explicit appeals to female voters since announcing her bid for the White House.
In Washington Square Park, an area etched with the history of women-led political action against corruption and big business, she sought to cast her own campaign as the next iteration of that movement.
“We’re not here today because of famous arches or famous men. In fact, we’re not here because of men at all,” she proclaimed to loud cheers. “We’re here because of some hard-working women.”
Warren stood before one of her biggest campaign crowds yet, a block from the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where a 1911 fire caused by hazardous conditions in the sweatshop killed 146 people, most of them female immigrants. The episode became a national symbol of corporate mistreatment of garment workers and led to sweeping labor reforms.
Warren, who has been gaining momentum as the Democratic field begins to narrow, tried to tie her own candidacy to the female-led labor movement that the Triangle fire roused. She singled out Frances Perkins, who had witnessed the tragedy and subsequently helped organize and implement reforms, later becoming President Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary and the first female Cabinet member. Perkins later said the fire was “the day the New Deal was born,” Warren noted.
“So, what did one woman — one very persistent woman, backed up by millions of people across this country — get done?” Warren said. “Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend.”
Channeling her own campaign slogans, she added: “Big, structural change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up.”
The crowds Monday night responded with raucous applause throughout her 42-minute remarks, a speech that interlaced her appeal to women with a plan to boost working-class Americans by curtailing the power of corporations.
Women and men, from teens to senior citizens, packed the park after nightfall. They held their phones up in an effort to capture images of the candidate, who stood near the famous archway, which was adorned on either side with blue campaign signs bearing her name. An American flag hung in the center.
Warren’s speech was the latest instance of the campaign’s subtle and explicit calls for female political leadership in a country that has never elected a woman to be president.
On the trail, when discussing executive actions she would take, she often begins with: “I love saying this: ‘What a president can do all by herself.’” In her “selfie lines” after town halls, she usually kneels down and gives small girls a pinky swear and tells them, “I'm running for president because that’s what girls do.” She almost always works in “persist,” a reference to the label that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unwittingly made into a feminist rallying cry when he shut down a speech by Warren on the Senate floor in 2017.
And before Monday night’s speech, the Warren campaign’s playlist included Lizzo’s “Like a Girl,” which begins: “Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for president, even if there ain’t no precedent, switchin’ up the messagin’, I’m about to add a little estrogen.”
Besides Warren’s rhetoric, 64 percent of the people on the campaign’s payroll are women, according to a spokesperson, including the directors for the four early-voting state contests.
Despite the political hurdles facing any woman candidate, the big and small moves have the potential to tap into the same political energy that drove the Women’s March and the election of a record number of women in the 2018 congressional midterms. With women likely to be about 60 percent of voters in the 2020 Democratic primary, a female candidate’s ability to mobilize women voters on her behalf could be determinative in the nomination fight.
Warren is not alone in pursuing such a strategy. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) made explicit appeals to female voters the thrust of her political strategy, which ultimately fell flat, leading to an early exit from the presidential race. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has also had viral moments encouraging young girls and has made inroads with black women voters.
But the Massachusetts senator currently has a consistent but slight edge with women voters that other leading candidates do not, and it is similar to the small lead that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has with male voters, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of polls over the month of August. Warren still struggles with women of color.
On the trail, there are some signs the strategy is working. In her town halls across the country, the crowds tend to skew slightly female, many sporting “Persist”-themed swag and tattoos. Many women and some men in attendance are frank about wanting to vote for a woman in 2020. Outside her town halls, independent vendors often sell merchandise referencing Warren’s potential to be the first woman president — “Madame President” T-shirts and Rosie the Riveter buttons with Warren’s face superimposed.
Warren’s approach, however, expands beyond gender in ways that Gillibrand’s did not. Monday evening’s location signaled that the campaign isn’t just about women’s political power, but is also about people contending with unsafe working conditions and low wages.
“It took 18 minutes for 146 people to die. Mostly women. Mostly immigrants — Jewish and Italian,” she said. “Mostly people who made as little as $5 a week to get their shot at the American dream.”
Warren recounted the story of the atrocity in vivid detail before connecting it to her plan, announced Monday morning, to tackle corporate power that she believes again has a stranglehold on the political process 108 years later.
She described a cycle of factory owners doling out campaign donations, cozying up to legislators and blocking reform.
“Does any of that sound familiar?” she asked. “Take any big problem we have in America today and you don’t have to dig very deep to see the same system at work.”
She then rolled out what she called “the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate,” which includes drastically curtailing the lobbying industry, in part by banning senators, Congress members and Cabinet secretaries from ever becoming lobbyists.
She would require meetings between lobbyists and elected officials to be made public and would abolish political donations from lobbyists in contact with the same government officials, calling the practice “the very definition of bribery.”
Warren’s Senate office told POLITICO that she would reintroduce a previous bill she sponsored, called the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, in the “coming months.” Her ban on lobbyists engaging in fundraising activities is likely to face legal challenges.
But such nuances did not seem to phase the crowd, which cheered on Monday when Warren said, “I know what’s broken, I’ve got a plan to fix it, and that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”
Following her remarks, supporters filed over to take selfies with her. One woman, 45-year-old Heather Quick, said she was deciding whether to support Warren or Sanders in the primary.
She said she was moved by Warren’s mention of criminal justice reform Monday night and had heard most of the rest of her stump speech.
“I like that the spine of her talk was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire,” she said. “It was a brilliant move to work that into her speech, which obviously leads you into the women’s role in political change and unionizing.”