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Between the Lines: Warren’s Hick Problem

Rural Mass. is looking for some love from its new senator.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

In October of 2011, a month after she entered the Massachusetts Senate race, Elizabeth Warren was interviewed by a group of liberal bloggers for a podcast called “Left Ahead.”

It was a friendly interview, to say the least; “I’ve got to say, I’d love to see you in office,” said of one of her interviewers, who noted that he, like Warren, was born in Oklahoma and had “been called a ‘hick’ myself a lot.”

“I’m going for the hick vote here, I just want you to know,” a laughing Warren said in response. “Maybe we could start wearing stickers that say ‘Hicks for Elizabeth.’” Warren also joked that she was “a new category: an elite hick,” a reference to the GOP’s efforts to paint her as an out-of-touch Ivy Leaguer, not a janitor’s daughter from Oklahoma City.

If Warren’s intent was to undercut such criticisms, she was not particularly successful; a state GOP spokesman promptly took a swing, saying, “Professor Warren’s insulting use of the word ‘hick’ offers a revealing prism into her elitist and arrogant worldview” and calling on her to explain just whom she was calling “hicks.”

But it wasn’t only Republicans who reacted to Warren’s comments. They also caught the attention of Matt Barron, a Democratic political consultant from Chesterfield (population: 1,222), who, frankly, wished Warren did more courting of the so-called “hick vote.” That September, he had invited all the contenders for the Democratic Senate nomination to a forum on rural issues, hosted by the Hilltown Democratic Coalition. Warren was the only one to decline. The campaign staffer he spoke to didn’t cite a reason, Barron said, although he did reference the long drive from eastern Mass. to Chesterfield Town Hall. Later that fall, Warren missed a similar event held by North Quabbin Democrats.

“This really stuck in my craw,” Barron recently said of Warren’s non-appearances. While the candidate did attend rallies and fundraisers in this part of the state, he said, her itinerary was notably short on events like farm visits and small-town forums. Meanwhile, her Republican rival, Scott Brown, was touring cranberry bogs and farming communities around state. “He didn’t come out here a lot, but he came out more than Warren,” Barron said.

Ultimately, of course, Warren won the race, doing particularly well in cities and liberal enclaves, including the Valley’s college towns, and sweeping heavily rural Franklin County. Still, Barron noted in a post-election analysis on the rural issues website dailyyonder.com, Brown did better in small towns overall, winning 90 of the state’s 172 communities with populations of less than 10,000, including the rural towns of Hampden County.

Throughout the campaign, Barron said, he was disappointed by Warren’s lack of attention to issues important to rural areas; her campaign website, for example, had no position paper on agricultural issues (it did have one on the fishing industry and another on “Issues Facing Urban Neighborhoods”). Had Warren come to the Hilltown Democrats’ forum, she would have been asked about matters specific to this region, from gun policy (a very different issue in rural towns, where guns are associated with hunting, than in cities, where they’re associated with violence, Barron noted) to the need for broadband access. “I’m sure she gets high-speed Internet service in Cambridge. Can she put herself in the position of a small businessperson who’s struggling to sell products through e-commerce when they don’t have high-speed Internet?” Barron said.

“The economy out here is not like the eastern part of the state,” he continued. “We don’t have financial services, biotech, high-tech … We do have a lot of woods and we do have some very productive farms. How, when you go to Washington, will you be an advocate for economic development in [small] communities?”

As Warren prepares to take her Senate seat in January, Barron hopes she’ll make the westernmost, rural-most part of the state a priority. The senator-elect, for instance, has vowed to open a Western Massachusetts office, presumably in Springfield. “Will it be staffed?” Barron wondered. “Or will it have a clock on the door saying, ‘Be back Thursday at 6’?”

As a rural-friendly role model, Barron offers Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Brooklyn Democrat who makes it a point to hit each of New York’s 62 counties every year—“not every election year, every year,” Barron said. “He knows … if you’re willing to get your wingtips dirty with a little cow manure, that goes a long, long way.”•

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