LAWRENCE, Mass. ― Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren officially announced her presidential bid near the banks of the Merrimack River here on Saturday, picking a highly symbolic location that points to both long, worker-centric political tradition Warren seeks to inherit and the challenge she might face in winning over an increasingly diverse Democratic party.
“This is the fight of our lives. The fight to build an America where dreams are possible, an America that works for everyone. I am in that fight all the way,” Warren said at the Everett Mills, where a group of Polish women walked off the job in January 1912, setting off the famous Bread and Roses Strike, when tens of thousands of immigrant workers united to shut down the city’s textile mills for the winter, winning substantial raises and safer work conditions.
Warren’s official entry into the race to win the Democratic nod to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 has been expected since she announced the formation of an exploratory committee in late December. She joins a field that already includes three of her fellow Democratic senators ― New Jersey’s Cory Booker, California’s Kamala Harris and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand ― and could soon include Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, along with a host of other candidates.
She launched her campaign with an introduction from Rep. Joe Kennedy III, winning the blessing of the highest-profile member of the first family of Democratic politics, and with the backing of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and fellow Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.
“We need a leader that will restore the solidarity that Donald Trump stole,” said Kennedy, a former student of Warren’s at Harvard Law School. “A leader that will bring us together to confront our great threat: A system that protects the powerful and the privileged.”
There’s a practical reason to announce in Lawrence ― it’s a quick, 10-minute drive to New Hampshire, which hosts the first-in-the-nation primary ― but the symbolic reasons to choose the former mill town 40 minutes north of Boston instead of a more prominent locale are stronger. The Bread and Roses Strike, which was led in large part by women, immigrants and immigrant women, is a rich historical text for Warren to invoke during a speech announcing her bid. It allows Warren to connect to a landmark moment in labor history, and it also links her directly to one of just a handful of majority-minority cities in her home state, giving her a chance to show her appeal to the voters who may ultimately decide the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“It’s about immigrants, it’s about women, it’s about workers’ rights, it’s about pay equity,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “It’s about everything Elizabeth Warren has spent her life fighting for.”
The Bread and Roses strike began in response to a pay cut of 32 cents a week. The roughly 30,000 people who worked in the mills were crowded into tenement houses, having arrived in Lawrence from more than 50 different nations. Seven of eight people who worked in the mills were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. At the city’s dominant employer ― the American Woolen Company ― half of the employees were women between the ages of 14 and 18. While doctors in Lawrence had a life expectancy of 65, more than one-third of mill workers died before age 25.
The strike quickly led to clashes with local police, and a state militia was called in. The Industrial Workers of the World organized the strikers, and soon news of the strike was dominating the nation’s newspapers. Wealthy suffragettes, believing their struggle for the right to vote was linked to that of the strikers, began supporting them financially. To draw additional attention to the cause, the mothers of Lawrence sent their children by train to New York City, a so-called “Children’s Exodus.” The sight of the malnourished children drew more sympathy to the strikers’ cause. In late February, as a second group of children prepared to leave for Philadelphia, police began clubbing them and their parents. The violence drew further condemnation, and soon both the U.S. House and Senate began investigating the conditions in Lawrence.
In March, owners agreed to a 15 percent raise for the mill workers, to give double pay for overtime and to improve safety conditions in the mills. The eventual agreement ending the strike was read aloud in Arabic, Polish, Armenian and a slew of other languages, reflecting the diversity of the strikers.
Journalist Bruce Watson, in his book on the strike, “Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream,” wrote that in 1912, “the great rudder of a stable society, the middle class, had not yet been invented.” But within months of the end of the strike, Warren noted, Massachusetts became the first state in the country with a minimum wage, part of a newly empowered labor movement that would soon win a 40-hour work week and the elimination of child labor.
In Warren’s telling of American history, the middle class that the strike helped create over the following decades has fallen by the wayside. “This wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t inevitable,” she said, pointing the finger at power-hungry lobbyists, misguided Republicans and the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics that she said had derailed progress on everything from gun control to climate change. “Over the years, America’s middle class had been deliberately hollowed out.”
To fix it, Warren argues, involves more than throwing Trump out of office, and requires a more aggressive form of liberal politics. “Today, millions and millions and millions of American families are also struggling to survive in a system that has been rigged by the wealthy and the well-connected,” she said during her 40-minute speech. “Corruption is a cancer on our democracy. And we will get rid of it only with strong medicine ― with real, structural reform.”
But Lawrence’s story is as much about immigration as it is about labor. “The city of Lawrence symbolizes what our country stands for. The wave after wave of immigrants who come to this country seeking a better life,” said Juana Matias, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who previously represented Lawrence in the Massachusetts State House. “Warren coming to Lawrence demonstrates the commitment she has to the middle class.”
Instead of the polyglot immigrant community that existed in 1912, Lawrence today is dominated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic and emigres from Puerto Rico. The city, which is nearly three-quarters Latino in a state that is roughly three-quarters white, has struggled. A 2014 story in Boston Magazine labeled it “The City of the Damned,” documenting a state takeover of the city’s failing public schools, a high crime rate and the corruption investigations plaguing its then-mayor, William Lantigua.
It has also become a favorite target of Republican attacks. In a 2018 speech in New Hampshire, Trump blamed Lawrence and Boston by name for the deadly opioid epidemic ravaging New England. Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s Republican governor, has used similar rhetoric. Most famously, former Maine Gov. Paul LePage blamed his state’s problems with fentanyl on black and Latino people from Lawrence and nearby Lowell.
Matias said things are improving in the city, with better schools and less crime under new mayor Daniel Rivera, who spoke before Warren. A small number of biotech and other firms have moved into the massive mill buildings along the river, but the city remains one of the poorest in the state.
Lawrence’s large Latino population ― Trump signaled it out because of its status as sanctuary city where local police don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials ― also provides Warren with an opportunity to show her appeal to voters of color. Massachusetts’ limited number of black and Latino voters means Warren still needs to show she can appeal to voters outside her core base of white progressives.
After making her way onstage to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Warren ticked off a host of policy priorities ― from making it easier to join a union to outlawing gerrymandering to criminal justice reform, but repeatedly returned to her core message of rebuilding the middle class, which she emphasized could appeal to voters across the socioeconomic spectrum.
“We come from different backgrounds, different religions, different languages, different experiences,” she told the crowd of roughly 3,500 people who braved freezing temperatures to attend the rally. “We feel the urgency of this moment in different ways. But today, we come together, ready to raise our voices until this fight is won.”
After the speech, Warren is set to travel to New Hampshire and then Iowa this weekend, and she has trips to South Carolina, Georgia, Nevada and California planned for the coming weeks.
Republicans responded to Warren’s campaign launch by focusing on the controversy over the senator’s claims to Native American ancestry, which gained new steam this week after The Washington Post reported she identified as Native American on a form filed with the Texas State Bar.
“Elizabeth Warren has already been exposed as a fraud by the Native Americans she impersonated and disrespected to advance her professional career, and the people of Massachusetts she deceived to get elected,” said Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager.
But there is no evidence Warren’s ancestry claims helped her advance her career, and little evidence it will significantly hamper her in the Democratic primary. National and state-level polls place her in the middle of a crowded field. Most have the best-known candidates, Biden and Sanders, leading the field.
This story has been updated with more details from Warren’s announcement.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Industrial Workers of the World.