Nearly a year and a half ago, on a cold winter night in New York City, Harry Waisbren stood waiting outside Saint Peter’s Church, where Elizabeth Warren was headlining an event about money in politics, with a banner reading “Run Liz Run” that featured a smiling photo of the Democratic Massachusetts senator.
Waisbren remembers Warren’s eyes popping in surprise as she walked outside and saw the small band of her ardent supporters urging a presidential run. It was the first action taken by the then newly formed Ready for Warren, a group created to enlist the woman many progressives see as their most strident champion to make a play for the White House.
Fifteen months later — a period in which Warren has insisted time and again that she will not be launching a White House bid in 2016 — Waisbren, a founding member of the group and of the progressive online video website, act.tv, is still in some ways standing in the cold, waiting for Warren to listen.
Not that he is discouraged just yet.
“No one’s running until they’re running,” he said, noting that Warren was also hesitant to run for her Massachusetts Senate seat in 2012 until grassroots activists gave a strong enough pitch. “We need a true progressive champion in the White House, and Elizabeth Warren has always been a reluctant politician. I don’t think she realizes what she could do if she steps up.”
On Thursday, Ready for Warren redoubled its efforts, releasing an online "Dear Elizabeth Warren" video campaign, showcasing 50 homemade videos of supporters looking into the camera and pleading Warren to step in.
"There's not many people politically speaking that are willing to take on the battles that you are, specifically for these young people and this next generation — whether it's the student debt, to the insidious and predatory practices of the banks, or climate change,” said actor Mark Ruffalo in one such video. “Take your place, your rightful place in the history of this great nation.”
Indeed, even as Warren shows no discernible signs of sprouting presidential ambitions anytime soon, and the four-day-old campaign of Hillary Clinton takes on an air of inevitability among political observers, Warren supporters are ramping up their charm offensive to woo their wary candidate.
“We’re still very much in the mindset that this is early,” said Erica Sagrans, the campaign director of Ready for Warren. “She doesn’t have to do it today, even though of course, the sooner the better.”
Sagrans said the group did not yet have a date by which they would pack it in.
To some, their enthusiasm might seem misdirected. For her acolytes, it’s just good old-fashioned perseverance.
“There’s no downside to continuing to work toward drafting Elizabeth Warren,” said Diana Painter, 34, who recorded a "Dear Liz" video and has been involved in the draft campaign in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. “No matter what she does, this is going to continue a positive conversation about priorities, and if we let her know that there’s a grassroots movement behind her, I hope we can convince her.”
Next week, some of Warren’s most prominent supporters are also throwing her a cocktail party, albeit with an absent guest of honor, headlined by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. Liberal activist Van Jones and former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout will make remarks.
“We’re full steam ahead,” said Nick Berning, communications director of Moveon.org, a progressive advocacy group hosting the New York City event and which runs another draft campaign called Run, Warren, Run. “We absolutely take Sen. Warren at her word, she has said she’s not running and we don’t question that’s where she is. What we can do is show how much support there is for her.”
Warren backers concede that even without officially entering the race, Warren is having the desired effect of encouraging a vigorous debate among Democrats about where the party should be headed.
In the week since Clinton officially became a 2016 candidate, she has said “the deck is stacked in favor of those at the top,” in a clear echo of “rigged game” language used by Warren; published a tribute to the senator for Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, lauding her public service; and slammed CEO pay that is 300 times the salary of the average worker, despite Clinton’s long involvement in corporate boards.
But Warren backers said they don’t want an imitation of a progressive stalwart if there’s a chance they may be able to get the real thing.
“Sure, I think the Democratic Party is adopting more and more of Elizabeth Warren’s frame, and I’m hopeful that we’ll have a debate stage full of people doing their best Elizabeth Warren impersonations, including Elizabeth Warren herself,” Waisbren said.
Teachout, who would like to see Warren and others like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, get in the presidential race, said it’s not enough for Democratic candidates to adopt populist messages. Those edicts should be backed by policies.
Warren has spoken out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, stood in opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and favored expansion of Social Security benefits. On those issues, Clinton has yet to take a stance.
“With some of [Clinton’s] current donors and some of the policies she’s supported in the past, she’s a long way away from the heart and soul of the Democratic Party,” Teachout said. “I try not to be too much of a pundit, but I’m concerned about her capacity to excite people to come out to vote.”
Some Warren supporters, too, bristle at the thought of an uncontested primary.
“I can’t even get my head around the idea of why Democrats wouldn’t want a primary. It’s a rejection of democracy, history and logic,” Teachout said. “It would be a tragedy.”
So go ahead, call him kooky, Waisbren said. “What’s kooky to me, if not insane, is that the presidential primary process is decided so long in advance,” he said.