Addressing thousands of supporters in Washington Square Park, some holding up “I’m a Warren Democrat” signs, Warren pressed her case to bring sweeping change to an economic and political system she views as fundamentally tilted to favor the wealthy and powerful.
She spoke near the site of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them women. The fire spurred a push to improve workplace safety, which Warren harnessed as a parallel for the far-reaching change she wants to pursue as president.
And once again, she urged Democrats to embrace her call for fundamental change — not the kind of incremental approach favored most notably by Joe Biden, the former vice president and the primary race’s front-runner.
“There’s a lot at stake in this election, and I know people are scared,” Warren said from a lectern in front of the park’s marble arch. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And Democrats can’t win if we’re scared and looking backward.”
Warren was introduced by Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, which announced its endorsement of Warren earlier Monday. In her speech, Warren described President Donald Trump as “corruption in the flesh,” but added that “our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump.”
Throughout her remarks, Warren was repeatedly met with enthusiastic cheers, and the crowd broke into chants of “two cents” when Warren brought up her proposal to impose a 2% tax on the fortunes of the super rich.
Beyond amplifying her call to confront corruption, a hallmark of her presidential bid, the speech was another chance for Warren to draw a big crowd on the campaign trail and put on display the enthusiasm she is generating among voters. In August, she drew 15,000 people in Seattle and 12,000 in St. Paul, Minnesota, according to her campaign.
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation said a crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 people was anticipated for Monday’s speech. Warren’s campaign said the crowd exceeded 20,000, though that estimate could not be independently verified.
With each big rally, Warren is solidifying her place in an exclusive club of presidential candidates who have become crowd magnets, exhilarating fans at events that can sometimes feel like rock concerts. In the 2004 election, it was Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, whose enormous crowds offered a visibly striking signal of interest in his candidacy, including a big showing in Bryant Park in Manhattan in August 2003.
Barack Obama drew enormous crowds in the 2008 race, including at a giant rally in Washington Square Park in September 2007. And in the 2016 election, Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont were both buoyed by the electric crowds they commanded. Sanders, too, held an enormous event in Washington Square Park, drawing a crowd before the 2016 New York primary that his campaign put at 27,000 people, though he went on to lose that contest to Hillary Clinton. Sanders has drawn big crowds this year as well.
The recent history of crowd-magnet candidates offers a mixed track record of electoral success. Joe Trippi, who was Dean’s campaign manager, said Warren was well positioned to draw big crowds in large cities, given her large email list and many grassroots donors around the country. That is particularly true in a Democratic stronghold like New York; for example, through the end of June, Warren had an estimated 1,300 donors in a single ZIP code in Brooklyn that includes most of Park Slope.
But Trippi cautioned that drawing a large audience in a big city does not necessarily translate to success in the early voting states. “The question is, can you build beyond that core into a more diverse Democratic constituency?” Trippi asked. “Fifteen thousand people in Seattle does not equal winning South Carolina.”
Asked last week whether she thought crowd size mattered, Warren replied, “I think it matters getting to talk to lots and lots and lots and lots of people.”
“I believe that we not only have to fight for big ideas in 2020; we’ve got to rebuild our democracy,” she said. “And the way we do that is giving people a reason to get in the fight and coming off the sidelines.”
Earlier Monday, Warren unveiled a sweeping plan to attack corruption in government, a central theme of her campaign. The plan is based on a wide-ranging anti-corruption package that she first proposed last year. On the campaign trail, she has referred to it as “the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate.”
Warren kicked off her campaign with a speech in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at the Everett Mills, where textile workers went on strike in 1912. On Monday, Warren again invoked the setting of her speech, recalling the horrific scene of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. Before the fire, she said, factory workers across New York had been “sounding the alarm” about their working conditions, but were no match for wealthy and well-connected factory owners.
“The tragic story of the Triangle factory fire is a story about power,” she said. “A story of what happens when the rich and the powerful take control of government and use it to increase their own profits while they stick it to working people. But what happened in the aftermath of the fire is a different story about power — a story about our power, a story about what’s possible when we fight together as one.”
Warren told the story of Frances Perkins, citing her efforts after the Triangle factory fire to improve conditions for workers, and, later, her tenure as labor secretary for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Warren presented Perkins — “one very persistent woman,” she called her to cheers — as a template of sorts for how a President Warren could bring about change.
“She used the same model that she and her friends had used after the Triangle fire: She worked the political system relentlessly from the inside while a sustained movement applied pressure from the outside,” Warren said, citing legacies like Social Security and the minimum wage.
Even the lectern from which Warren delivered those lines had a connection to Perkins, who was the first female Cabinet member: It was made with reclaimed wood from the Frances Perkins homestead in Maine, her campaign said.
As is her custom, Warren stayed after her speech to take pictures with anyone who wanted one.
Linus Glenhaber, 18, a college student from Massachusetts, worked on his science homework as he waited.
He praised Warren for how she reached back into American history as she spoke of corruption. “When she was talking about the Triangle shirtwaist factory,” he said, “it felt relevant to today in this incredible way.”
One figure who did not seem to factor into Monday’s proceedings was New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, who like Warren is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
“The mayor of this city is still running, and Elizabeth Warren turned this city out,” said City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, who endorsed Warren last week. “I’m not being mean, but it’s got to be devastating for him. But it’s great for us.”
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