This Is The One Way Elizabeth Warren Has Already Won
Her focus on Michael Bloomberg could have a major impact on the #MeToo movement.
It was raining in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, but the line to get into Charleston Music Hall, a 19th-century Gothic revival building in the center of the city, snaked around the venue and into a narrow cobblestone alley crowded with bars and restaurants. The crowd — young women, couples, and families — was there for Elizabeth Warren’s get-out-the-vote rally, which would feature a performance by singer John Legend, who’d flown in from California; his wife Chrissy Teigen is a big Warren supporter, too.
But Legend was not the main reason anyone was standing in the rain. Instead, ahead of tomorrow’s South Carolina Democratic primary, everyone we spoke with had lined up to hear Warren’s message of big structural change. Including, it seemed, Legend himself, who addressed the overflow crowd in the rain before venturing inside, where he recited a sermonic stump speech, stressing the importance of Warren’s performance in the state’s primary: "I vote in California. I was born and raised in Ohio. I’ve never lived in South Carolina. But I flew all the way across the country just to do this today, because everybody’s watching South Carolina... You have the power to send a message that will resound across the nation." The crowd, waving "Women with Warren" and "African-Americans with Warren" signs, cheered and stood up in repeated standing ovations.
This rally was part of Warren’s big push in the state, following several events that specifically addressed the concerns of women and people of color. Despite the energy around her, she has not been getting a ton of local media attention, and she's not predicted to perform well, with former Vice President Joe Biden on top of recent polls and Bernie Sanders coming in second. Billionaire Tom Steyer — whose supporters had a giant truck emblazoned with "Tom Steyer 2020" parading up and down the main street during the Warren rally — is in third place. Warren is polling a distant fourth place, at around 8%, just ahead of Pete Buttigieg (6%) and Amy Klobuchar (4%). Although many of her supporters are still hopeful about the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3, when about 40% of the electorate will have a chance to cast their vote, it’s hard not to see that Warren’s path to the nomination is quickly narrowing.
And yet, there is at least one way in which Warren has already won. Throughout her campaign, Warren has been incredibly successful at doing one really important thing: scaring billionaires. She’s done this through her signature proposal of implementing a two-cent tax on fortunes over $50 million and a higher tax on billionaires, which she says will pay for universal childcare, alleviate student-loan debt, and more. But it’s her laser focus on one billionaire in particular, former New York City mayor and last-minute presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, that’s proving to have a powerful effect throughout America’s workforce.
I think she prompted him to defend his record and his word, she held him accountable. She was affirming survivors' justice. And that matters to me.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley
During the Democratic presidential debate in Nevada on February 19, Warren took Bloomberg, whose company faces nearly 40 sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits, to task for "muzzling" women with nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), and called him out for many of the heinous comments he has allegedly made. "I'd like to talk about who we're running against: a billionaire who calls women 'fat broads' and 'horse-faced lesbians,'" she said within the first couple of minutes of the debate — which certainly set a tone. It worked in at least one way: Donations poured in.
But this was about more than just one debate performance for Warren. In an extremely Elizabeth Warren move, the former professor of contract law actually created a release-contract template for the women bound by his NDAs. Soon after, Bloomberg tepidly walked back his stance, announcing that his company would release three women from their NDAs related to allegations of comments made by him. Warren argued that this wasn't enough. "If he says there is nothing to hide here, then sign a blanket release and let those women speak out so that they can tell their stories," she said at the South Carolina debate on Tuesday. The two sparred even more than in the previous debate, with her calling him out for everything from supporting Trump brown-noser Sen. Lindsey Graham's last reelection campaign to the inherent racism of the notorious stop-and-frisk policy in New York City. (He has since apologized for his involvement in it.) The big heat came when she brought up a story, first published by The Washington Post, in which a former employee of Bloomberg's company claimed that, after she had told him she was pregnant, he told her to "kill it," complaining about the number of women he now employed who were pregnant or on maternity leave. It's understandable why this mattered so much to Warren, who has talked about her own experience with pregnancy discrimination, but there’s no doubt that it also resonated with countless other women who have endured similar experiences. For his part, Bloomberg claimed he never said that, despite the employee claiming otherwise in her lawsuit.
While it's doubtful that Warren has won over any Bloomberg supporters, what she did single-handedly accomplish was putting the #MeToo movement front-and-center on the debate stage, after grassroots groups such as UltraViolet have long lobbied to do so. It was the #MeToo movement that helped shine a light on the way NDAs are often used to silence women, and advocates have pushed many companies to free former employees from these agreements. Warren and, ironically, Bloomberg both support the BE HEARD Act in Congress, which would free many employees from predatory agreements. Warren’s debate performances might not only be the catalyst needed to push more companies to behave more ethically toward their employees and release them from inappropriate NDAs, but also serve as a form of solidarity to women who have been taken advantage of in the past.
"I cried a little bit when I saw that Bloomberg released those NDAs," Tiffany Scott, 25, a web designer in Charleston, told Refinery29. "I was like, she did that literally from calling his ass out on stage. She made actual change by not backing down and calling somebody out on a national level."
Asheley Watters, 35, a nurse in Charleston who says she supports Warren mainly because she would help the middle class, agrees on that point. "I'm definitely in support of how she's defending women's rights," she told Refinery29. "Just calling him out on things that have happened — they have happened, it's true, factual information. It needs to be called out. Not that people can't change, but it needs to be apologized for and recognized."
Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who is a co-chair of Warren’s campaign, explained to Refinery29 in an interview moments before the South Carolina debate how meaningful Warren's performance against Bloomberg was for voters, saying, "I think she prompted him to defend his record and his word, she held him accountable. She was affirming survivors' justice. And that matters to me. I'm tired as a woman — and I'm raising an 11-year-old daughter — of women growing up in a country where it's a conflated part of your experience as a girl or woman to experience sexual harassment, violence, or intimidation by those that are abusing their power and their authority."