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She Persists: Building Power Through Shared Humanity

photo: Donna Smith and Senator Elizabeth Warren

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By Donna Smith – former Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America and currently a Medicare for All campaign surrogate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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It was July 17, 2007, and I was set to testify to the House Judiciary Committee about medical debt/crisis and bankruptcy.  A broke and broken American woman, lifted temporarily by the fleeting celebrity of being featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO, my testimony was too emotional, too loaded with personal antidote, and way too long.  I had been given one moment in the sun to be heard, and by God I was determined to take it.  Stay with me for this flashback, as a lawyer facing a relevancy objection might assert, I promise the Senator Elizabeth Warren connection on this walk down memory lane will become clear. 

The others who testified that day a dozen years ago must have been confused about why someone without lofty credentials, position or connection such as me would be allowed a seat at the witness table.  I was so scared that I shook.  We had no money to our names, and I dressed in the only dress and jacket I had that remotely seemed worthy.  Some of the Congressional committee members were kind and decent while others were condescending and even nasty.  But there was a Harvard Law professor and expert on bankruptcy sitting next to me who I heard sniffing when I completed my testimony.  That law professor was Elizabeth Warren.  She leaned over to me and told me I had given the most powerful testimony she had ever heard.

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Bill Moyers would later feature some of that testimony during my interview on his show, Bill Moyers Journal in May 2009.  The words I spoke in my testimony are unfortunately nearly as true today as they were 12 years ago, “You left me broken and battered because you failed to act on health care reform. Just as I have come out of the shadows of economic ruin and shame, so, too, will others come forward to hold you accountable. Remember the hard-working people who elected you. Their bankruptcy shame, my bankruptcy shame due to medical crisis, really is your shame. You are the body that could have acted and has yet not done so.”

Those words resonated with then Professor Warren, and I know why.  My story of healthcare crisis is very similar to the one her own parents endured when she was a child.  She often recounts the near economic ruin following her father’s heart attack.  So when she heard me fighting back and using my anger to argue for change during my Congressional testimony, it touched her.  Her tears were for me, for her own family and for all the women who do what we must do to keep going — to persist.  Her testimony that day was tough as nails, filled with research data, and true. She was co-author of a groundbreaking study on medical debt and bankruptcy, so that information undergirded the emotion and rage I felt about decades of hard work being reduced to nothing by medical expenses our insurance didn’t cover. 

Back home in Denver, I was certain no one would care or remember the words I spoke to that Congressional committee in the months and years ahead.  I was wrong.  Long after that July 2007, Elizabeth Warren reached out to me via email after reading a blog posting I wrote that she thought was powerful.  I was dumbfounded.  Why would someone with so much credibility and status bother with me?  I had nothing she needed or wanted.  My achievements amounted to “nice tries” at law school and higher level positions that had been torpedoed by my own inability to earn enough to simultaneously support my family that included six growing, young children.  In contrast, Elizabeth Warren achieved so much.  Yet, she cared enough to be decent to me.  My fight-back began to grow. My courage began to mount.  I was armed with the example and the persistent support of a woman who knew quite a bit about the guts and gumption it takes to rise above some of life’s most challenging situations.  By 2008, I was working for the nation’s largest union of registered nurses, California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. I had actually kept the focus on my writing and speaking post-SiCKO by accepting every invitation to speak on healthcare issues from community groups, university student groups and professors, and others who took me as a substitute for having Michael Moore as a speaker.  I persisted. 

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Professor Warren was so kind that when I wrote a piece she found especially impactful, she sent the message, “This is an amazing piece. May I reproduce it on TPM Cafe?”  Imagine.  Well before she ran for the Senate, and even before she took on the TARP czar role after being tapped by Senator Harry Reid for that role during the recession, this incredibly successful and busy woman took the time to push me.  Sometimes when I whined, she would push back at that — hard.  She expected me to keep trying.  “So get up and go get it,” she’d write.  She never expected less of herself. The mixture of tenderness and power was an amazingly motivating kind of pressure. 

Once, while working for the nurses in Washington, D.C., I was walking to a meeting in one of the Congressional office buildings.  I turned the corner to see Elizabeth Warren leaning against the door to a hearing room and waiting for the hearing participants to arrive.  There was no chit-chat.  She had her tough game face on and was ready to help make sure what had happened to our economy at the hands of the big banks and Wall Street would never happen again.  What a tremendous gift to all of us that she cared enough to apply her brain power, expertise and her intensity of purpose to repair our economy. Though those roles are not the sexiest, Elizabeth Warren had and has the vision to know that having “a cop on the beat” matters a lot. 

Once she became a world renowned expert on consumer finance, ran the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and then was elected to the U.S. Senate, you might expect her power and influence would prohibit the time or inclination to be engaged with me or others in my significantly lower social and economic strata.  You and I both know most powerful people surround themselves with other powerful and wealthy people.  But Senator Elizabeth Warren is not most people. 

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After the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, my stress levels about maintaining my health coverage soared.  I slumped into a deep, dark place.  When some friends in Massachusetts told Sen. Warren I was struggling with serious health issues and depression, she actually called me directly and even made a short, direct video for me.  In classic Elizabeth Warren fashion, the video both reassured and provided a quick, sharp nudge to get up and fight.  Though I cannot claim that solved all my worries by any stretch, it helped a lot. 

Power and humanity.  Tender mercy and unwavering belief in the capacity of the human spirit to fight on when faced with life’s inevitable difficulties are qualities I find in Elizabeth Warren that are in desperately short supply in leaders in our nation.  So when I think about how she might serve as our president in the wake of the cruel indignity of the disingenuous Trump and his crowd, it takes my breath away with aspiration for us all.  She’s no flash in the political pan or up and coming latest flavor (nor am I suggesting anyone else currently running is). 

Elizabeth Warren has been and ever will be the kind of powerful, American woman I will look up to with wonder and gratitude that I have lived during her time of greatest impact.  I suspect that as she has lifted me innumerable times, she has done exactly that for many, many people.  Through her toughness combined with compassion, she sets a new standard for decency that represents real power.  Her policies reflect it. Her life embodies it. Our nation must either move towards that sort of power or ultimately lose our ability to offer an America we are all proud of to future generations. 

 

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