SALEM — The hoopla surrounding one of the most closely followed U.S. Senate races in the country came to Salem yesterday, as Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren swept into Salem State University's Marsh Hall amid a flurry of flashbulbs, handshakes and a hug from Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.
Warren is locked in a tight race against incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown, and the two are raising and spending money at a furious pace, while each crisscrosses the state seeking support.
Warren, Driscoll, state Rep. John Keenan and University President Patricia Meservey bantered lightly before Warren ventured off to shake hands with students, chat about their experiences and their loans, and lobby for their support.
"Get on our mailing list," Warren told one student as he finished his lunch. "I need your vote; I need them all."
When it was time for the national and regional media to take their turn with Warren, it took mere seconds for the smiling and handshaking to turn to the controversy that has dogged Warren this week, ever since it was revealed that Harvard University listed her as a minority professor and that she had listed herself as a Native American in a directory of law professors compiled by the Association of American Law Schools.
Is she a Native American? Did her minority status gain a fair advantage?
Warren repeated herself repeatedly.
"I am proud of my family. I am proud of my heritage. ... I have worked hard my whole life to get everything I have," she told a gaggle of reporters after each question. "I am here at Salem State right now trying to talk about what is happening to the American middle class, and Washington would rather talk about anything else."
In a light moment after the national media and television crews had left, she laughed when asked if she was exasperated by the unrelenting line of questioning, and if the spotlight of a statewide election — her first — is harder to deal with than she had thought.
"I knew this race would be tough; I'm running against an incumbent who had $10 million in the bank on the first day, when I had nothing," she said.
"I am just going to keep talking about how the American middle class is getting hammered. I'm going to talk about it today, tomorrow, the next day, the day after that. I'll talk about it every day until it makes a mark."
Warren's visit to Salem yesterday included a short jaunt around the new Marsh Hall residence, which opened in 2010, and a 30-minute conversation with local entrepreneurs at the university's Enterprise Center — a business incubator and home to about 40 startups dealing in everything from medical devices to miniature windmills.
The business owners brought up high health care costs, overregulation, difficulty obtaining financing, finding qualified workers and a host of other issues as hurdles to success.
"The largest challenge is finding a capable workforce. We're looking everywhere, including MIT, and we're finding students are not really ready," said Pavel Menn, of EndoDynamix, Inc., which makes instrumentation for minimally invasive surgery. "The academic community is really lagging behind."
Mario Ricciardelli, who started a travel website called hiphost.com, said there was little government could do to help him.
"We don't need anything but the regulators to get out of the way," she said. " ... I am not sure any of my problems can be solved by government, unless you know some good marketing people."
For Warren, who helped set up the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the comment allowed her to weigh in on the ideological debate of our political time: How much should government be involved in our lives?
Warren, generally beloved by liberals and despised by the right, says government is necessary to give business the environment needed to grow.
"The answer is not either (government) or (the private sector)," she said. "There are things government can do that the private sector can't do. I can't build a road in front of my house. ... Government permits us to make an investment together that none of us can do alone."
But the federal government is broke, Ricciardelli countered.
"Spending money and making government bigger, how is that going to work?" he asked.
"This is not about making government bigger," she replied. "This is about where we make the investments.
"Subsidies for oil companies cost us billions of dollars even as they made $136 billion in profits. We spend on special tax breaks for hedge funds and companies who park their money overseas. We spend literally billions and billions and billions (on subsidies and tax breaks) on an annual basis."
Instead, that money should be spent on a combination of paying down the deficit and "making investments in the future," in areas such as education, infrastructure and research, she said — areas that will benefit business and the future of the country.
"This is all about creating the right (business) environment overall," she said.