Elizabeth Warren takes populist message to epicenter of housing crisis

Elizabeth Warren

Fifteen minutes southwest of the Las Vegas strip, there are rows upon rows of peach- and beige-colored houses baking in the Nevada sun, boasting manicured front lawns and two-car garages.

Standing in the garage of the home that she and her husband bought four years ago, Jennifer Sanders says that while the foreclosure signs that were ubiquitous here 10 years ago are now far less visible, the memories of the housing crash are still fresh. When the economy took a dive in 2008, the neighborhood they used to live in became a shell of itself, with abandoned houses, broken windows and squatters everywhere.

“The homes just became dilapidated. The grass was dying. Palm trees were dumped over,” said Sanders, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016. “It was just dead, dead, dead, dead, all the way down. At least 10 houses down, every other home was just gone. Empty.”

It is here, the epicenter of the 2008 housing crisis, that Sen. Elizabeth Warren has brought her populist message this week. At a community center in East Las Vegas on Tuesday night, Warren, an expert on bankruptcy law, slammed the subprime lending practices that were rampant across the country in the lead-up to the housing bubble’s burst.

“What did our federal government do? Covered its ears, covered its eyes. It did nothing on behalf of the people and instead was there for the big banks. It was called deregulation,” she said. “Doesn’t it sound nicer than, ‘Let giant banks cheat people and cost them their homes’? But we all know what happened. We sure know it here in Las Vegas.”

In photos: Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren

Nevada is poised to be a critical early state for the Warren, and she has shown early strength here. A Monmouth University poll last month showed Warren with 19% support among likely Democratic caucus attendees in the state.

When Warren reintroduced housing legislation in March that proposes, in part, building millions of new housing units for lower-income families, she pointed to her visit to Nevada in 2008 in a Medium post.

Democrat Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader from the state, remembers the housing crisis well.

“We felt it was more than just the housing crisis. It goes up and down the Strip. All of our businesses were in trouble. I can remember driving by strip malls, and they were closing,” he told CNN on Tuesday. “It was scary.”

It was Reid who asked Warren in November 2008 to help oversee the government’s management of the Troubled Asset Relief Program created in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In an interview at his office at the Bellagio Hotel, he recalled that his phone call with Warren was short and he immediately popped the question. He said that Warren’s response to his request was equally hasty: “She didn’t know what I was talking about but she agreed to do it.”

At the time, Warren was a Harvard law professor specializing in bankruptcy law and little known to the public. She and her fellow committee members were tasked with assessing how the government was allocating hundreds of billions of dollars to stabilize the financial system and mitigate foreclosures, and to let the public know of the progress. (The committee’s first public hearing was held at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.)

Warren soon went on to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the face of vehement opposition from Republicans and the financial industry, Obama nominated former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to head the agency rather than Warren. That move led to Warren running for Senate in Massachusetts for the first time.

Reid has repeatedly said he will not make an endorsement in the 2020 Democratic presidential race prior to the Nevada caucuses. But he told CNN this week that he would continue to make himself available to any candidate seeking his advice, including Warren, whom he was scheduled to meet with on Wednesday. He said he has also spoken to Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.

Asked whether he believes Warren would be running for president today had he not appointed her to the TARP oversight committee, Reid mused that “it would be kind of boastful for me to say that, so I don’t think I can.”

Down the road on Aurora Glow Street, where Jennifer Sanders lives, her neighbor, Samuel Ly, told CNN that he also plans on supporting Trump in 2020. Originally from Indonesia, Ly said the cleaning service he owns has done well under the Trump administration.

Another resident on the block, Lillian, declined to say which presidential candidate she is interested in but emphasized that the economy has been “much better” recently.

Asked Tuesday night in Las Vegas how she plans to win over Nevada voters who are content with the Trump economy more than a decade after the financial crisis, Warren said there were many more families who are not feeling the benefits of a stronger economy.

“Right now we live in an America that’s working better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” Warren said. “It’s just not working well for most families and 2020 is our chance to turn that around and change it.”