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Elizabeth Warren appeals to voters at Hibernian Hall


Elizabeth Warren has already avoided one of the mistakes that Attorney General Martha Coakley made running against Scott Brown for the U.S. Senate. Warren is showing up early — and promises to return often — to court black voters in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

Brown’s likely Democratic challenger this fall held a public meeting in Roxbury last week, Warren’s second so far in the unfolding campaign. The first was a rally to sign up 1,000 campaign volunteers at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center last November.

A mostly black audience filled the ballroom at Hibernian Hall to hear Warren introduce herself and outline her populist values.

“By her presence here this evening, Elizabeth Warren is making a statement that this community won’t be taken for granted,” City Councilman Charles Yancey said in warm-up remarks.

After Brown defeated her in a special election two years ago, Coakley was criticized for running a nearly invisible campaign in the city’s black community, where she did not hold a single campaign rally and turnout fell to almost 20 points lower than the statewide average of 53 percent.

Warren concluded her stump speech at Hibernian Hall with a direct appeal to voters in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods.

“Tonight is an organizing meeting. It’s to help us get started,” Warren said on April 17. “I need your help from Dudley to Mattapan Square. I need you. That’s what this is going to be about. Please be with me in this.”

Warren paced energetically in front of the lectern. The populist consumer advocate related her roots in a working-class family in Oklahoma, early marriage and child-bearing, and move to Massachusetts two decades ago to be near her husband Bruce’s family — and to take a teaching job at Harvard.

“I’m the daughter of a maintenance man who ended up a fancy-pants professor at Harvard Law School,” she said, attributing her rise to the country’s investments in the future. But national values have shifted since the 1980s to selfishness, which she mocked: “I’ve got mine. The rest of you are on your own.”

City Councilman Tito Jackson and Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who dropped out of the Senate race last September after Elizabeth Warren jumped in, endorsed her.

Elizabeth Warren received a warm reception. She drew applause or friendly laughter many times during her 16-minute monologue, the loudest coming when she referred to President Obama and when she decried that the country no longer invests as much in future generations.

The first-time candidate has repeated Coakley’s mistake of not showing up, but she and her campaign made a couple of other mistakes. The campaign billed it as a “town hall meeting,” but Warren did not take questions from the audience.

She did work the room, shaking hands, after the speech. One woman angrily confronted her for not answering questions. Others indicated they were disappointed.

“I like her very much,” said Mimi Jones, a consultant to nonprofits who lives in Roxbury. “I think this is a real missed opportunity for her not to hear from the mouths of people what’s really important to them.”

Jackie Nesbitt, a machinist from Lower Roxbury, said afterwards: “I need to get to know more about her — where she stands on issues.”

Nesbitt gave her credit for holding the event, asking rhetorically, “Have you seen Brown at a meeting like this?”

Warren promised to return to Hibernian Hall, a frequent venue to political forums, and answer questions. “Sure. We’ll be back. We’ll be back,” Warren said.

Two young campaign workers stood outside on Dudley Street holding up signs about the meeting. Rev. Joelee Baker-Bey, pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, disparaged the partially handwritten signs as looking like they were “made in the yard.”

Baker-Bey said he came to the meeting because Brown voted in the Senate the night before to block debate on Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on millionaires under the Buffet rule.

“That’s the only reason I’d like to elect her — hold the party line,” he said. “Not that she’d agree with the president, but go with the party line.”

Retired teacher Bob Marshall also faulted Brown’s Senate record, noting that “He’s voted against Obama on a number of things.”

Unlike Coakley in the January 2010 special election, Warren has the advantage of sharing the ballot with Obama. His presence is likely to boost black voter turnout.

Still, Warren will need help from experienced political organizers rooted in the black community who know how to get the vote out. She has more persuading to do.

Mukiya Baker-Gomez, who organized in communities of color for Sheriff Andrea Cabral’s first campaign, was taking names and contact information inside the front door of Hibernian Hall. Baker-Gomez said she was working on behalf of state Representative Gloria Fox, who’s seeking reelection, not Warren.

“I’m contemplating,” Baker-Gomez replied, when asked why not work for Warren. “What [are] you going to stand for? What [are] you going to do? Who [are] you going to have working for you that looks like me — and not just for free?”

Those and other questions await Warren when she returns to Roxbury.