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Long before she was a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. When did that change? Well, she taught law at the University of Texas, and it was there that Warren's political identity emerged. The ideas she stresses now about a shrinking middle class and a government that benefits the wealthy came from her academic research. NPR's Asma Khalid has the story.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: In the fall of 1981, Calvin Johnson used to walk a block and a half from his house to hitch a ride to work with Elizabeth Warren. They were both teaching at the University of Texas Law School in Austin and would debate public policy during their commutes.
CALVIN JOHNSON: We would go in and we would argue all the way in, and then we would take a temporary respite to teach our courses and do research, and then we'd argue all the way back.
KHALID: Johnson, who has long considered himself a liberal Democrat, remembers thinking Warren's opinions were strange.
JOHNSON: She was quite consistently pro-business, and I'm sure she would not like to be called anti-consumer.
KHALID: But he did think she was anti-consumer. He remembers one particularly fierce debate about public utility accounting. It's wonky. Johnson says at the time, utility companies were raking in huge profits and abusing the rate payers.
JOHNSON: She came out very strongly in favor of business industry, the utilities.
KHALID: Warren was not overtly partisan at the time, but she was guided by a law and economics movement that was sweeping through universities. Critics say this movement was trying to proselytize professors into believing a conservative, pro-market worldview. And Warren was a believer, according to some of her colleagues. Around this time, she also became increasingly interested in bankruptcy, and when she talks about her attitude from the time, she sounds kind of Reaganesque. Here she is reading from her memoir, "A Fighting Chance."
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ELIZABETH WARREN: (Reading) I might not have said so at the time, but I think I was on the lookout for cheaters and deadbeats as a way to explain who was filing for bankruptcy.
KHALID: In 1978, Congress had passed a new bankruptcy code.
JAY WESTBROOK: There was an enormous amount of contention over the new code.
KHALID: That's Warren's longtime research collaborator, Jay Westbrook. He still teaches law at the University of Texas.
WESTBROOK: The creditors were saying, oh, people are just getting away with murder. They're not paying their debts. They're getting an easy discharge. And we wanted to know if that was true or not.
KHALID: So Westbrook and Warren helped lead a massive, multi-state study to figure out who was filing for bankruptcy and why. Here's one of Warren's former research assistants, Kimberly Winick, who helped her go through a lot of the files.
KIMBERLY WINICK: And this is back when it was all paper, and we'd show up with a portable copying machine and - you know, it rolled like a rollaboard suitcase, and you get it there with reams of paper and start copying.
KHALID: They would then sift through the paper files. Catherine Nicholson, another one of Warren's research assistants, says they were looking for answers to specific questions.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: Was the debtor employed? Were there medical bills? I mean, what kind of debts did they have? Was it unsecured debt? Did they run up everything on credit cards? Had there been a divorce in the family recently?
WINICK: That's just empirical data.
KHALID: That's Warren's other research assistant, Kimberly Winick, again.
WINICK: That is how she works. Ask a question that's a clean question and get an answer.
KHALID: Winick took three classes with Warren, and she says one thing she admires about her old professor is that when the facts became irrefutable, Warren was willing to re-examine her own opinions. Winick doesn't remember talking politics with Warren, but she had a hunch her old teacher thought people filing for bankruptcy were gaming the system. The research ended up illustrating a different story. Here's Warren's co-author, Jay Westbrook again.
WESTBROOK: She saw more of the very difficult side of life of the people who go through the bankruptcy process. She saw their struggles, and she saw a variety of ways in which the credit industry manipulates things in order to get them ever deeper into debt.
KHALID: The end result of the research was unprecedented - essentially, the first independent data-driven analysis on bankruptcy in the country. It resulted in two books and drove almost everything Warren has done since. She became known as a bankruptcy expert. She worked as a legal consultant for some big corporations like Dow Chemical and for consumers in a major class-action lawsuit against Sears. Recently, Warren's campaign disclosed that she made nearly $2 million through her corporate legal work. Then in the 1990s, Warren also joined the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.
WESTBROOK: Well, this is the kind of person that when she sees somebody doing something that she thinks really is going to screw things up, she's not going to be quiet about it.
KHALID: So Westbrook says, Warren started speaking up loudly in political circles about financial issues.
WESTBROOK: It's just that none of it was in the context of being partisan until it was.
KHALID: Warren's work on the bankruptcy commission made it clear. Republicans in Congress were not her ally. Old colleagues insist all these years of studying bankruptcy changed Warren. It's why they believe she eventually registered as a Democrat in 1996. The thing is, this bankruptcy research did not just affect Warren. It left a deep impression on how people who collaborated with Warren see her - people like Catherine Nicholson, who worked as her research assistant for three years.
NICHOLSON: I've known Elizabeth Warren forever. She cares about families and their struggles. So come next year, it'll be a hard choice for me in the ballot box.
KHALID: It'll be a hard choice because Nicholson, who now lives near Omaha, Neb., describes herself as a conservative Catholic - a Paul Ryan sort of Republican. She voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
NICHOLSON: However, I believe in Elizabeth Warren, too.
KHALID: In the time since Nicholson met her, Warren has evolved from being described as an economic conservative to arguably one of the fiercest liberal consumer advocates in the country. Some of Warren's progressive critics say this evolution makes her inauthentic. Some who have known her argue it's why voters should believe her. Asma Khalid, NPR News.
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