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Heffner: Warren clicks with young voters

Photo Credit: TMS Illustration by Donna Grethen

Alexander Heffner of Jericho is a senior at Harvard University.

Since announcing her bid for Massachusetts' Senate seat, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren has ignited political interest among young people in Cambridge and beyond.

Harvard students quickly created a Facebook page to champion their favorite teacher. "As you've probably heard, HLS's [Harvard Law School's] own Elizabeth Warren . . . is running for the Senate. The hard work of ensuring that Professor Warren has a chance to bring her unique voice to Congress begins today."

Still almost a year out from the election, another page, "Massachusetts Students For Elizabeth Warren," has attracted some 5,550 members. One of them is Brendan Joyce, a recent graduate of Bridgewater State University. "There is enough room in the world's strongest economy for the wealthy, the middle class, and even the poor, to live the American dream," Joyce wrote on the social networking site. "This campaign isn't about anything radical, it's about one of the fundamental themes that stirred our ancestors to first found and then constantly remake this great nation."

Warren's biography -- she hails from working-class Oklahoma and graduated from two public universities -- resonates with a lot of students, even those who come from more privileged backgrounds. She may be the most zealous defender of economically strapped Americans on the political radar today, and seems far more likely than President Barack Obama to connect with the passions of young voters in 2012.

For many, Obama's tenure continues to be synonymous with a wrecked economy. The economic crisis has put college and jobs on hold for many low- and moderate-income young people. Warren's record of fighting for the little guy resonates with college students.

Though she hasn't explicitly embraced the Occupy Harvard campaign, which remains camped out in the school's historic yard housing freshmen dormitories, her messages strongly overlap with the central tenets of the Occupy movement and the broader mission to restore economic equality.

In Washington, as a special assistant to Obama, Warren fought to expand financial services for struggling Americans, and to erase unfair lending practices and credit card fees. Now she's campaigning for a fairer tax code, as well as greater protection for Americans who have been hardest hit by the recession -- including grads who will soon face a hostile job market.

Students in New York are taking notice, too. New York University undergraduate Ben Miller, in the Washington Square News student newspaper, embraced Warren's notion that today's underserved youth have been "chipped at, hacked at, squeezed and hammered."

That just shows the need for the states across the country to produce similarly engaging candidates -- in both parties.

But in New York, the leading politicians aren't generating that kind of excitement. Little wonder: Even in the wake of the financial crisis that has further displaced American youth, Sen. Charles Schumer has demonstrated little willingness to change the rules of the economy. Schumer may play the part of the populist, but until he and his congressional counterparts declare their priorities for out-of-work, homeless or otherwise disenfranchised twentysomethings, Warren-like populist revolts are sure to come out of obscurity, here on Long Island and throughout the state.

As student Joyce said in Massachusetts, "It's on us to make sure the super wealthy pay their fair share in the great costs it will require to both pay our nation's debts, and reshape our society for the far greater future that awaits us all."

The old guard is responsible for the nation's current economic mess, and they constantly show their incapacity to clean it up. The next generation is going to have to take charge. If the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren inspires other leaders equally invested in young people's needs, all of a sudden this will start to seem possible.