For the city’s Democratic donor class, it can be a dreary procession. Night after night, candidates for high office from around the country make their way to Manhattan to rattle the tip cup. The same hors d’oeuvres, the same bromides, the same canned answers to the same audience of well-heeled party types who can cough up the couple-grand entrance fee.
But this year, local Democrats say, a new figure has emerged on the scene, someone who has sparked interest and enthusiasm in the city not seen since Barack Obama’s presidential run, or perhaps even Hillary Clinton’s first Senate run, a slight woman from the Oklahoma Plains, by way of Harvard Yard, named Elizabeth Warren.
Her fund-raising appearances here seem part revival meeting, part think-tank policy session. At an appearance at the Rockefeller Center-area law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, Ms. Warren surprised the overflow crowd of 50 or so by going around the room and asking each person who they were and what brought them there, lending the proceedings the air of summer camp reunion, a feeling only enhanced when a dozen or so of the people in attendance said that they were in fact students of Ms. Warren’s from her two decades on the faculty of Harvard Law School.
“That was personally to me, very, I don’t want to say moving—that is a little bit of an exaggeration—but it was telling,” said Marc Weiss, the president of Digital Innovations Group, a nonprofit think thank that supports innovation on the web and a regular contributor to Democratic candidates. “Former students standing up and saying how she had impacted the decisions they made about what kind of law they practice. How many college professors can you say that about?”
Part of the appeal of Ms. Warren, her donors say, is the manner in which she has become a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. One of the nation’s leading consumer advocates and experts on bankruptcy law, Ms. Warren was hand-picked by Barack Obama to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that she helped found (and which she certainly provided the intellectual underpinnings for) only then to have her nomination to lead the bureau blocked by Republicans at the behest of the financial industry.
“This is like Hillary Clinton. It has that flavor to it,” said one contributor who dropped the $2,500 maximum but asked not to be named for fear of angering his employer. “She is a lightning rod for the right for trying to stick up to the big bully of Wall Street, and she took it on the chops as a result. And so she decides to take a pass at [a Senate campaign]. She is like David going up against Goliath, and so far she is wielding her slingshot pretty well.”
The Goliath in this case is Scott Brown, who galled Democrats around the country by winning a special election for the Senate seat formerly held by the late Ted Kennedy. That result gave the tea party its first real scalp, and nearly derailed Mr. Obama’s efforts to reform health care.
Mr. Brown has been no stranger to New York, either. He has been here as often as Ms. Warren, and even has a New York City finance committee. Wall Streeters have rallied to his side, not so much, they say, because of Mr. Brown but more in an effort to stymie Ms. Warren.
“It is a town-gown kind of election, where Elizabeth Warren represents the gown at Harvard—elite school, elite thoughts—and here is the way the world should be organized, and the country should be organized and we know how to do it. You the people don’t know how to do it, we will impose our will on you,” said Ed Cox, the chairman of the New York State Republican Party and a contributor to Mr. Brown’s campaign. “That is her snotty, elitist attitude, while you got this guy Scott Brown, who’s everyman, who is talking for the town, if you will.”