CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the fall of 2008, two weeks after Election Day, Harry Reid picked up the phone and called Elizabeth Warren, a little-known law professor with a background in consumer advocacy. We want you to run the panel overseeing the Wall Street bailout, he told her.
"Are you sure?" Warren quizzed the Senate majority leader. She knew that, by Washington standards, she was an odd choice, someone not tucked squarely in the pocket of industry.
She took the job and broke every unwritten rule in Washington. Every time she did, her star rose with the progressive base. She publicly dressed down her own party's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, in a series of exchanges that went viral. She articulated and defended an unashamedly progressive worldview in a way few Democrats had been capable of doing.
On Wednesday evening, just four short years after the call from Reid, Warren made that argument on a national stage, speaking just before former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.
"The Republican vision is clear: 'I've got mine, the rest of you are on your own,'" Warren told a cheering convention crowd here. "Republicans say they don't believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends. After all, Mitt Romney's the guy who said corporations are people.
"No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don't run this country for corporations. We run it for people," she said.
Warren walked on stage to a thunderous greeting and chants of "Warren! Warren!" -- underscoring the passion the Democratic base has for her Senate candidacy. She delivered the first half of her speech more like a lecture than a barnburner.
"People feel like the system is rigged against them," Warren said. "And here's the painful part: they're right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs -- the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs -- still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.
"Anyone here have a problem with that?"
In spring 2009, Warren began pushing Congress to adopt what she was then calling the Financial Product Safety Commission, based on the radical notion that banks and other companies should not be allowed to cheat and steal. When Democrats worked to water it down, she publicly said she'd rather have a strong agency or no agency at all.
She got one. In July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Warren was named to establish, but not to run, announced its first major settlement, a $210 million claim against Capital One. In another break from tradition, Capital One acknowledged wrongdoing and promised to mend its ways.
Warren trumpeted the bureau in her speech. "After the financial crisis, President Obama knew that we had to clean up Wall Street. For years, families had been tricked by credit cards, fooled by student loans and cheated on mortgages. I had an idea for a consumer financial protection agency to stop the rip-offs. The big banks sure didn't like it, and they marshaled one of the biggest lobbying forces on earth to destroy the agency before it ever saw the light of day," she said. "American families didn't have an army of lobbyists on our side, but what we had was a president -- President Obama leading the way. And when the lobbyists were closing in for the kill, Barack Obama squared his shoulders, planted his feet, and stood firm. And that's how we won."
She also referenced the Capital One settlement. "By the way, just a few weeks ago, that little agency caught one of the biggest credit card companies cheating its customers and made it give people back every penny it took, plus millions of dollars in fines. That's what happens when you have a president on the side of the middle class," she said.
Warren, in a tough campaign against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), trails Brown by four percentage points, according to an averaging of the latest polls. Earlier this week, in an interview with HuffPost, she signaled that she'll soon start focusing on Brown's voting record, despite Brown's odd admonition that she refrain from doing so.
Last week, the GOP based much of its convention on a misrepresentation of a refrain Warren popularized, arguing that those who are successful owe some of their success to their education, their safe community, infrastructure investments, and a system that encourages growth. When Obama said that successful business owners "didn't build that" system that fostered their success, the Republican Party claimed great offense.
"We build it together," Warren said Wednesday night.
UPDATE: 10:30 p.m. -- This article has been updated to include additional comments from Warren's speech.