The growing anti-Wall-Street movement led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren took its fight from the halls of Washington, D.C., to the streets of New York City on Thursday.
Protesters gathered at the midtown headquarters of Citigroup, where they decried a measure passed by Congress last week— and drafted by a lobbyist for the bank—that weakens banking regulations. Later, they stood outside the headquarters of investment bank Lazard and denounced the nomination of an executive there, Antonio Weiss, for a top post at the Treasury Department.
Warren spoke out last week on both issues, and they are at the forefront of an emerging split over the long-term direction of the Democratic Party.
Outside Citigroup, about 120 protesters called for the breakup of the big banks, chanting: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Around half of the crowd marched to Lazard’s office at Rockefeller Center, where they called for Weiss — whose name they pronounced “weece” — to come down and explain why his background made him suitable for the Treasury Department job.
“This is not a democracy anymore,” said protester Donna Romo, lamenting the weakening of banking regulations at Citigroup’s request. “This is really owned by the big corporations.”
The protest was organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which says it represents the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic party.
A measure was inserted into the omnibus spending bill passed last week that repealed a key provision of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis. The provision had barred banks from using units insured by the federal government to trade derivatives, the complex financial products that contributed to the crisis. Wall Street lobbyists had been working steadily almost since Dodd-Frank was passed in 2010 to undo the provision.
"There’s a lot of talk coming from Citigroup about how the Dodd-Frank Act isn’t perfect,” Warren said last week on the Senate floor. “So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi: I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces."
Separately, Warren has led a movement to oppose Weiss’s nomination to be an undersecretary at the Treasury Department. At Lazard, Weiss was reportedly a key adviser on the recent "inversion" deal that allowed Burger King to move its headquarters to Canada, significantly lowering its tax bill. And he'll get a $20 million payout from Lazard if he takes the government post. Several of Warren’s Senate colleagues, including Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the chamber, have joined her crusade against Weiss, and even Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, has said he’s leaning against voting to confirm Weiss.
“Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch,” Warren said last week.
But the fights over Weiss and Dodd-Frank are about something larger: They’re an effort by Warren and her allies to assert control over the Democratic party, and to move it decisively toward populist economic policies. Warren and company say they want the party to actively take on the power of Wall Street, and to stand unapologetically for ordinary Americans.
Warren’s supporters want her to take that message to the Democratic presidential nomination contest, forcing Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner, to move left on the economy. Warren has insisted she’s not running for president, but has taken care to use the present tense in doing so.
This post originally said Antonio Weiss specialized in inversion deals. It has been corrected.