As a wealthy trial lawyer, Democratic contender John Edwards may seem like an unlikely messenger of populism, but he draws from his roots in a poor Piedmont mill town. The former North Carolina senator has built his campaign for president on fighting the widening gap between society’s haves and have-nots.
As a candidate, Edwards has a lot going for him. He is personable and handsome, and his many years of arguing in front of juries have made him nimble with a stump speech. Yet Edwards has been stuck in third place in the race for the Democratic nomination all year, trailing New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in polls and in the all-important money game.
He may well be what history likes in a president – a successful white male from the South with centrist politics – but he is not what Democrats this year have liked. They are looking for someone with the chance to be a “first:” the first woman president or the first African American president.
Edwards has struggled to gain notice and attention as superstars Clinton and Obama have sucked all the oxygen in media coverage and fundraising.
His campaign announced Sept. 27, 2007, that it would seek public financing for the primary race. That means Edwards can receive matching money for up to about $21 million, but his spending for the primary would be limited to about $50 million. He would also face limits on how much of his own money he could use.
Still, he has established a beachhead in the early primary states, with 15 campaign offices in Iowa alone by the end of October. Edwards announced his candidacy Dec. 28, 2006, two years after the 2004 presidential election in which the Democratic ticket of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as president and Edwards as vice president lost to President Bush by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent.
Since that election, Edwards has headed up the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he attended law school, focusing on poverty issues. For the 2008 contest, Edward has reprised his “two Americas” theme: “one for people at the top who have everything they need and one for everybody else who struggles to get by.”
Courtroom, Congress, Campaign
From his successful life as a plaintiff’s lawyer, Edwards came seemingly from nowhere in 1998 to win his seat in the Senate. It was his first foray into politics and he continues to cultivate the image as the plainspoken outsider. He says he sees the political middle as more representative of the public than conservative or liberal ideologies and in the Senate spoke frequently of the need to find a consensus on contentious bills. His oft-repeated phrase is that he wants to be a “champion for the regular people.”
He was only a first-term senator when he threw his hat in for president in 2004, and since then, has frequently faced issues about his lack of experience, particularly in foreign policy. He has attempted to mitigate that with his strong denunciation of the war in Iraq. As a senator in 2002, Edwards voted to authorize the war, but has since called that vote a mistake, and has challenged Clinton to do the same.
Edwards said that as president he would immediately begin redeploying 40,000 to 50,000 troops, with withdrawal of all U.S. troops coming within 10 months.
“Our troops are stuck between a president without a plan to succeed and a Congress without the courage to bring them home,” he said Sept. 13 in a televised response to Bush’s speech on Iraq.
The centerpiece of his domestic agenda is a vow to rewrite the tax code to make it “fair,” and to redistribute tax benefits to people lower on the income ladder. Edwards says he would repeal the Bush tax cuts for families earning more than $200,000 a year, raise the capital gains rate to 28 percent, levy estate taxes on wealth over $4 million and “declare war” on offshore tax havens.
For lower-income working families, he would issue “work bonds” in which the government would match the savings of low-income workers in tax-free accounts.
To solve the problem of millions of Americans without health insurance, Edwards said he would require employers to either cover their employees or help finance their health insurance. He has also called for a “fundamental overhaul” of the U.S. immigration system but says he also supports citizenship for people in the country illegally, provided they pay a fine, don’t commit crimes and learn English.
Edwards’ biggest problem on the campaign trail has been dispelling the notion that he has little personal experience with the economic unfairness he talks about in his campaign.
His image and message suffered in the spring with media reports that he had paid $400 for haircuts from a Beverly Hill stylist in his hotel room during a busy West Coast campaign swing. The haircuts were charged to his campaign committee – his campaign said incorrectly – and Edwards subsequently reimbursed his political fund.
Other news stories described Edwards’ $5.3 million house under construction near Chapel Hill, N.C., on a 102-acre estate. The new home includes an indoor basketball court and pool and a handball court. New York Post columnist Ian Bishop wrote that Edwards “is playing to the poorest people in America to propel his presidential bid while living in the lap of luxury on a North Carolina estate.”
Edwards said the criticism comes with the territory. “If you’re in public life, people will be critical of you because of the way you walk, because of what you eat, because of the way you talk,” he has said. “You know, you can’t worry about stuff like that.”
Edwards grew up in Robbins, N.C., a small Piedmont town. His father was a textile worker and his mother ran a small furniture refinishing shop. He was the first in his family to attend college, which his parents insisted he do.
He recalls working one summer in the mill’s weaving room, where his job was to clean air ducts that pulled massive amounts of dust from the air. “The noise was deafening, the ducts poorly lit, and the lint that stuck to them was black and wet,” he wrote in his 2004 book “Four Trials” “I was 16, and my job was to clean those ducts. At night I would come home caked with sweat and covered with some obscure residue . . . ‘Now you see,’ my dad would say. ‘Why you need to go to college.’ ”
Edwards worked his way through North Carolina State University, earning his law degree from the University of North Carolina. He then went on to earn millions of dollars as a personal injury lawyer from lawsuit settlements, often representing families suing insurance companies and other large corporations. But early in his career, Edwards also defended the corporate rogues, once working on the case of a train parts manufacturer in a negligence case resulting from a train derailment that killed 16 people.
During the 1980s, Edwards had a reputation as one of the best trial lawyers in the state.
He married fellow law student Elizabeth Anania, and they had two children. In 1996, tragedy struck when their 16-year-old son, Wade, en route to the family’s beach house, was killed when his Jeep was blown off an interstate highway in high winds and rolled over. “Nothing in my life ever hit me and stripped everything away like my son’s death,” Edwards wrote in his book.
After several difficult months, Edwards and his wife decided to radically change their lives. Edwards would pursue a long-held desire to run for public office, and the couple decided to have more children. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter and a son, when she was age 48 and 50. The two are now elementary-school age and an older daughter, Cate, is a student at Harvard Law School.
In 1998, two years after Wade’s death, Edwards relied largely on his personal fortune to fund his first campaign for political office, challenging one-term GOP Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who secured the seat with only 50 percent of the vote in 1992 and was considered vulnerable.
Faircloth tried to use the public’s generally low opinion of lawyers against Edwards, airing television ads accusing him of driving up health care costs with excessive lawsuits. But Edwards blunted that strategy by portraying himself as “an advocate for people, mostly children and mostly families.”
Edwards defeated Faircloth by 4 percentage points, becoming one of only three challengers to unseat an incumbent that year.
He got off to quick start in the Senate. He got national attention as one of the senators who deposed Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern at the center of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Several senators reported being deeply impressed with a speech Edwards gave at a private meeting, in which he laid out the case for not removing Clinton from office. “I think we saw firsthand why he made so much money talking to jurors, and why I had to make my money selling frozen peas,” remarked Republican Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, whose family owned a frozen vegetable packaging business.
Edwards was still in his first term when he decided to get into the 2004 race for the presidential nomination. Although he mounted a credible campaign, he trailed Kerry in the early primaries and won just one, South Carolina. Edwards bowed out of the race in March 2004, but then immediately began crisscrossing the country to raise money for Kerry.
A day after Kerry and Edwards lost, Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in remission until March 2007, when doctors found that the cancer had spread and could be treated but not cured. Elizabeth, one of his top advisers and surrogates on the campaign trail, has been asymptomatic. Edwards said at a March 22 news conference in Chapel Hill, N.C., with Elizabeth at his side: “The campaign goes on. The campaign goes on strongly.”