Home-State Record: John Edwards

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(Host) In a special series last week and this week, Vermont Public Radio reports on the home-state records of the Democratic presidential candidates. The profiles of the candidates in their home states have been prepared for VPR by public radio station reporters around the country.

Today in our series, Julie Donnelly reports that North Carolina Senator John Edwards built a career on his success as a personal injury lawyer and big ambition.

(Donnelly) In September, John Edwards told a hometown crowd that he doesn’t just want to be their president, he wants to be their advocate.

(Edwards, from September rally) “You know the truth is, folks from here in Robbins don’t have lobbyists in Washington. They don’t have any lobbyists working for them or fighting for them. They count on their government to protect them, to protect their interests. And they deserve a president who goes to work every day, thinking about them, fighting for them, protecting them. That’s the president that the people of Robbins need.” (Sound of crowd cheering.)

(Donnelly) But can a multi-millionaire trial attorney convince average people he’s one of them? Democratic consultant Gary Pearce says don’t count Edwards out.

(Pearce) “I first met him when a friend of mine who’s a judge told me he had a friend who had been successful in law and was interested in running for office, getting into politics. He said he wanted to run for the Senate. I said, Well, state Senate? And he said, Oh no United States Senate. And I said, Well this I gotta see.”

(Donnelly) What Pearce saw was a man of ambition with the warmth to connect with people. Edwards had spent the past 20 years suing doctors and corporations on behalf of injured people. He made North Carolina history in 1993, when he won $23 million for a little girl who lost most of her intestines in an accident with a faulty pool drain.

But for all the people who benefited from Edwards’ legal work, some of those he opposed still feel a sting. Dr. Peter Gentling performed an unnecessary mastectomy because of a lab error. The ensuing lawsuit forced him into early retirement. Gentling says his insurance company’s representative agreed to settle at the mere mention of Edwards’ name.

(Gentling) “She said, This man is exceedingly intelligent, and he is theatrical. There’s a mixture of – not only fact -but a lot of emotion involved. And he’s very good at that. And he sways a jury very thoroughly and very well. And everyone here is afraid of him.”

(Donnelly) Edwards was convincing in the courtroom and he is no less so on the campaign trail. At a Raleigh event for black supporters, he told the audience he couldn’t succeed without them.

(Edwards, from Raleigh event) “I need you not just here in the state of North Carolina. I would love to have you knocking on doors with me in Iowa and New Hampshire. What a good thing for them to open their door in New Hampshire and hear a southern voice on the other side. That’s a good thing.” (Sound of audience laughing, applauding.)

(Donnelly) Edwards worked hard to increase black voter turnout when he ran in 1998 and he got 90 percent of those votes. Some supporters plan to travel to South Carolina for that state’s early primary. John Edwards must win it to remain viable, and 40 percent of the Democratic voters there are black. North Carolina’s NAACP President Skip Alston plans to make the trip across the border.

(Alston) “I don’t know that much about Mr. Dean and the rest of the candidates, but John Edwards knows what it’s like to have to work for a real living. And that people know him and respect him.”

(Donnelly) One issue Edwards did not mention in this setting is Iraq. A majority of black voters continue to oppose military action there. But supporters like Alston say they’re willing to overlook the fact that Edwards voted with the president.

(Alston) “He did was he thought was right at that particular time. Hindsight is 20/20, and if he knew what we know now, I don’t think he would have ever supported it. Because, he wouldn’t have been for sending our people over there for a unjust war at this point.”

(Donnelly) Despite support from black voters, the overall response to Edwards’ presidential bid was initially lukewarm. When he began campaigning last January, polls found that less than 40 percent of North Carolina voters supported his run.

Back home in Robbins, even supporters like 90-year-old Myrtle Hall are concerned about his chances.

(Hall) “I wish that he’d waited four more years. I think it would have helped him. I’m afraid he’ll get beat. But I’m for him all the way.”

(Donnelly) John Edwards doesn’t share her worries. He’s confident he can come out of nowhere to win, because he’s done it before.

For the Home-State Record Project, I’m Julie Donnelly.

(Host) On Tuesday in the next to the last part of our series on the Democratic presidential candidates, we’ll hear about the home-state record of the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Read or listen to the Home-State Records of all nine candidates.

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