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John Edwards: From Trial Lawyer to NC Senator to Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate

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As John Edwards kicks off his campaign for 2004 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate we take an in-depth look at the life of the North Carolina senator with Raleigh News and Observer correspondent Rob Christensen on the campaign trail with Edwards and Boston Globe reporter, Patrick Healy. [includes rush transcript]

Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards campaigned together for the first time as running mates on Wednesday, kicking off a multi-state tour in the battleground state of Ohio.

One day after Kerry announced Edwards as the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, President Bush went on the offensive, suggesting that the one-term senator was unqualified for the job. When asked to compare Edwards to Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush said “Dick Cheney can be president.”

The Republican National Committee also criticized Edwards’ background calling him a “disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers.”

Today we take an in-depth look at the life of John Edwards from small-town origins to successful trial lawyer to North Carolina senator to vice presidential candidate. But first we go to Florida to get the latest from Kerry/Edwards campaign with Rob Christensen, Chief political correspondent for the Raleigh News and Observer. He is on the campaign bus heading to the airport.

  • Rob Christensen, Chief political correspondent for the Raleigh News and Observer.
  • Patrick Healy, Boston Globe reporter covering the Kerry campaign. He wrote a profile of Edwards while he was campaigning for presidential candidate.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!.

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you describe the scene where you are now?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: We are in the process of debarking from a campaign bus to get on a plane at the airport at St. Petersburg, and we’re going to fly for another rally the at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and then we’re flying up to — later this evening to New York where there’s a big democratic gala and where senator Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, will be guests on the Larry King Show. Of course, we just went through the first campaign day of the new Kerry-Edwards ticket, going to the key battleground states of Ohio and Florida. I think what we can say about the first day is that we don’t know how this will play with the general public, but it’s playing very well among Democratic Party activists. Huge, enthusiastic crowds have greeted him. Last night in St. Petersburg they turned away hundreds of people who could not get into the big auditorium. There seems to be some synergy between Edwards and Kerry. They compliment each other in some ways. Kerry with his seasoned experience, war record, and Edwards with a young fresh face, working class roots, and if you talk to the voters here, he is connecting with people even some Republicans and Independents who appreciate his working class roots and feel like he’s somebody who’s like them. You pick that up from a number of voters. So, I would think that the Kerry-Edwards people would have to be very happy with their first day of the rollout, but whether or not it has any long term effect, of course, we don’t know yet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rob Christensen, in the questioning by reporters initially, have there been any questions raised about the differing positions that each of the men had during the primaries for instance on issues like free trade and others where they diverged considerably?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: They have pretty much— on the big issues, you know, like tax cuts and Iraq, they’re pretty much alike. Where they— there was some separation in the primary with the trade issue. Edwards was very much outspoken. He comes from a— against some of these trade agreements like NAFTA. He comes from a state, North Carolina, where the textile industry has been suffering severe job losses. So, they have sort of glossed over it so far. Both have picked up each other’s language. In fact, Kerry has picked up some of the Edwards populism. He talks about the federal tax code, for example, being written for special corporate interests, which sounds very much like Edwards. You know, he says there’s a page for Enron, and there’s a page for Exxon, and the federal tax code, and a whole chapter for Halliburton. So, we’re seeing the candidates try to meld some of their message. So far, really, they have been fairly successful, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the history of John Edwards and how he got his start. Particularly, I want to look at what the republicans like to go after when they talk about him being a trial lawyer, what kinds of cases he represented. But start where he was born and his family.

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Well, he was born in Seneca, a small mill down in Seneca, South Carolina, the uphill country of South Carolina. His father was a textile worker. He was raised middle class. His father was very ambitious, and by the time Edwards was a teenager, he was a plant superintendent, but— and then Edwards was the first in his family to go to college, and he was a plaintiff’s attorney. He represented — he was a very successful one, raised millions of dollars. About half of his cases were medical malpractice, others were suing corporations that over accidents involving logging trucks, that sort of a thing. So, I — he — the plaintiff’s attorney issue was raised very much in the senate campaign, and — but not very successfully by the republicans. He’s very disliked by physicians and a lot of corporations, but it seems to play well with voters. Amy, I have to leave right now. I’m about to board the plane, but maybe we can talk sometime later.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Rob Christensen, chief political correspondent for The Raleigh News and Observer, about to get on the Kerry-Edwards campaign plane. We’re also on with Patrick Healy, Boston Globe reporter who has been covering the John Kerry campaign, wrote a profile of John Edwards while he was campaigning for presidential candidate. We welcome you as well to Democracy Now!.


AMY GOODMAN: Could you talk more specifically about some of these cases, precisely who John Edwards represented?

PATRICK HEALY: Well, sure. The cases that he became best known for were really these medical malpractice cases. You have to imagine what Raleigh was like at the time in the early 1980’s. Here’s John Edwards, who was a graduate of Chapel Hill, who was coming back to Raleigh after spending a couple of years working in Tennessee. He had a young family. His wife, Elizabeth, was also a lawyer. He basically got involved in a law firm sort of developing the medical malpractice segment. He took to it with a real relish that seemed to surprise some other lawyers, with an aggressiveness and sort of a talent for a showmanship, being able to put forward arguments in the courtroom. So, he started developing a reputation as someone who could win cases against sort of the most famous lawyers in the state. I mean, the real sort of heavy hitters. You have this young guy, you know, going up against the sort of big types. His first really big case came when he was 31. It was the case of a fellow named E.G. Sawyer, who was an alcoholic, who had suffered brain damage and partial paralysis after his doctor had prescribed three times the usual dose of the drug antabuse that he was supposed to use. The case was expected to be settled out of court, but when Edwards went to meet Sawyer, his client, in Sawyer’s apartment, he found that it was littered with trash, it smelled of urine. Sawyer was sitting in a wheelchair. He couldn’t talk. He could only communicate with alphabet letters on this little board. Edwards said to me that he felt really driven to show what had happened to this man, how the doctor had mistreated him. He wanted a jury to see this fellow, Sawyer, in the way before all of this had happened, to see what the history of this guy’s life was like as an alcoholic, as a real person. You find in ways in his later cases and also as a politician that this is how John Edwards communicates. He communicates in bold colors. He tries to speak directly in plain language to people, and he tries to sort of connect to who they are in their own biography. You know, what kind of people they are, get under people’s skin, and you know, just lastly, on that point, in talking to juries, I mean he really developed a reputation for breaking through sort of legalese. By his late 30’s, he had won I believe about $45 million dollar judgments, individual judgments or settlements and certainly became rich from that kind of work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Pat Healy, I’d like to ask you — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came out saying that they may abandon their normal neutrality in presidential races and actively campaign against the democratic ticket now that John Edwards has been chosen as the V.P. candidate. Any thoughts on how this whole issue of the trial lawyers versus the doctors and businesses that are trying as much as possible to limit civil lawsuits and the abilities of Americans to file civil lawsuits and win huge judgments?

PATRICK HEALY: Well, it will be interesting to see how it evolves as an issue, if the republicans will sort of manage it better than they did in the 1998 senate races. Rob pointed that out earlier. The business community really — you know, it has — to some extent, you know, major elements of the business community really have it out for Edwards. He very much to them is kind of the poster child for the financial excesses and sort of, you know, stylistic, legalistic excesses of the trial lawyer community. Trial lawyers have given overwhelmingly to his campaign. You know, he has been pressed on tort reform, and — excuse me, Edwards has been pressed on tort reform during his senate career, and at points during the campaign. It has sort of come back with a plan to — what he would say is essentially limit frivolous lawsuits. He would have independent panels look at lawsuits that are viewed skeptically by the courts in order to determine if they need to go to trial or if they can be dismissed as frivolous, but this is bound to be an issue. To what extent the republicans in Congress try to bring up tort reform in a fairly sudden way, in the last few months — we only have about four months to go, or if it’s just simply going to be the White House hitting him as the sort of excess-ridden trial lawyer remains to be seen. It remains to be seen how effective it will be.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting to note, one of the first people to respond to Kerry’s picking, John Edwards, the famous medical malpractice lawyer, was the senate majority leader, Frist, the doctor, whose family, his brother and late father founded H.C.A., the largest for-profit hospital chain. Last year, a group — a non-profit group called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights based in Santa Monica, California, cited more than $25 million in H.C.A. stock owned by Frist’s immediate family as well as the $260 million in malpractice premiums written by Health Care Indemnity, a subsidiary of H.C.A.

PATRICK HEALY: Sure. Yes. Senator Frist, I think, comes from a special place on that issue as the only practicing doctor in the U.S. Senate. So, you know, I think that particularly — you know, in the south it will be an interesting issue the way that this plays out. I mean, a lot of plaintiffs in the south who have been financially strapped or couldn’t have afforded a lawyer themselves have — you know, they have benefited from people like Edwards. You know, they saw them as fighting on their behalf. Fighting against doctors who were part of large conglomerations like H.C.A. But on the other hand, the business community, I think, is going to line up pretty strongly against the Kerry-Edwards ticket if they feel that this is just going to lead to, you know, either protections or just, you know, a lack of progress in tort reform that will benefit lawyers.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Healy, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Boston Globe reporter, who has been covering the John Kerry campaign, did a profile of John Edwards, now the vice presidential pick, as Rob Christensen just got on the campaign plane of John Edwards and John Kerry. This is Democracy Now!. Back in a minute.

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