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John Edwards
Q-Notes examines the candidates — Part three of a four-part series

by David Stout . Q-Notes staff
Over several issues we’re spotlighting the Democratic presidential candidates in preparation for primary season. (Our installments on Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama can be read online at www.q-notes.com.) The first Democratic primary occurs in Iowa on Jan. 3. South Carolina holds the earliest in the South on Jan. 26. The North Carolina Democratic primary takes place May 6.

We have made an editorial decision to limit our coverage to the Democrats because, vis-à-vis LGBT issues, the leading Republican candidates range from woefully lacking to openly hostile, or they’re Rudy Giuliani, an Iraq war hawk. Either way, the GOP slate is a disappointment and not worthy of consideration in our opinion.

John Reid Edwards has fantastic hair. If you don’t believe it, ask the Republicans. They love to talk about the “Breck Girl” with the silken locks and the $400 haircut. It helps them paint the populist candidate as vain, weak, sissyfied. In fact, Edwards’ hair is a trifecta of right-wing talking points — sexism, homophobia and genderphobia — in a single diversion.

Of course, with the party collapsing under the weight of an utterly failed war, the crumbling economy and one scandal after another, what can the GOP do but smear the que…um, the candidate with the fabulous hair.

Courting success
The central theme of Edwards’ campaign is the idea of two Americas: one for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else. Today, he enjoys the opportunities and benefits that come with being wealthy in this country, but he never fails to point out that he grew up in the other America — where his heart remains, he says.

His stump speeches challenge voters to reclaim the nation from sell-out politicians, corporations and lobbyists. In this way, he asserts, the Land of Opportunity might be as real for the next generation as it was for his.

John Edwards has built his campaign around populist themes and the promise of a better future.

Edwards was born in 1953 in Seneca, S.C., and grew up poor in Robbins, N.C. He often recounts the story that his father, a millworker, had to borrow money to get him out of the hospital as a newborn.

He was a high school football star and the first person in his family to attend college. The joy was short-lived. His parents could not afford Clemson’s tuition and a hoped for football scholarship evaporated when he didn’t make the varsity squad. After just one semester, he was back home.

Edwards eventually enrolled at North Carolina State University. He graduated with honors in 1974, then earned a law degree with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977.

That summer, he married his UNC sweetheart, Elizabeth Anania. Their son Wade was born two years later, followed by Cate in 1982, Emma Claire in 1998 and Jack in 2000. Sadly, Wade died in a single-car accident in 1996.

In 1981, Edwards joined the law firm Tharrington, Smith & Hargrove. He gained notice three years later when he secured a $3.7 million award in an “unwinnable” medical malpractice suit. The following year he won another substantial award in a malpractice case.

Edwards’ national reputation was set. He was on the shortlist of “go-to” attorneys for plaintiffs with personal injury, malpractice and negligence lawsuits.

He landed his biggest case in 1997. Working at his own firm, he represented the family of a three-year-old who was disemboweled by the suction from a pool drain with a removed cover. Despite a dozen previous lawsuits, the drain maker, Sta-Rite, continued to sell the product without an explicit warning of the potential hazards.

After deliberating, the jury returned the highest personal injury award in North Carolina history, $25 million. The company settled the case for that amount to avoid punitive damages. For their work, Edwards and his legal partner shared the national public service award from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

In his 2003 book “Four Trials,” Edwards said Wade’s death and the Sta-Rite victory led him to consider a new life in public service.

He declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1998 as a longshot challenger to incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. After a hard-fought campaign, Edwards prevailed by more than 80,000 votes.

In the Senate, he provided balance to anti-gay firebrand Sen. Jesse Helms. Edwards co-sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and opposed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

He also supported civil rights programs (including affirmative action), reproductive rights, tighter gun laws, death penalty reform (including mandatory DNA testing in federal death penalty cases), campaign finance reform and rolling back the George W. Bush administration’s tax cuts for the wealthy.

Like most Senators he served alongside, Edwards supported President Bush’s post-9/11 policies, including the Iraq invasion and the Patriot Act. However, he later apologized for his votes and became a harsh critic of the administration.

Edwards announced his decision to seek the Democratic nomination for president in September 2003. He made a strong showing in the primary race and ended up Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s running mate.

On Nov. 3, 2004, the day Kerry and Edwards conceded defeat to President Bush, Elizabeth Edwards announced that she had breast cancer. Edwards later told interviewer Larry King that he would not return to practicing law.

Building one America
Edwards went to work for the One America Committee, a political action committee he founded “dedicated to working to fight poverty and lift more Americans into the middle class, as well as helping elect Democratic candidates across the country.”

John Edwards has built his campaign around populist themes and the promise of a better future.

In February 2005 he was also named director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

He spent the next year and a half working on class and poverty issues, with a particular emphasis on the crisis in the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For example, when Edwards learned that a firm he consulted for was tied to a subprime lender that had foreclosed on some victims’ homes, he cut ties with the company and established a fund to help affected homeowners.

In addition, Edwards continued to promote progressive positions on issues as wide-ranging as family farming, the Supreme Court nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, illegal immigration and the Democrat-led effort to raise the minimum wage.
To no one’s surprise, Edwards announced that he would make a second run for the Democratic presidential nomination on Dec. 28, 2006. His major themes on the campaign trail are an extension of his advocacy work: ending poverty, global warming and the Iraq War and establishing universal healthcare.

On LGBT issues, he supports civil unions (his wife and older daughter back full marriage rights for gays), a gay-inclusive hate crimes bill, a transgender-inclusive ENDA and repeal of both the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the military gay ban.

“I believe we desperately need to get rid of DOMA. I think we need to get rid of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Edwards stated at the HRC/Logo forum for Democratic candidates earlier this year. “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is not just wrong now, it was wrong when it began. It’s been wrong the entire time, as is true with DOMA, exactly the same thing’s true with DOMA.”

Edwards’ LGBT positions mirror those of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama — both of whom he trails in polling and fundraising. However, his progressive platform and ability to put more states in play in the general election (according to polling data) have earned him support from a growing rank of gays and lesbians.

A group of LGBT endorsers recently circulated a letter extolling the benefits of voting Edwards the Democratic nominee.

“As the Democratic presidential nominee, John Edwards would represent nothing less than the chance to alter the conventional foundations of American politics. Edwards demonstrates strong leadership, not only on the critical issues facing the LGBT community, but also by offering bold ideas like guaranteeing universal healthcare to every man, woman and child in this nation, ending poverty in this country during our lifetime, and stopping global warming while creating hundreds of thousands of quality American jobs in a new energy economy.”

The letter adds, “Edwards is the Democrat with the best chance to regain the White House against all of the top Republican candidates and offers the best chance to help Democrats get elected in some of the toughest races in the country because of his appeal in traditionally ‘red’ areas. According to Doug Shoen, former pollster for President Bill Clinton, Edwards is ‘the strongest individual match-up’ against Republicans in the general. Edwards puts into play states where Democrats running for president have not competed in years.”

Among those signing the letter were Eric Stern, former executive director of National Stonewall Democrats; David Mixner, former Bill Clinton for President advisor; Eric Marcus, author and activist; David Tseng, former co-chair of Kerry-Edwards 2004 National LGBT Advisory Committee; Kenda Kirby, former executive director of N.C. Human Rights Initiative; David Mariner, former Out for Howard Dean co-chair; and Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality NC.

At press time, Edwards is mired in third place in the polls with limited signs of forward momentum. He faces long odds against beating Obama and especially Clinton in the primaries. But he is certain that he will pull off the upset, just like he always has.

“I have been fighting this fight my entire life,” Edwards told the raucous crowd at the annual Jefferson Jackson dinner in Iowa last month. “I have walked into courtrooms for two decades by myself with an army of corporate lawyers arrayed on the other side. I didn’t just walk into that courtroom again and again and again for children and families. I walked in that courtroom and I beat them and I beat them and I beat them and I beat them and I will beat them as president of the United States of America.”

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