5/1/02 News & Observer (Raleigh NC) A1
2002 WL 11716402
The News & Observer Raleigh, NC
Copyright (c) 2002 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
Wednesday, May 1, 2002
Lawyers fill Edwards' PAC pockets
Washington -- U.S. Sen. John Edwards' days in the courtroom
may be behind him, but the former trial lawyer is relying heavily
on old colleagues from around the country as he prepares for a
2004 presidential bid.
More than $4 of every $5 raised by Edwards' political action
committee, the New American Optimists, has come from lawyers or
their family members, according to a News & Observer analysis.
The PAC, which has taken in more than $1.3 million, was set up
last fall to aid Democrats around the country and boost Edwards'
profile as a 2004 contender. Since September, checks have rolled
in from lawyers in Texas, California and Mississippi, among other
places, helping Edwards post PAC totals comparable to those of
former Vice President Al Gore, U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of
Connecticut and others jockeying for the 2004 nomination.
Friendships made during Edwards' two decades in the courtroom
and at legal conferences around the country are also paying off
in other ways: Many of those showing the North Carolina Democrat
the ropes in Iowa and New Hampshire -- the first two states with
a say in the nominating process -- are fellow lawyers.
Raleigh lawyer Ed Turlington, a former top aide in Bill
Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign, said Edwards' help from the
legal community should be seen as "a tremendous vote of
confidence by the people who know him best." And it's hardly
unusual, Turlington noted, for presidential aspirants to look to
their friends first when raising money.
Others, such as Nick Nyhart, executive director of the reform
group Public Campaign, suggest that Edwards' heavy reliance on
trial lawyers reinforces the notion that he is "indebted" to
them. But someone so new to politics has little choice if he's
interested in higher office, Nyhart said.
"The way the system works, if you don't have a ready-made
group of people to lean on early, you're out of the running," he
Edwards, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has
said repeatedly that he has not made up his mind about seeking
Technically, none of the PAC money now being raised can be
used in a presidential campaign. The cash instead is meant to be
funneled to Democratic candidates and state parties in hopes of
winning friends for the future.
Still, Washington insiders pay careful attention to the
numbers as an indicator of fund-raising prowess. Edwards' early
strength has been particularly important because he has no track
record raising the kind of money that will be required for a
presidential bid. He paid for most of his 1998 Senate race with
Trial lawyers have become a highly lucrative Democratic
No other group contributed more to Gore's 2000 presidential
bid, and lawyers were the largest contributors to the 1996
re-election of U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts -- another
Democrat eyeing a 2004 White House run.
But the legal money raised by Edwards' PAC during the first
part of this year dwarfed that of other 2004 hopefuls. Both Gore
and Lieberman raised almost as much total money, but lawyers
accounted for less than a quarter of their donations.
In 1998, the Republican campaign of then-U.S. Sen. Lauch
Faircloth tried -- with limited success -- to portray Edwards as
an upscale ambulance chaser. Edwards countered by presenting
himself as a champion of average citizens fighting big insurance
companies and corporations.
Although "trial lawyer" remains a dirty term to some, analysts
say it's not likely to hurt Edwards much in the context of a
Democratic presidential primary.
"The party is so hooked on trial-lawyer money that it's hard
to see anyone using that against him," said Charlie Cook of the
Cook Political Report.
Edwards became known as one of the best personal-injury
lawyers in the business, primarily suing doctors, hospitals and
During the 1990s, he was involved in at least 63 big cases,
winning more than $152 million for his clients, according to the
trade journal Lawyers Weekly. Among his high-profile victories:
$30.9 million for a 9-year-old Cary girl whose intestines were
severely damaged after sitting on an uncapped swimming-pool
Edwards' success won him membership in the Inner Circle of
Advocates, a society of 100 of the nation's best trial lawyers
that meets privately each year to socialize and swap legal
Membership is limited to those with at least one $1 million
verdict. By definition, members are among the best, and
best-known, lawyers in their respective states.
Edwards turned to many of them for help in his 1998 Senate
race, and he has continued to court their support as he angles
for a 2004 presidential run. To date, at least 66 current and
previous Inner Circle members from 33 states have given money to
Edwards' Senate campaign, his PAC or both.
They include Peter Perlman, a Kentucky trial lawyer who was
host of a private fund-raiser for Edwards in Lexington last month
before Edwards' appearance at a dinner attended by 400 Democratic
Perlman, a former president of the Association of Trial
Lawyers of America, said he and Edwards became friends from
attending Inner Circle meetings together. "We relate," Perlman
said, adding that Edwards would be a "terrific" presidential
Among those who dropped by Perlman's fund-raiser were
Kentucky's Democratic governor, attorney general and other
elected officials, along with labor union officials and other
Lawyers helping Edwards in early caucus and primary states
include Rob Tully, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic
Party. Tully was by Edwards' side when Edwards made his first
foray to Iowa in March 2001, to address a gathering sponsored by
Drake University Law School.
Since then, Tully has continued to advise Edwards and make
introductions around the state. The connections helped Edwards
land a plum speaking slot at the party's Hall of Fame dinner in
Edwards' February visit to New Hampshire, the nation's first
presidential primary state, also benefited from legal
Upon hearing that Edwards was interested in visiting,
Turlington, the former Bradley aide, reached out to Concord
lawyer Chris Sullivan to be host of a house party for Edwards.
Sullivan had been a key player in Bradley's New Hampshire
campaign in 2000. The event, which drew about 50 area activists,
wound up being broadcast by C-SPAN.
"If you multiply those kind of connections by 100, people like
me, it really makes a difference," Turlington said.
Such multiplier effects also have bolstered Edwards' PAC.
Thomas Girardi, a Los Angeles lawyer and fellow Inner Circle
member, gave $2,000 to Edwards' 1998 Senate campaign. More
recently, he contributed $5,000 to Edwards' PAC, and helped raise
another $90,000 from members of his law firm, Girardi & Keese.
Edwards' largest PAC donors include lawyer Wade Byrd of
Fayetteville, who recently wrote a $100,000 check. Byrd, who said
he considers Edwards "a kindred spirit," said he isn't surprised
that Edwards is using fellow lawyers as a fund-raising base.
"John does not have to prove himself to that crowd," Byrd
said. "They trust him, and they know him."
No one suggests that Edwards will have a monopoly on
trial-lawyer support if he moves forward with a presidential bid.
Joseph Power, a Chicago lawyer, recently played host to a
fund-raising breakfast in Illinois for Edwards. In an interview,
Power spoke highly of Edwards -- but said he is also a fan of
Kerry, as well as House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
"I'd consider backing any of those candidates," Power said. "They're all friends."
Edwards has already had one high-profile falling-out with a
major fund-raiser for the party: Mississippi lawyer Richard
Scruggs said he was appalled by Edwards' tough questioning
this spring of Charles Pickering, a judge from his home state
whom President Bush had nominated for a federal appeals court
At the time of the episode, Scruggs said Edwards could no
longer count on his support.
But Scruggs confessed that the long-term damage to Edwards'
fund raising was probably rather limited. "He'll be able to raise
a lot of trial lawyer money, notwithstanding this," Scruggs said.
TABULAR OR GRAPHIC MATERIAL SET FORTH IN THIS DOCUMENT IS NOT DISPLAYABLE
c photo; file; c graphic; PAC Money; Frank Medlin/Staff; Edwards' colleagues also show him around.
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