Lawyers Fill Edwards’ Pac Pockets

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Lawyers Fill Edwards’ Pac Pockets

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

John Wagner

Washington Correspondent

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 said.

Edwards, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said repeatedly that he has not made up his mind about seeking the presidency.

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 personal funds.

Trial lawyers have become a highly lucrative Democratic constituency nationwide.

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 companies.

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 drain.

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 strategies.

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 activists.

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 candidate.

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.

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 June.

Edwards’ February visit to New Hampshire, the nation’s first presidential primary state, also benefited from legal connections.

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 “Dickie” Scruggs.

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 seat.

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.


c photo; file; c graphic; PAC Money; Frank Medlin/Staff; Edwards’ colleagues also show him around.


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