Monday, May 07, 2007

"John Edwards: Union man"

No one was paying much attention to John Edwards in February 2006, when a historic contest for control of Congress was getting underway and the 2008 presidential race was still a sliver of light on the horizon. But Danny Glover was. He had to. For three days the Lethal Weapon star and the one-term Senator were glued to each other's sides like a pair of mismatched LAPD cops as they traveled across the country to lend support to hotel workers and their unions on the eve of a threatened strike.
At the time, Glover was the veteran of poverty politics; Edwards was still a rookie in training. So Glover, who prides himself on his ability to sniff out poseurs and users, warily scrutinized the carefully coifed politician from North Carolina. "There's real humility and false humility," Glover says. Which was Edwards?

In Boston, he watched Edwards listen to the plight of a single mother, an Italian immigrant who had managed on a hotel maid's pay to raise four children and send each one to college. In Chicago, Edwards took a lesson in the back-breaking work of lifting 113-pound mattresses and changing luxury duvets weighed down by piles of pillows and shams.

In L.A., the former Senator arrived overscheduled and tired, but impressed labor leaders when he readily agreed to squeeze in an extra meeting with a group of kitchen workers on their break.

The rich lawyer with the soft Southern accent bonded comfortably with this unseen servant class. Like a juror on one of Edwards's personal-injury cases, Glover found himself falling under the trial lawyer's spell. As the duo walked into a meeting of 60 African-American community leaders in downtown L.A. to make the case for greater black support of unions, the deal was sealed. "He was able to talk with them, not up to them or down to them," Glover recalls. "Here was a man who sincerely had empathy."
Populist attacks gain political traction

Here was a man, too, who was discovering the key to his second presidential bid. That three-day campaign for the hearts of America's hotel workers was at the center of a broader two-year process that transformed Edwards into the 2008 race's chief proponent of a hotly contentious view - that America's economic salvation lies in millions more Americans paying union dues.

Edwards brings to the contest a core belief that expanding organized labor - which now accounts for just 12 percent of the workforce, down from 20 percent in the early 1980s - is the way to reduce poverty, expand the middle class, narrow the nation's income gap and make globalization less painful.

"The difference between union and non-union is literally the difference between poverty and middle class," Edwards told Fortune. "Hotel workers, restaurant workers, home health workers, hospital workers - at last count there are some 50 million people who work in the service economy. Those jobs aren't going anywhere else. They have to be done in the United States."

Courting the labor vote is standard procedure for Democratic presidential candidates, but Edwards goes well beyond the usual union-friendly rhetoric; he has aggressively lobbied on behalf of legal changes to make it easier for labor to organize. The testimonials have already begun: "I'm 61, and in my lifetime I don't recall any candidate for President who articulated a belief not just that unions are good, but that they are necessary for what ails society," says John Wilhelm, president of the apparel, textile and hospitality workers' union Unite Here.

Edwards has emerged as the counterpoint candidate to those who argue that union costs and inflexibility - witness Detroit - are killing American companies. Which has prompted industry leaders, for their part, to wonder if Edwards, of all the candidates, is the one most hostile to their interests.

"We have nothing against unions, but he would like to take industry down on its knees," says Joseph McInerney, CEO of the American Hotel Lodging Association, who supported the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004 but now thinks Edwards has gone too far.

Standing up to corporate America in an era of booming profits, however, may be a well-timed strategy for Edwards in the Democratic primary. Much as he did as a trial lawyer making tens of millions representing the injured against corporate abuse, the shrewd Edwards has figured out how to do well by siding with the little guy. While labor's membership has declined, its determination to wield its political clout has mushroomed over the past decade. In the two most recent elections, union money ranked at the top of independent expenditures, and union leaders tell Fortune they plan to exceed their record-breaking 2004 spending in the current election.

With that as the spark plug, Edwards hopes his other assets - the appeal of his anti-war stance, a formidable campaign organization, and his experience as a presidential candidate - will enable him to surprise all those pundits betting on a two-way race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The issues

On an icy white Iowa City day, Edwards is delivering his populist message to a crowd of more than 800 Democrats packed into a university auditorium for a candidate town-hall meeting. Like scores of other events, this one demonstrates that Obama and Clinton aren't the only candidates who can gather and electrify a huge crowd of Democrats.

There are two numbers high on Edwards's mind as this race gets underway: 29 and 21. Howard Dean was at 29 percent - first place - in New Hampshire polls in early January 2004, before the Iowa caucuses. But practically overnight his surprisingly weak third-place showing in Iowa pushed his New Hampshire number down to 21 percent, while Kerry shot past him.

Edwards may be trailing Clinton and Obama nationally, but he knows firsthand that Iowa can be a make-or-break stop for candidates. And as recently as mid-April, Iowa polls were showing him in the lead. Fortunately for Edwards, next year's newly revised calendar slots the Nevada caucus next - an event to be heavily influenced by unionized hotel workers, who adore him. Bottom line: Edwards hopes to sail into New Hampshire on the wings of top-place showings in Iowa and Nevada.
The new Newt thing

"How about this gentleman with a tie on right here," Edwards says, standing in the center of the Iowa auditorium, holding a mike in one hand, pointing a finger with the other. "I always get nervous when I see a tie on." The twentysomething gentleman turns out to be neither a corporate shill nor a Republican spy, but the kind of questioner who enables Edwards to show off the "frankness niche" he has artfully carved out in the '08 race to distinguish himself from the more cautious front-runner, Clinton. "You've been talking about race and diversity," says Wayne from Iowa City, "and I was wondering what you had planned to pursue rights for gays and lesbians."

"The real question, which you didn't ask because you were being nice," Edwards says, drawing out the pronunciation of "nice" as the Carolinian nahhs, "is my position on gay marriage. This is, for me, a very difficult issue personally because of the place I come from, my own faith tradition, growing up in the rural South. I feel internal conflict about this, just so you know. I don't feel any righteousness. But where I am today is for civil unions and substantive rights." That would be a no for gay marriage, and yet the liberal audience offers robust applause.

Like Edwards's oft-repeated apology for his 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq war, this frankness resonates with Democrats who felt used in 2004, throwing their support to a candidate who fitfully flopped rightward. After watching John Kerry's hairsplitting answers up close, Edwards is building a left-leaning version of John McCain's 2000 "straight talk express," looking voters in the eye and offering answers they don't always want to hear.

Like whether he intends to reduce the federal government's huge deficits. "Now here's the truth - you deserve to know the truth," he tells another questioner. "I am committed to not making the deficit worse. But I do not put deficit reduction on the same level with universal health care or the transformation we're going to need on global warming. I may disappoint you, and if deficit reduction is your thing, I may lose you on this. But you should know the truth."

The town hall ends with a rousing standing ovation, but this audience of students and senior citizens and farmers and union workers is not ready to go home yet. Dozens surround Edwards, shaking his hand, snapping cell phone photos. The crowd surrounding his wife, Elizabeth, is even deeper - mostly women, lined up patiently, her book "Saving Graces" and their pens in hand.

Elizabeth Edwards is the candidate's not-so-secret weapon, which accounts for the vast outpouring of sympathy in March when she learned that her breast cancer had returned and was treatable but not curable. Her book chronicles the family's devastation after losing their 16-year-old son, Wade, in a 1996 car crash and, more recently, her battle with cancer. What also comes through in her story is a zest for the campaign trail. "I thrived on this fight," Elizabeth Edwards writes of the 2004 campaign. "I needed it."
A more mature and confident candidate

As a youth, John Edwards was enthralled with "The Fugitive," the TV series about a doctor on the lam after being wrongfully accused of murder. "I remember my building fury when - week after week - no one ever bothered to take Dr. Kimble's side and make things right for him, or even try." Edwards's recent politics have been characterized as concern for lifting the poor. But at root, it's more about righting wrongs. There's a sense of grievance in his poverty rhetoric.

The nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook calls Edwards's 2004 "two Americas" speech - in which the candidate accused a "handful of big corporations and insiders" of destroying the middle class - "about as close to class warfare as you've ever seen a politician do." In the years since, Edwards has shaved the edges of his rhetoric, but a theme of haves vs. have-nots still underlies his campaign.

He commonly portrays his childhood in the have-not category. But the reality is more complicated. True, his father started off as a worker in the Milliken & Co. textile mills. But by the time Edwards was 12, Wallace Edwards had risen into management, and the family had settled into a middle-class brick ranch house in Robbins, N.C. Yet his father felt both snubbed and held back by his lack of college education, angry that he wasn't treated with the "respect he felt he was entitled to," as Edwards once said.

As a 6-year-old being bullied by mill-town boys, Johnny took to heart his father's counsel to quit whining and punch back. So it was natural that as a young man Edwards was drawn to law school and the arena of personal-injury litigation, where he was able to internalize tragic stories of average folks to retell to juries of other average folks.

According to a new analysis compiled by Lawyers' Weekly, Edwards won 54 cases with judgments of more than $1 million. All told, Fortune estimates that Edwards's cases brought revenues of about $67 million to his law firm.

Three things made John Edwards the most famous trial lawyer in North Carolina: exhaustive prep, compelling storytelling and staying on offense. In the two years after the Kerry-Edwards defeat, he applied all three in a determined bid to become a different candidate than he was in 2004.
Popular issues, unpopular president

In 2005, Edwards started a think tank, the privately funded University of North Carolina Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, aiming to put flesh on the bones of his "two Americas" theme. "We have done very little to create upward mobility in the market," he said at a 2005 roundtable of poverty experts. He also concluded that the gap between rich and poor "probably can only be filled by government" and suggested that expanding union membership was the surest way to raise wages.

Edwards joined the pro-labor American Rights at Work and created a network of powerful allies like Anna Burger, the chair of Change to Win, a political alliance of seven unions representing six million workers. While Burger stresses that union endorsements are months away, she is an avid Edwards admirer, describing him as a more mature and confident candidate this time around. "He knows who he is," she says.

Part of that comes from a level of preparation that was missing in 2004, when reporters noticed that Edwards was sometimes winging it on issues. He has also come to rely more on the riveting storytelling talents that he employed to woo juries in the 1990s. "To get John's attention, don't start with how well your idea polls," Elizabeth writes. "Start with 'I met a young father who ...' or 'I have an aunt who inspects nursing homes, and she said ...' Maybe it was the storyteller in John."

Fighting for the little guy made John Edwards a rich man. But unless you're a Kennedy (even then it's problematic), overt wealth can come back to haunt a politician carrying a working-class message.

When news of the couple's newly constructed North Carolina estate, complete with aerial photos, emerged in late January, it swamped the campaign. The $6 million - plus compound includes a recreational facility built to look like a red barn, featuring a basketball court, a squash court, a swimming pool and a room called "John's Lounge."

Elizabeth Edwards assured liberal bloggers that the sprawling compound was energy efficient. But the damage had been done. "Well, I think we know which America he's living in," joked Jay Leno.

Two months later he again became the butt of jokes with a pair of $400 haircuts. That was followed by a Washington Post report detailing his ties to a hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group, which hired Edwards as a consultant in 2005 and whose employees have contributed to his presidential campaign. Fortress once sheltered its hedge funds in the Cayman Islands, even though Edwards had denounced offshore tax havens.

While Edwards routinely attacks the usual array of big-business suspects - he promises to eliminate the oil industry's subsidies, Big Pharma's political power and the Bush tax cuts - he is avoiding the overt class-warfare riffs that caught Charlie Cook's attention four years ago. "This time around it's more nuanced - it's more about guilt," says Cook. "You can't look like you're going to confiscate what [rich people] earn. Politically, it's a more palatable message and not as hypocritical."

Nevertheless, should Edwards overcome stiff odds and win the presidency, a new and more hostile day is sure to dawn for Washington's business interests, particularly if Democrats retain control of Congress. Legislation to make union organizing easier would readily pass (already it passed the House this year), as well as other measures to boost the bargaining leverage of organized labor. Universal health care, mostly resisted by the private sector, would top his agenda.

The hyper-cautious Hillary Clinton learned the dangers of a frontal assault on business interests with the disastrous reception to her 1993 health-care plan. Barack Obama hails from the party's liberal-left wing, but prizes consensus. For President Edwards, though, the grievances of working Americans would land squarely at the door of corporate America.
Howie P.S.: This WaPo story, "On poverty, Edwards faces old hurdles" questions whether Edwards can get his anti-poverty policies adopted. In the same newspaper, Chris Cillizza writes in his column "Edwards Runs Against the Senate":
By calling on Congress (and particularly the Senate) to take action on the war, Edwards is putting himself in a no-lose situation. Pass a bill outlining the changes in policy he has called for, and Edwards can say the Senate followed his lead. Vote for any bill that comes short of Edwards's proposal, and he can condemn his rivals for a lack of grit under fire.

The strategy won't win him any friends in the Senate, but it just might win him votes in the Democratic primaries.
Obama is targeting Senate Republicans to get the 16 votes needed to overturn the presidential veto. I guess that's okay, though.

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