Menu JTA Search

America Decides 2004 Edwards Doesn’t Cultivate Jews, but His Views Win Jewish Support

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

Sen. John Edwards may not have recognized the Hebrew aleph stitched onto James Dricker’s cap, but he understood what was written in his heart.

Dricker, 55, the education director at Temple Israel in Portsmouth, N.H., says he was impressed with Edwards’ sincerity after speaking with the North Carolina senator about health care, education and the environment.

“I don’t vote Jewish,” Dricker said after the get-together days before Christmas at the Friendly Toast restaurant. “I vote based on common sense and what is best for the country and ultimately for me.”

Edwards is an exception in a presidential campaign marked by loud declarations of Jewish affinity. He has warm ties with Jews in his state, but he hasn’t made an issue of it.

Edwards was a highly successful trial lawyer in North Carolina seven years ago when he sought a seat in the U.S. Senate and largely was able to self-finance his campaign.

That meant Edwards didn’t spend as much time as other aspiring lawmakers courting support and dollars in the Jewish community, both in and out of his state, North Carolina Jewish activists said.

“He didn’t seek out the Jewish community,” unlike others who “go from candidate event to candidate event begging for money,” said Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, a Democratic political consultant who ran for Congress in North Carolina in 1994. “Because he was self-financed, he could avoid a lot of that.”

Edwards nonetheless has earned the community’s support. He has a solid record on Israel and emphasizes the issues that resonate with Jewish voters like Dricker: health, education and poverty.

Edwards’ experience growing up poor in the South helped mold an outlook that makes him attractive to groups that see themselves as outsiders scrambling to get in.

“I feel such a personal responsibility when it comes to issues of civil rights and race,” he said, amid bells signaling ready lunch orders at the New Hampshire coffee shop, which brimmed with tchotchkes.

In his stump speech, Edwards says the color of one’s skin or any other circumstances of birth “should never control your destiny.”

“I’ll never forget when I was in the sixth grade — I was living in Georgia at the time — my sixth grade teacher walked into the classroom at the end of the day and said he wouldn’t be teaching next year because they were about to integrate the schools, and he wouldn’t teach in an integrated school,” Edwards told high school students attending a forum at the Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “He unfortunately didn’t use the language that I just used.”

Born in South Carolina on June 10, 1953, Edwards and his family soon moved to North Carolina, where he spent most of his childhood.

Edwards was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from North Carolina State University in 1974. He received a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977.

Ken Broun, a former dean of UNC’s law school, first heard of Edwards’ as the man another law student — Elizabeth Anania — was going to marry.

In the years that followed, he got a close-up look at the rising trial lawyer.

“He was, as I had been told, one of the best trial lawyers I had ever seen,” said Broun, who served as a private judge for a case Edwards was involved in during the early 1990s. “He was an enormously persuasive lawyer who did a very good job for his client.”

Edwards’ specialty was personal-injury cases involving children. He won a record-setting verdict for Valerie Lakey, a girl who was severely injured by a faulty swimming pool drain in 1993.

Edwards was apolitical, friends and colleagues said.

“If somebody had told me John Edwards was going to run for political office, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Fred Baron, co-finance chairman of Edwards’ campaign and former president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

The death of Edwards’ eldest son, Wade, at age 16 in a 1996 car accident, changed Edwards’ life.

“When John walked out of the church for Wade’s funeral, all he said was, ‘Something good has got to come from this,’ ” Baron said. “You saw a transformation.”

Edwards withdrew completely for six months, friends said, and walked away from his law practice.

“He decided at that point that he wanted to do something other than the strict practice of law,” Broun said. He wanted a larger mission, and chose to challenge incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a Republican.

“When he decided to run for political office, it made incredible sense to me because of his incredible talent to connect with people,” said Bill Cassell, a longtime Edwards friend and former Jewish federation campaign chairman in Greensboro.

In late 1997, Broun threw a party to introduce Edwards as a primary candidate for the Senate.

“He had a lot to learn at that time, even on some of the more significant issues,” recalled Broun, a former Chapel Hill mayor. “A Chapel Hill political audience is a tough audience, and it was tough for him. He left kind of shaking his head about it.”

One story has it that Edwards walked up to the chairwoman of the state Democratic party and said he was going to be the new U.S. senator from the state. The chairwoman then said that was very nice, but asked Edwards who he was.

Randall Kaplan, a Greensboro businessman who is a board member for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, remembers early meetings Edwards held with Jewish leaders in the community.

“When he first started considering the Senate race, he was a great listener,” Kaplan said. “He was as knowledgeable as someone can get when they first run for office but didn’t have first-hand experience.”

Edwards reached out to the Jewish community as a Senate candidate but didn’t court Jews the same way other aspiring politicians do.

“He would certainly have ties to individuals in the Jewish community, but I don’t know that he has had any ties in any formal way,” Broun said.

The North Carolina Jewish community also may not warrant the same treatment that Jews in larger states merit.

“It’s a different kind of Jewish community,” Broun said. “Most of us are professional people who might be quite comfortable but are not business people with the kind of money that one would go to in Florida, Illinois or New York.”

Laszlo-Mizrahi said, “That huge Jewish political machine in North Carolina just doesn’t exist.”

Upon his election in 1998, Edwards continued listening.

“John would always make himself available to us,” Kaplan said. “The one thing John didn’t do was pander. He really came and listened.”

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Edwards soon was boning up on foreign policy.

“A lot of times you go into a Senate office and they just repeat back to you the party line,” Kaplan said. “With John, he would really listen and you could tell he was really thinking about it.”

Kaplan now advises Edwards’ campaign on Israel and Middle East issues.

Edwards visited Israel with Intelligence Committee colleagues in 2001 and was there when a suicide bomber attacked a Sbarro restaurant in downtown Jerusalem.

“I think the trip left on him an understanding,” Kaplan said. “He really gets the strategic issues, the existential issues.”

In a statement to JTA, Edwards said he would increase U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the appointment of a senior envoy to the region, and he signaled support for Israel’s anti-terror tactics, including the security barrier Israel is erecting in the West Bank.

“As long as the Palestinian leadership fails to end terror, Israel has a right to take measures to defend itself,” Edwards said. “Such defensive measures are not the cause of terrorism — they are the response to terrorism.”

Edwards speaks about the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues in campaign stops, but his real connection with voters comes when discussing social policy.

His platform focuses largely on providing health care for every child, a free year of college education and tax cuts for businesses that keep jobs in the United States.

Edwards has called for changes to the Patriot Act, which some say strips away civil liberties in pursuit of intelligence to fight terrorism.

In his statement to JTA, Edwards said he supports faith-based charities delivering social services “in a manner consistent with the First Amendment” and said the charities should follow anti-discrimination standards.

Edwards, a Methodist, has a good grasp on the religious politics of his state, friends say.

“Up until the last 15 years, this was a fairly lonely place for Jews and Catholics,” Broun said. “I think he understands that.”

In his JTA statement, Edwards said, “Faith is enormously important to me personally and to tens of millions of Americans.”

Edwards’ friends say the candidate is privately spiritual. Cassell said that Elizabeth Edwards “wouldn’t let him be any other way.”

The couple, married in 1977, have four children. Their eldest daughter, Cate, is a student at Princeton University. They have another daughter, Emma Claire, 4, and a son, Jack, 2.

Baron described Edwards as someone with “a great deal of inner peace.”

“I’ve never seen him look troubled or act troubled,” he said. “If he has a bad day, he just moves on to the next one.”

Edwards touched the shoulder of each high schooler as he talked to them at the Nashua Chamber of Commerce event. He nodded frequently when they talked.

Joshua Black, a Duke University student who interned at Edwards’ Washington office last summer, said Edwards has a real connection with youth.

“When I first saw him speak, I saw him as young and vibrant,” said Black, who now is president of Duke Students for Edwards. “He’s 50 years old, but he looks 35.”

Edwards was chosen in 2000 as “Sexiest Politician” by People magazine. Laszlo-Mizrahi claims some credit in the selection: It came after she invited a People reporter to a fund raiser for the Women’s Campaign Fund in Edwards’ Washington home.

NEXT STORY