- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

John Edwards, the presidential candidate who funneled about $6 million of his own trial-lawyer fortune into his 1998 Senate race, has been waging a populist campaign for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Edwards, whose extraordinary personal investment in his own political career was a major reason for including the “millionaire’s loophole” in the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, portrays himself as the paragon of the good-government legislator. His vote can never be influenced by lobbyists and the nefarious special interests represented by notorious political action committees (PACs), he repeatedly tells his audiences, because he never accepts money from lobbyists or from PACs.

In fact, virtually the entire political career of Mr. Edwards has been financed by one huge special interest: the trial lawyers of America. Drawing upon a personal net worth estimated as high as $50 million, which he generated from the $152 million in verdicts he won as a personal-injury lawyer, Mr. Edwards funded more than three-quarters of his 1998 campaign from his own pocket, personally spending twice what the incumbent had raised six years earlier.

Mr. Edwards may not accept PAC contributions from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). But his political operation literally survives off the individual contributions of ATLA members. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), through the first nine months of last year, Mr. Edwards raised $7.4 million in regulated hard-money contributions from lawyers and their family members. That total approximated the cumulative fund-raising receipts from lawyers by the next nine highest-ranked U.S. senators for the 2003-2004 cycle.

While accepting PAC contributions is taboo for Mr. Edwards, establishing his own PAC — New American Optimists (NAO) — certainly was not. Moreover, more than 75 percent of the $6 million that NAO raised during the 2001-2002 cycle came from unregulated soft money, which comprised unlimited donations from labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals. (McCain-Feingold prohibited national parties and federal candidates from raising soft money following the 2002 election.) Two-thirds (or more than $4 million) of NAO’s total receipts came from lawyers and law firms, including more than $3 million in soft money, according to CRP data. Ten law firms alone cumulatively contributed more than $1.25 million in soft money to Mr. Edwards’ NAO.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Fred Baron, a former president of ATLA, is a financial cochairman of Mr. Edwards’ presidential campaign. His campaign manager is Nick Baldick, a registered lobbyist as recently as 2002 who worked for firms that have lobbied on behalf of Mastercard and Visa. Both credit-card companies led the battle in favor of bankruptcy-reform legislation that would have significantly increased the payback burden of individuals filing for bankruptcy.

John Edwards is a rhetorical populist, whose message is nearly completely financed by one of the most powerful special interests in America.

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