Obama Makes Inroads Into Edwards' Trial Lawyer Base
April 9, 2007
Printer-friendly Email this Article Reprints & Permissions
Presidential candidates John Edwards and Barack Obama.
Image: Roberto Westbrook/Legal Times
This time around, John Edwards can't take anything for granted. This time, even his blood brothers aren't necessarily on board.
For years Edwards has relied on the support of his fellow trial lawyers' deep pockets to help get him elected -- first to the Senate and then three years ago, when he made a run at the White House and then became running mate to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who won the Democratic nomination. But as Edwards mounts his second presidential bid, he has struggled to attract plaintiffs lawyers beyond his stable of longtime donors, just as other Democratic candidates, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton from New York, Barack Obama from Illinois, and Joseph Biden Jr. from Delaware, have been actively wooing the plaintiffs bar.
"Frankly, I have got some torn loyalties," says Dennis VanDerGinst, an Illinois trial attorney who is raising money for all three of the Democratic front-runners. "I did support Edwards last go-around, and given his background as a trial attorney, I still have a soft spot for him, but from a practical standpoint I'm not sure I see him as the front-runner right now."
Throwing financial support behind Clinton or Obama instead of Edwards, who has been considered somewhat of a longshot since entering the race, may have less to do with who lawyers think will best represent their interests than who they think has the best shot at victory. Especially considering that Obama has yet to confront the issue of tort reform in the current campaign.
The latest Rasmussen Reports poll, which was done before the candidates' first-quarter earnings were released last week, had Clinton leading with 33 percent of the likely Democratic primary vote, Obama at 26 percent, and Edwards trailing at 17 percent among Democratic candidates.
Edwards, the one-time personal-injury lawyer from Raleigh, N.C., is a clear third in the money chase, as well. Both Clinton and Obama raised more than $20 million, while Edwards lagged behind at $14 million. Still, that was higher than Republican favorite Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who raised $12.5 million.
Many of the trial lawyers who supported the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004 have chosen to throw their lot in with Obama or are keeping their options open by donating to multiple candidates. The fracturing of the trial-lawyer constituency could have dramatic effects on the total dollars Edwards will be able to raise -- considering that the 52,000-member American Association for Justice (formerly known as the American Trial Lawyers Association) doled out more than $2.5 million from its political-action committee during the last presidential election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"In 2003, Sen. Edwards had a very broad base of trial-lawyer support. In fact he received some criticism for that," says Fred Baron, a well-known Dallas-based trial lawyer at Baron & Budd and Edwards' national finance chairman. "I haven't really noticed [a defection of trial lawyers to other candidates]. If we have, it's been very nominal. My guess is, in this cycle many lawyers are contributing more."
The trial bar has long been one of the most sought-after groups for political giving, particularly at the state and congressional level, but no other candidate has been able to harness the level of support that Edwards counted on in the past.
In 1998, Edwards received more than half of his outside contributions from lawyers. That support continued in 2003 during his presidential run, when almost two-thirds of his $7.4 million first-quarter campaign contributions came from trial lawyers, their families and their staffs.
"Most trial lawyers aren't as interested on the federal level as they are in the state," says Kirk Wagar, a Florida-based trial attorney with Wagar Murray & Feit. "That changed with John Edwards. He was one of their own, and I think it's right that he put a good face on what a lot of folks do."
Edwards created that groundswell of support by reaching out to local and state trial associations and using a network of trial-lawyer friends across the nation. Edwards has maintained many of those relationships, including those with Jacksonville, Fla.'s Wayne Hogan of Terrell Hogan and former ATLA president Michael Maher of Maher, Guiley & Maher, who are both raising money for Edwards.
"I'm personally supporting and certainly encouraging friends and lawyers and other people that I know to contribute," says Hogan.
Still others, including Wagar, have signed on with Obama's campaign. Wagar, who headed Kerry's finance team in Florida during the 2004 election, has taken on a similar role with Obama's campaign.
"People are impressed with [Obama's] depth and that he will listen to both sides of an argument before he makes a decision and his ability to talk through an issue. Trial lawyers who argue for a living like that," Wagar says. "This is not about John Edwards or Hillary Clinton. ... We need someone who approaches the issues that we face like Barack does."
Jay Urban, a Milwaukee personal-injury lawyer and another Kerry defector, says he still likes Edwards but thinks his past performance on the national stage will hurt his campaign. During the 2004 campaign, Edwards said he would support the independent screening of medical-malpractice claims before a plaintiff could file suit.
"I think that what he did over the last four years will come under the microscope," Urban says. "He removed himself too much from Washington, and honestly, as a trial lawyer, I was disappointed with his debate with Vice President Dick Cheney."
Urban is helping to organize two events for Obama's first trip to Wisconsin later this month, which will include a rally for smaller donors and a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser that has already pulled in more than $100,000.
Other broader-based lawyer groups that collectively supported Kerry and Edwards' bid, including San Francisco-based Lawyers for Kerry, have also jumped to other campaigns. About 80 percent of the lawyers in that group, which raised more than $1 million for Kerry's presidential campaign, have formed a new group called Lawyers for Obama. In their initial fund-raising drive -- a luncheon in mid-February after Obama announced his intent to run -- the lawyers raised more than $250,000, according to the group's co-founder, William Orrick III of Coblentz, Patch, Duffy and Bass.
At this point, Edwards' camp claims it isn't worried about the drop-off in lawyer support. "In this cycle, we still have that very broad base of lawyer support," says Baron. "But, of course, to reach the number we have reached -- of $14 million in this quarter -- we expanded the base of donors."
Although there has been some wholesale support-swapping, many lawyers are trying to hedge their bets and give to multiple candidates at this stage in the game.
"We are more pragmatic than we've ever been before," says Judith Droz Keyes of Davis Wright Tremaine, a national fund-raiser for Kerry in 2004. "It was a very sweet thing to win back the House and the Senate in November, and I think people recognize a kind of setting aside of the traditional positions that had been taken into a more pragmatic view supporting candidates that were going to win."
For, now Todd Smith, a Chicago trial lawyer, is sticking with that mantra, supporting multiple candidates. In 2004, Smith's firm raised more than $12,000 for Edwards and donated $50,000 to his leadership committee. But this time around, he's donated to Obama, Edwards and Biden. He recently hosted a Biden fund-raiser in Chicago that raised more than $150,000.
Biden has long been seen as a supporter of the trial lawyer community on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he has opposed legal-liability proposals and bills that would limit claims against health-care providers. No candidate is more visibly tied to the trial bar than Edwards. But Clinton and Biden, who also headlined a national trial lawyer convention in Miami Beach in February, have both said they're opposed to caps on punitive damage awards.
Despite Obama's silence on trial lawyer issues in the current campaign, he co-sponsored the National Medical Error Disclosure and Compensation Act with Sen. Clinton in 2005. That legislation, which never made it to the full Senate for a vote, would have created a system for doctors and injured patients to negotiate out of court, but it did not include caps on medical malpractice claims.
"Barack was a practicing civil rights attorney and constitutional law professor. This excites trial lawyers," says Wagar. "[Civil rights are] the reason we're able to take on [General Motors] and pharmaceutical companies. He speaks to that."