John Edwards: working-class values and a closely held faith
While Christian beliefs help gird his antipoverty campaign, he believes that politicians who identify closely with one religion cannot be inclusive.
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Unusual for a presidential candidate, he has also pushed for a larger American role – including a cabinet-level post – in the fight against global poverty. He says his $5 billion plan, with its focus on preventive health measures and schooling for every child on the planet, will restore America's battered moral standing in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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His efforts have gone beyond campaign-trail rhetoric. After leaving the Senate in 2004, Edwards raised $3 million to found The Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, an arm of the University of North Carolina Law School, his alma mater, that sponsors research and public forums on poverty.
Edwards, the center's director until announcing his bid for the presidency last December, had a particular interest in the working poor – how to raise their wages and rates of union membership, associates there say.
Marion Crain, the associate director under Edwards and now the director, says Edwards spoke often of the state-subsidized college education that launched his career.
"He thought it was wrong to have a country premised on equality of opportunity where everyone can live the Horatio Alger dream and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when in fact that's not the reality" for most people, Ms. Crain says. "The reality is shaped by public policies and laws and accidents of birth that leave people really ill-equipped to do that."
Besides his plan to end poverty, Edwards also backs a universal healthcare system financed by higher taxes on wealthy Americans and fees on employers without worker health insurance, and a "College for Everyone" program that pays one year of tuition at a public college for students willing to work part time.
Edwards's embrace of working-class America is matched by sometimes sharp attacks on the country's elite. He has vowed to end Bush-era tax cuts for well-to-do Americans, refuses campaign money from lobbyists and political action committees, and has taken bare-knuckled stances against big business.
"I don't want to sit at the table and negotiate with the insurance companies – I want to beat them," he said in July at a steelworkers' union hall in gritty Georgetown, S.C., to applause. "I don't want to negotiate with the drug companies – I want to beat them."
"There is a huge class consciousness to John," a friend, US bankruptcy Judge Rich Leonard of Raleigh, who didn't return telephone calls from the Monitor, told a North Carolina newspaper a few years ago. "I think it plays out in so many of his political decisions. I think his primary, overriding political view is to put the starting point in the same place for everybody."
Yet little about Edwards's life now evokes images of the common man. The folksy persona that helped launch his political career has been buffeted in recent months by what pundits call "the three H's": the $400 haircuts he charged to his campaign, his new 28,000-square-foot home in North Carolina, and his high-paying consulting job for a New York hedge fund.
"It's a well-known criticism, and that's the accusation of hypocrisy," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Given his populist message, many critics have noted that his lifestyle does not seem to fit the image of someone who wants to level the playing field."
But in his interview with the Monitor, on his campaign bus here last month, Edwards insisted that his personal wealth did not undercut his populist agenda.
"I think they're wrong," he said of his critics. "You could look at anybody's life and pick out particular things and say, 'Well, that's inconsistent.'
"It is true I worked at a hedge fund," he added. "And there's no doubt that one of the reasons I worked there was to earn some income.
"But it's also true that I started a poverty center at the University of North Carolina, I did humanitarian work in Africa, I started a college program for low-income kids in eastern North Carolina, I worked to help raise the minimum wage in six different state ballot initiatives, I helped organize workers, particularly low-income workers, into unions. All those things are indications of what I care about and what my priorities are."
An evolving faith