With the Jan. 29 Florida primary approaching, we continue our series on all the major candidates for the presidency, with an emphasis on the issues they are discussing and their supporters in Tampa Bay. This week, 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards:
John Edwards' campaign in Florida is a tale of two parties.
The first is the kind that was held in late June in an upscale Pass-A-Grille home, a beach setting for about 20 netroots volunteers to get together for a nationwide conference call with Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat making his second run for the nation's top office. The diverse crowd came from all walks of life, all aspects of party activism.
Their common bond was One Corps, Edwards' sophisticated online movement that lists almost a handful of chapters in Tampa Bay alone. The house party, dubbed "Sand Dollars for Change," was hosted by Beach Theatre co-owner Liz France, whose invitation promised "a walk down the beach to watch the sunset" after the group's phone call with the candidate. Her fundraising goal: $1,000. The pay-off for the volunteers: a chance to ask Edwards one question and to chat with his charismatic wife, Elizabeth, as well.
"We are grassroots," France explained a few weeks after the One Corps gathering. "It's like we are a living, breathing working branch of his campaign, and we're growing like a vine, and we're getting to people.
"With Hillary and Obama, they do have so much more money, so they can run the big TV campaigns," she said. "We have to be smart with our money because there's better things to do with it right now."
The second Edwards party, held just three nights later, had a slightly loftier monetary benchmark. It, too, was held in an upscale home, this time across the bay on the waterfront of Tampa's Westshore neighborhood. It featured some of the area's top trial lawyers, led by party hosts Steve Yerrid (who was on the state's "dream team" of lawyers who successfully sued Big Tobacco) and Jim Wilkes (whose Wilkes & McHugh firm helped pioneer nursing home abuse litigation). Both have been on the winning end of multimillion-dollar verdicts. Several firms whose lawyers contributed up to $2,300 apiece are on the area's A-list or are at least prominent in television ads: Morgan & Morgan, Swope Rodante and James Hoyer and Newcomer, to name three.
"For people coming from the working class, there is no other viable choice who can win," said Yerrid, whose rise from poor immigrant roots to millionaire trial lawyer mirrors Edwards' coal-mines-to-courtroom success. The party netted Edwards $120,000, according to Yerrid, before he was whisked away to a $15-a-ticket speech that drew several hundred to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.
The two parties demonstrate the gulf that Edwards has to close if he wants to win the Democratic nomination in the Sunshine State. Because he has only a fundraising operative in Florida and no other paid campaign staff, Edwards relies on the One Corps volunteers for manpower and his longtime friends the trial lawyers for cash.
His public appearances across the nation reflect the fact that Florida is not — at least yet — a focus for Edwards. He's visited several states much more often than Florida, including Iowa (where he leads in polls), Nevada and South Carolina, whose Democratic primary is the same day as Florida's. Edwards' fundraising in Florida — $1 million in the first half of this year, with only about 10 percent of that coming from Tampa Bay — lags that of Clinton and Obama, as do his poll performances.
But that doesn't mean that his fans here aren't passionate.
St. Petersburg Democratic consultant Gene Smith — who is a One Corps captain despite being publicly split between Barack Obama and Edwards — wrote on the Florida Kossacks blog:
"John Edwards' message and values reaches me. His call for One America, his stance on Iraq and his ability to clearly communicate his values resonates with me. His very human reaction to his wife Elizabeth's struggle with cancer resonates with me. There is nothing I don't like about Edwards. OK, $400 haircuts don't excite me all that much."
Ah, yes, the haircut.
The fact that Edwards pays $400 for a stylist to cut his hair, a scoop perpetrated by the inside-the-beltway reporters at Politico.com, was trumpeted to the world in ridicule by such influential netizens as Matt Drudge. On top of that scorn, there were the vicious attacks by right-wing vampire Ann Coulter, whose continuing homo-baiting of Edwards finally drew a response — from Elizabeth.
In a display of how both new and traditional media trivialize presidential campaigning, Edwards' haircut and his wife's exchange with Coulter have overshadowed the fact that Edwards has the most detailed and ambitious platform assembled by any of the candidates to date.
At the center of his issues is his vow to end poverty and create "One America." It is a populist appeal and one that the former trial lawyer hits hard and links to the kind of intemperate remarks that media figures Coulter and Don Imus make regularly.
"There is no question in my mind that intolerance is a direct cause of one of our greatest and most threatening problems: the growing disparity between rich and poor, between haves and have nots, between working people and all those powerful forces who do not have their best interests in mind," he said in a speech in April. "Because guess what? The people that are usually the targets of intolerance and bigotry are too often the same people who suffer from lack of opportunity, the same people who are left behind. And as long as intolerance pervades our culture, it's far too easy for politicians in Washington to ignore the big changes we need to make in order to end poverty once and for all."
He's also linked extreme poverty at the global level to the seeds of war and terror. His Working Society plan would create 1 million public "stepping-stone" jobs, raise the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour and strengthen labor laws to allow more unionization.
Many of his supporters in Tampa Bay list the poverty fight at the top of the reasons they support Edwards. At a close second is his universal health-care plan, the first released by the Democratic candidates and still the most detailed.
"The Republicans are feeding the country a fear of socialized medicine, and that's not really what [the Democratic] plans are," said Michael Musetta, the owner of a Tampa court reporting firm who attended the Yerrid-Wilkes fundraiser. Musetta said he has seen his business health-care costs increase $2,000 a month in the past two years for the same policy-same coverage plan for his 19 court reporters.
Edwards' plan would require employers to either provide or help finance health-care insurance for their workers. He would then expand Medicare and other government health-care programs, reform the insurance industry, pass new tax credits for health care and create regional health care purchasing-pool markets to contain costs. Finally, once those provisions are in place, Edwards' plan would require every U.S. resident to obtain health insurance.
For many fans, Edwards is also a very pragmatic choice, someone they believe can reach out to moderate Republican voters more than Clinton and Obama.
"I want to win," said Smith, the St. Petersburg consultant and blogger. "Let's step back from everything else; I need a Democrat in the White House. I'm looking at who really gives us the best shot in 2008. I'd support Hillary if she was the nominee, but I don't think she gives us the best chance to win. Elections are about the future anyway. We need to look at the future."
Disclaimer: The author once worked as a public relations consultant to Steve Yerrid.
Edwards' One Corps in Pinellas
The Pinellas County One Corps is holding an old-fashioned Jamboree on Wednesday (July 25) from 6-8 p.m. in Largo. It will feature a family barbecue, games for kids, a poster-painting contest, sack race and greased watermelon. It is open to all Tampa Bay One Corps members or anyone who wants to learn more about the Edwards campaign. For details and location, go to blog.johnedwards.com/event/2438.