- Served one term (1998 to 2004) as a Democratic U.S. Senator from North Carolina
- Democratic Vice Presidential nominee in 2004
- Successful and immensely wealthy trial lawyer
John Edwards was born in June 1953 in Seneca, South Carolina. The first in his family to attend college, he earned an undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University in 1974 and a Juris Doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977. He began his career as an attorney by defending record companies accused of selling illegal copies of Elvis Presley recordings.
After moving to Raleigh in 1981, Edwards became a personal-injury lawyer, eventually specializing in cerebral palsy patient lawsuits that blamed doctors for causing this medical condition by waiting too long before performing caesarian sections to give birth to Edwards’ clients. In one famous case, Edwards swayed a jury and won a multimillion-dollar judgment by dramatically channeling the thoughts of the unborn child struggling in the womb.
During 20 years as a trial lawyer, Edwards was involved in 63 cases and secured more than $152 million in verdicts and settlements, pocketing a third or more of that money himself and amassing a fortune of as much as $70 million. He was welcomed into the Inner Circle of Advocates, a society of 100 personal-injury lawyers who had won cases of over $1 million.
In 1998 Edwards himself, along with Inner Circle members and other trial lawyers, put up 86 percent of the more than $9 million that Edwards used to narrowly defeat incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth (of North Carolina) by a 52-to-48 percent margin. Prior to his election, Edwards had shown little interest in politics, not even bothering to vote in many elections.
In 2000, despite having only two years’ experience in political office, Senator Edwards was almost chosen to be the running mate of Democrat presidential candidate Al Gore.
In 2001 Edwards launched his New American Optimists (NAO) Political Action Committee, a “527” Leadership PAC whose mission was to aid “Democratic candidates who support a reform agenda for giving people a greater control over their futures.” More than 70 percent of NAO’s contributions came from trial attorneys and their law firms or family members.
In fact, with rare exceptions such as Hollywood impresarios Steve Bing and Haim Saban and the investment firm Goldman Sachs, virtually every penny of Edwards’ political contributions from 1998 through 2004 came from trial lawyer-linked sources. (Contributors included low-paid staffers in law firms, one of whom admitted that she had been promised a $2,000 reimbursement for her donation to Edwards — an apparent laundering of an illegal campaign contribution by her bosses.)
In 2004 Edwards made a bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Failing that, he ultimately ran for Vice President on the ticket headed by Senator John Kerry.
While campaigning in 2003 and 2004, Edwards flew almost every day using the private corporate jets of six wealthy trial-attorney law firms. Campaign laws required Edwards to reimburse this customized luxury travel at only the cost of a first-class airline ticket for each flight. Even at this greatly reduced price, his campaign reimbursed a single law firm $138,000 for the use of its jet aircraft. That law firm was Baron & Budd P.C. of Dallas, Texas, whose founder Fred Baron was President of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America in 2001-2002. Baron also chaired the finance committee for Edwards’ political campaigns and became co-chair of the Kerry-Edwards Victory ’04 Committee.
In the November 2004 presidential election, the Kerry-Edwards team lost to Republicans George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Edwards, who had retired from his Senate seat after just one term, now set his sights on preparing for another run for President in 2008. Toward that end, he maintained an active schedule of personal appearances and public commentary on various issues.
In 2005 Edwards spoke at events organized by ACORN, the NAACP, and the Service Employees International Union. Among the topics he most commonly addressed were taxes, mortgage lending, housing integration, and education. In April 2006 Edwards and Senator Ted Kennedy spoke together at a rally for raising the minimum wage.
In September 2007 Edwards unveiled a universal health-care proposal which he proposed to fund with tax revenues derived from putting an end to President Bush’s tax cuts to people earning more than $200,000 per year.
Edwards’ 2008 presidential run failed to gain any traction, and he dropped out of the race on January 30 of that year.
In the summer of 2008, it was learned that Edwards had maintained an ongoing adulterous affair with former campaign worker Rielle Hunter. After initially denying the allegations, the former senator, confronted by the media with irrefutable proof, ultimately acknowledged the affair. However, he denied speculation that he had fathered the woman’s one-year-old child.
During his legislative career in the Senate, Edwards voted:
- in favor of a 2003 bill to ban oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge;
- against major tax-cut proposals in 1999, 2000, 2000 (again), 2001, and 2003;
- in favor of an October 2002 joint resolution to authorize the use of the U.S. Armed Forces against Iraq;
- against a 2004 proposal to make it an added criminal offense for someone to injure or kill a fetus while carrying out a crime against a pregnant woman; and
- against a 1999 bill designed to ban the late-term procedure commonly known as “partial-birth abortion.” (When the issue again came before the Senate in 2003, Edwards cast no vote.)
For an overview of Edwards’s voting record on an array of key issues during his Senate tenure, click here.
In June 2011 a federal grand jury in North Carolina indicted Edwards on four counts of illegally using more than $900,000 in contributions he had received for his 2008 presidential campaign, to cover up his affair with staffer Rielle Hunter and the pregnancy and birth of their daughter. Edwards was further charged with conspiracy and false statements. A criminal trial was scheduled to begin in October.
In a matter unrelated to the criminal case, in July 2011 the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ordered Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign to repay $2.3 million in federal campaign money which it had received from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which matches funds privately raised by a campaign. According to an FEC audit, the Edwards campaign had received more than it should have because of accounting errors. All told, the Edwards campaign had taken in $57 million, including $7.4 million in matching funds.