U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) doesn’t need to represent a state with a lot of Jews to understand the needs of the Jewish community, supporters say.
"In a lot of ways, John Edwards transcends North Carolina," said Lonnie Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who backed Edwards when he sought the Democratic nomination for president earlier this year.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who defeated Edwards to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president earlier this year, named the trial lawyer-turned-legislator as his running mate Tuesday.
Speaking to supporters in Pittsburgh, Kerry described Edwards as "man whose life has prepared him for leadership, and whose character brings him to exercise it."
The much-anticipated announcement didn’t trigger the same elation among Jews that Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s selection did four years ago when the Connecticut Democrat became the first Jewish name on a national ticket.
But there is seemingly solid support among Jewish Democrats hoping that Edwards’ selection will help bolster Kerry’s bid to unseat President Bush.
The National Jewish Democratic Council called Edwards "an outstanding friend of the American Jewish community and a powerful supporter [of the positions] held by the vast majority of American Jews."
As the number of candidates dwindled in the Democratic primary last winter, several significant Jewish contributors became enamored with Edwards. Activists like Kaplan, who initially backed Lieberman, found in Edwards a solid supporter of Israel and someone able to connect with Jewish voters on issues of importance.
"His basic instincts are in line with the community," said Ryan Karben, a Jewish state assemblyman in New York who represents an area with several Chasidic communities. "That’s reassuring because it doesn’t come across as contrived or gleaned from years of meetings."
Karben brought Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, to a meeting with the New York Board of Rabbis when she was campaigning for her husband for the state’s primary. At the time, Elizabeth spoke of her belief in a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, participants said.
The Jewish community has had a lot less contact with Edwards than with Lieberman or other candidates who came to national campaigns with decades of Washington experience.
But supporters and Jewish analysts say Edwards has warm ties with Jews in his state.
Edwards was a highly successful trial lawyer in North Carolina seven years ago when he sought a seat in the U.S. Senate, largely financing his own campaign. That meant Edwards didn’t spend as much time as other aspiring lawmakers courting support and dollars in the Jewish community, both in and out of his state, North Carolina Jewish activists said.
"He didn’t seek out the Jewish community," unlike others who "go from candidate event to candidate event begging for money," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a Democratic political consultant from North Carolina who made a failed bid for Congress in 1994. "Because he was self-financed, he could avoid a lot of that."
Edwards nonetheless has earned Jews’ respect. He has a solid voting record on Israel, pro-Israel lobbyists say, and he emphasizes issues that resonate with many Jewish voters: health, education and poverty.
Edwards visited Israel with colleagues from the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001 and was there when a suicide bomber attacked a Sbarro restaurant in downtown Jerusalem.
"I think the trip left on him an understanding," said Randall Kaplan, a Greensboro businessman who is a board member for AIPAC. "He really gets the strategic issues, the existential issues."
In a statement during his presidential bid, Edwards said he would, as president, increase U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the appointment of a senior envoy to the region.
He said he supports a two-state solution, with the Jewish State of Israel and "a legitimate, democratic and territorially viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace."
And he signaled support for Israel’s anti-terrorism tactics, including the security barrier Israel is erecting in the West Bank.
"As long as the Palestinian leadership fails to end terror, Israel has a right to take measures to defend itself," Edwards said. "Such defensive measures are not the cause of terrorism — they are the response to terrorism."
As part of the rollout of Edwards as a candidate for vice president, Kerry’s campaign took note of his foreign policy experience, including meetings he has had with Middle East leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; former Prime Minister Shimon Peres; Ephraim Halevy, who heads the Mossad intelligence service; Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and Jordanian King Abdullah II.
On the domestic front, Edwards said that he supports faith-based charities delivering social services "in a manner consistent with the First Amendment," but did not specify whether he supports federal funding for such charities.
But in contrast to the Bush administration’s plan that allows religious charities to receive federal funds while allowing the hiring of individuals of a specific religion, Edwards said the charities should follow anti-discrimination standards.
He is a former co-sponsor of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, legislation that has languished in Congress for years and would give employees the right to seek accommodations for their religious practices. While Edwards has not put his name to the legislation this year, Jewish organizational officials say he is expected to support the legislation if it moves forward for a vote.
A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Edwards has called for changes to the USA Patriot Act, which some say strips away civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.
He also has actively backed hate crime legislation that would expand federal authority for prosecuting hate crimes.
He has a high rating from abortion rights activists but was absent from Senate votes on the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.
While he was running for president, Edwards emphasized his experience growing up poor in the South and how that helped shape an outlook that makes him attractive to groups that see themselves as outsiders scrambling to get in.
"I feel such a personal responsibility when it comes to issues of civil rights and race," Edwards told voters at a New Hampshire restaurant last December, shortly before the state’s primary.
In his stump speech, Edwards said the color of one’s skin or any other circumstances of birth "should never control your destiny."
"I’ll never forget when I was in the sixth grade — I was living in Georgia at the time — my sixth grade teacher walked into the classroom at the end of the day and said he wouldn’t be teaching next year because they were about to integrate the schools, and he wouldn’t teach in an integrated school," Edwards told high school students attending a forum at the Nashua Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire. "He unfortunately didn’t use the language that I just used."
Born in South Carolina on June 10, 1953, Edwards and his family soon moved to North Carolina, where he spent most of his childhood. He was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from North Carolina State University in 1974. He received a law degree from the UNC at Chapel Hill in 1977.
Edwards’ specialty in law was personal-injury cases involving children. He won a record-setting verdict for Valerie Lakey, a girl who was severely injured by a faulty swimming pool drain in 1993.
He was apolitical until the 1996 death of his eldest son, Wade — who was killed at age 16 in a car accident — changed Edwards’ life.
"When John walked out of the church for Wade’s funeral, all he said was, ‘Something good has got to come from this,’" said Fred Baron, who was the co-finance chairman of Edwards’ presidential campaign and a former president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "You saw a transformation."
Edwards withdrew completely for six months, friends said, and walked away from his law practice.
"He decided at that point that he wanted to do something other than the strict practice of law," said Ken Broun, a former dean of UNC’s law school. He wanted a larger mission, and he chose to challenge incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a Republican.
"When he decided to run for political office, it made incredible sense to me because of his incredible talent to connect with people," said Bill Cassell, a longtime Edwards friend and former Jewish federation campaign chairman in Greensboro.
Kaplan, the Greensboro businessman, remembers early meetings Edwards held with Jews in the community.
"When he first started considering the Senate race, he was a great listener," Kaplan told JTA earlier this year. "He was as knowledgeable as someone can get when they first run for office but didn’t have first-hand experience."
Upon his election in 1998, Edwards continued listening.
"A lot of times you go into a Senate office and they just repeat back to you the party line," Kaplan said. "With John, he would really listen and you could tell he was really thinking about it."
Edwards, a Methodist, has a good grasp on the religious politics of his state, friends say.
"Up until the last 15 years, this was a fairly lonely place for Jews and Catholics," Broun said. "I think he understands that."
In a statement Edwards wrote for JTA, he said, "Faith is enormously important to me personally and to tens of millions of Americans."
Edwards’ friends say the candidate is privately spiritual. Cassell said that Elizabeth Edwards "wouldn’t let him be any other way."
The couple, married in 1977, have three living children. Their eldest daughter, Cate, is a recent graduate of Princeton University. They have another daughter, Emma Claire, 6, and a son, Jack, 4.
Baron described Edwards as someone with "a great deal of inner peace."
"I’ve never seen him look troubled or act troubled," he said. "If he has a bad day, he just moves on to the next one."