Business associations in Washington were uniformly hostile yesterday to John Kerry's choice of Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as his running mate, promising that a trial lawyer on the ticket will energize them and their members to defeat the Democrats in November.
But beyond the Beltway, business reaction to the Edwards pick appeared to be determined by whether an executive was more concerned about domestic litigation costs or foreign competition. Edwards's tough talk on China during the Democratic primaries and his oft-expressed concern for businesses squeezed by low-cost competitors abroad made an impression on some.
"Personally, I like John Edwards," said James J. Zawacki, chief executive of G.R. Spring & Stamping Inc., in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a self-described political conservative. "He's been saying the right thing about manufacturing. He has real appeal to people. I don't like trial lawyers, I've got to say that. But I go with what he was saying about manufacturing."
On the other hand, if jackpot jury settlements were foremost in an executive's mind, Edwards did not sit well.
"One of the largest issues that we're fighting right now is the cost of doing business," said Kendig Kneen, owner and chief executive of Al-jon Inc., a scrap metal processing equipment maker in Ottumwa, Iowa. "And unquestionably a lot of those costs come from litigation of one kind or another."
For organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers, the case against Edwards was open and shut.
"A lot of people just don't understand that Enemy No. 1 for large and small business is not China, it's not terrorism," said Jerry Jasinowski, NAM president. "It's the extreme trial lawyers."
Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, vowed that his group would abandon its neutrality and work to defeat the Democrats.
"Senator Edwards has a fancy campaign slogan about 'two Americas,' " said Republican former House majority leader Dick Armey, now chairman of the business-backed Citizens for a Sound Economy. "He's right. There is the productive America, filled with decent, honest folks who work hard and pay their taxes. And then there's the America that John Edwards represents: the well-connected swarm of trial lawyers who twist our legal system to pillage the productive sector for personal gain."
Kerry's advisers showed little concern about such statements. Associations in Washington may profess to speak for the nation's businesses, they say, but with business interests now so diffuse and economic issues so complex, lobbying groups have less influence with their members. In the past, such groups exercised their power by helping direct campaign contributions to a preferred candidate. But with Kerry and Bush financially competitive this year, that influence may be waning.
Paul Kennedy, president of Kennedy Die Castings Inc., in Worcester, Mass., said the NAM, for instance, had become "slave to the agendas of companies that are very, very large."
"I have my biases, but if I was against every lawyer in the country because he went to law school, I couldn't vote for anyone, could I?" Kennedy asked.
Edwards's selection could complicate efforts by the Kerry campaign to reach out to business leaders, some campaign advisers conceded. But ultimately, Edwards will be a help, if only because the choice will convince businesses Kerry may just win, they said.
"There's an immediate sense that this ticket will win the whole election," said Roger Altman, a Wall Street investment banker and economic adviser to Kerry. "And that's relevant because the business community, like every other community, responds to winners."
Kneen, a Bush supporter, conceded the point: "The ticket is more of a threat to Republican Party with [Edwards] on it. It was a wise choice."
No one is suggesting Kerry will put a sizable dent in Bush's business support. Already, Bush's campaign contributions from business interests have significantly outpaced Kerry's, according to the non-partisan watchdog Political Moneyline.
Altman and another Wall Street financier, Stephen Rattner of the Quadrangle Group, have been leading a behind-the-scenes effort to woo just enough high-profile executives to the Kerry camp to demonstrate the Massachusetts senator's broad appeal. So far, they have had a few successes, winning the endorsements of Apple Computer Inc.'s Steve Jobs, investor Warren Buffett, and last month, former Chrysler chief Lee A. Iacocca.
Edwards would not derail that effort, organizers say. For one thing, his long track record of malpractice lawsuits, product-liability litigation, and catastrophic truck accident cases does not include the bane of many businesses' existence: massive class-action suits that have bankrupted whole industries.
For another, Edwards's charm will smooth over concerns about his trial-lawyer background, they predicted. The campaign hopes to bring Edwards to New York later this week for his first meetings with business leaders. Finally, Edwards is not Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the protectionist firebrand whom business interests really feared Kerry would select.
Some business executives also questioned what some called "the party line" coming out of business associations in Washington, and suggested they would be far more discerning in their response. Gary Henderson, purchasing manager of Aircraft Precision Products Inc. in Ithaca, Mich., said he wanted far more specifics on Edwards's legal record before he agreed the North Carolinian was so bad for business.