In choosing Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as his running mate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has pushed the volatile issue of tort reform onto center stage in the presidential campaign, intensifying splits between consumer and business interests and lobbies.
Edwards, a successful trial lawyer, has raised millions of dollars from colleagues in the trial lawyer bar, by far the single most important source of cash in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In his Senate and presidential races, Edwards raised a total of $25.1 million in amounts of $200 or more that require identification of the donors' occupations. Fully two-thirds of that money, $16.7 million, came from lawyers and law firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Early in the contest for the Democratic nomination, Edwards shot up to the first tier of candidates by dominating fundraising in the first quarter. He raised $7.4 million, with 3,220 lawyers, 29 paralegals, 17 legal assistants and 555 people with the same address as a contributing lawyer (often the spouse or close relative), providing $4.65 million, or 63 percent.
Of the top 10 employers of donors to Edwards's presidential campaign, nine are plaintiffs' law firms.
Edwards's ties to the plaintiffs' bar have already begun to galvanize major Washington business lobbies, many of which normally avoid direct involvement in presidential elections.
At the same time, the addition of Edwards to the Kerry ticket is likely to boost political and financial support from trial lawyers and from the many consumer groups that view trial lawyers as crucial to the regulation of business.
Trial lawyers specialize in representing individuals and large classes of people charging that the actions and products of corporations, hospitals, doctors and other defendants inflicted serious harm.
Some of the celebrated cases include the $246 billion tobacco settlement in 1998, ongoing asbestos suits involving hundreds of corporations and thousands of plaintiffs, the Ford Explorer rollover-Firestone tire blowout cases and hundreds of medical malpractice and product liability suits filed annually.
President Bush has repeatedly called for legislation to rein in trial lawyers, a stand the business community has backed up with cash and an army of lobbyists. Bush is seeking to limit medical malpractice cases and to put some class-action cases under less favorable federal jurisdiction
The Institute for Legal Reform -- an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has an annual budget of $40 million to finance local, state and federal efforts to restrict tort suits, limit the scope of defendant liability and limit damage awards.
In interviews, Edwards has said he welcomes Republican efforts to make his work as a trial lawyer a campaign issue. His campaign autobiography, "Four Trials," is about his work as a plaintiffs' lawyer.
Fred Baron, one of the nation's best-known trial lawyers, served as finance chairman of the Edwards presidential campaign. He now co-chairs the Kerry-Edwards Victory '04 committee, which is asking for maximum contributions of $27,000 -- with $25,000 going to the Democratic National Committee and the remaining $2,000 to the Kerry campaign.
Baron played down prospects for a surge of new cash from plaintiffs' lawyers, contending that "the trial lawyer community was already completely behind Senator Kerry" before Edwards was picked as a running mate.
There are a little more than three weeks left before Kerry must abandon private-sector fundraising, so most of any additional financial support that Edwards brings in would go to the DNC.
Business contributors provoked by the choice of Edwards are likely to turn to the Republican National Committee. Both national party committees can help their presidential candidates during the general election.
Greg Casey, president and chief executive of the Business Industry Political Action Committee, said the formation of a Kerry-Edwards ticket "allows us to make a stark contrast. . . . This is a statement to the business community that 'you don't count.' "
Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said, "There aren't many things today that cause an immediate emotional reaction, but the nerves of the business community really ping when you hear the phrase 'trial lawyer.' Trial lawyers are really viewed as just being predators."
Before Edwards was picked, Thomas J. Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, unsuccessfully sought to nip the choice of Edwards in the bud by threatening in an interview with Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal to end his group's neutrality in the presidential contest to work against Kerry.
The chamber's fight with the trial law bar "is so fundamental to what we do . . . that we can't walk away from it," Donohue said.