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Thursday, 07/08/04    |    Middle Tennessee News & Information

Edwards has represented big as well as little guys

  What do you think of John Kerry's choice of John Edwards as running mate?

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By BONNA de la CRUZ
Staff Writer

Vice presidential candidate John Edwards casts himself as a champion of regular folks, drawn from his years as a successful personal-injury lawyer who won awards for wronged victims.

But as a young lawyer in Nashville during the late 1970s and early '80s, Edwards did corporate defense work.

Among the clients he represented were the brake shoe manufacturer of a train that derailed in Waverly, Tenn., causing a propane explosion that killed at least 16 and injured 100; Amana Corp. in an antitrust case; and Commerce Union Bank in Nashville, now Bank of America.

Edwards, now a U.S. senator from North Carolina, was tapped by presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry on Tuesday to be his vice presidential running mate.

Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in Nashville from 1978 to 1981. They bought a two-story, colonial house on Hemingway Drive near Forest Hills and Belle Meade. Their first son, Wade, was born at Baptist Hospital.

Edwards was recruited and hired by Dearborn & Ewing, known then as a Republican firm. His first year there, he worked with Lamar Alexander, the Republican who became governor in 1979 and later made his own bids for the presidency.

Colleagues from the period said Edwards was a young star, recognized early as a good litigator at the firm where he learned to take his first depositions.

Elizabeth Edwards, who then used her maiden name, Elizabeth Anania, worked mostly on bankruptcy cases for the old Harwell Barr Martin & Sloan firm, said Craig Gabbert, who worked with her there. It is now Harwell Howard Hyne Gabbert & Manner.

Although Edwards is best known now for representing victims in wrongful death lawsuits, he's been on both sides.

Working on the Waverly case, Edwards defended the brake shoe company from lawsuits filed on behalf of those killed and injured, said Bill Earthman, who worked with him on the case.

The explosion was caused when a train wheel broke apart after becoming overheated. A tanker filled with liquid propane blew up, destroying an entire block of downtown Waverly, a community about 60 miles west of Nashville.

''This was the type of case John Edwards would have later on in his life represented one of the burn victims,'' said Earthman, who now works at Boult Cummings Conners & Berry.

Since his days as a corporate litigator in Nashville, Edwards has taken on manufacturers, hospitals and other corporations, winning record-setting judgments, as he likes to put it, for the little guy.

Lew Conner, another Dearborn alum and a former state Court of Appeals judge, does not read too much into the transformation from one kind of law practice to another.

''A trial lawyer is a trial lawyer. It's the art of convincing a trier of facts that you're right,'' said Conner, a prominent Republican and George W. Bush backer.

He recalled Edwards as charismatic and a very able young lawyer, and is not surprised Edwards took up wrongful death cases.

''There is a whole lot of money if you hit it big,'' Conner said.

Bob Warner was a senior litigator at Dearborn and mentored Edwards. ''I felt he was one of the finest and smartest associates we ever had,'' Warner said.

One of the few Democrats at the old firm, Warner said he doesn't like the way critics use Edwards' background as a personal-injuries lawyer against him.

''If Bush needed a lawyer, Edwards would be the one he'd want to pick,'' Warner said.

Edwards' old colleagues recalled the young attorney, just one year out of law school, as being very apolitical and saw no signs he would find his passion as a plaintiff's lawyer in personal injury cases.

''We knew he was going to be a successful lawyer, whatever law he did,'' Gabbert said.

But nobody ever talked about him ending up in the White House.

Conner, who was appointed by Alexander to the state Court of Appeals in 1980, said he helped hire Edwards and regretted that he wasn't around to keep Edwards from leaving the firm. Edwards left Nashville in 1981 and then practiced law in Raleigh, N.C.

''I can't remember if I knew he was a Democrat, but he was a very good young lawyer and (I) would have loved to have kept him,'' Conner said. But Conner doesn't think his former colleague would make a good vice president.

''He can be a very good cheerleader. But areas where we need the most, he has the least experience,'' said Conner, arguing that Edwards lacks experience fighting terrorism, in foreign relations and on economic issues.

''I never thought of him as a vice presidential candidate, but he had a chance to be an excellent lawyer, which he did become,'' Conner said.

Bonna de la Cruz can be reached at 726-4892 or bdelacruz@tennessean.com.


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