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Edwards’ anti-war, pro-labor candidacy swings through Chapel Hill

by Jordan Green

A clutch of white men wearing Teamsters jackets huddle around the outside of a crowd pen anchored by a stage that is bracketed with two giant unfurled American flags and that seats a more multihued group of supporters clad in the loud red T-shirts of the UNITE!/HERE union there on the main lawn of the shopping center.

The audience -‘ mostly middle aged to elderly and multiracial with a sprinkling of students – has left cars in parking lots about a quarter mile away. They stroll past the gourmet foods grocery up Market Street at Southern Village in Chapel Hill, which despite its all-American Main Street affectations is actually a planned retail and residential cluster anchored by a large stone Methodist church.

They arrive in BMWs, Volvos and more modest conveyances – Democratic party operatives, veteran civil rights and labor union activists and academics among them -‘ to witness the homecoming of former North Carolina Senator John Edwards on the final stop of his six-state whirlwind tour only two days after his unsurprising presidential campaign announcement in hurricane-battered New Orleans.

The crowd appears to be divided on whether Edwards is the right man to head the Democratic ticket in 2008, but anticipation for his appearance is palpable, whether out of adulation, sympathetic interest or curiosity about the political horserace.

“One thing that impressed me about him is that he voted for the war and admitted that he made a mistake,” says Jeanine Rodgers, a retired secretary visiting from Michigan who waited three hours in the rain to see Edwards during the 2004 presidential campaign. “We certainly need to get our troops out of there. He focuses on poverty issues, so he would raise the minimum wage, and I’m sure he would push universal healthcare.”

John Paul Middlesworth, a 45-year-old teacher at UNC-Chapel Hill, allows that Edwards is “saying smart things,” but says he’s still considering New York Senator Hillary and Illinois Senator Barack Obama – two presumed frontrunners in the Democratic primary who have yet to announce their candidacies.

“What worries me is his foreign policy experience – that’s no secret,” he says. “Bush was an example of someone who had no experience. Edwards is probably more capable and more curious.”

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a southwest Virginia Democratic strategist clad in a yellow dress shirt, cap and blue jeans, introduces the Del McCoury Band and strolls the press corridor surveying the crowd.

Saunders, known for helping Democratic candidates such as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner pursue the so-called “NASCAR dad” demographic, denies choosing McCoury for the event.

“John Edwards is a huge bluegrass fan,” he says.

Near the side of the stage, where the informal powerbrokers, hangers-on and jobseekers gather, publicist Anne Hainsworth and non-profit director Harris Johnson enthuse about the outlook of the Democrats as the band warms up the crowd with its courtly style of bluegrass music.

After relocating from Washington, DC, Hainsworth has been in Chapel Hill for about a week. She’s signed on as a volunteer with the Edwards campaign, specifically to blog about her support. Although she makes her living working for a public relations firm she insists that her presence here and her expressed support represent her true feelings and are not motivated by any paid consulting arrangement.

“This reminds me a lot of the Clinton campaign in 1992,” Hainsworth says. “You see all these kids here who can’t vote, but they’re getting involved any way they can. I was sixteen when I worked on the Clinton campaign.”

Johnson, who worked on Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaigns going back through the 1980s and 1970s and before that on efforts to unionized hospital and cafeteria workers at Duke University in the 1960s, is no less a party loyalist.

“All the progress we’ve made in civil rights has been under Southern Democratic presidents, starting with Harry Truman,” he says.

Despite his efforts trying to help Chisholm and Jackson break the presidential color barrier, Johnson has no encouraging words for Obama.

“As far as I’m concerned we only have two viable candidates,” he says. “I’d like to see Edwards as the presidential candidate and Hillary Clinton as the vice-presidential candidate. Obama – he needs to put his ego in his hip pocket. He needs to know the game. Popularity doesn’t get it.”

When Edwards appears onstage, waving and standing in blue jeans and a fleece jacket to take in the sweet twilight air and applause, he hardly has to speak a word to fulfill expectations.

Edwards lays out several themes and positions in clear, specific language, starting with the war in Iraq.

“I want to say to you unequivocally and with no question that I reject and reject categorically an escalation of this war,” he says. “I reject the [John] McCain doctrine of surging our troops. First of all, where are the troops going to come from? We need to show the Iraqis that we have the intention of leaving, and the best way to do that is to start withdrawing our troops.”

Edwards suggests he would like to have the US military extricated from the Middle East to allow for humanitarian interventions to uphold human rights around the world – to, as he says, “restore moral leadership to the world.”

“Tonight there is a genocide going on in Darfur,” he says. “My country, our country, said after Rwanda we would never let this happen again. The exact phrase was, ‘Not on our watch.’ Where is America?”

Edwards says the United States should lead the world in combating global warming and reducing dependency on carbon-based fuels.

“It’s time for leaders to ask Americans to be patriotic in more ways than just going to war,” he says. “It is time for us to ask Americans to sacrifice and drive more fuel-efficient cars.”

Edwards’ signature issue is reducing poverty.

“We cannot stand by and watch thirty-seven million people wake up and worry about feeding their children,” he says. “There are some simple things we can do. We can raise the minimum wage. We can make it easier to join and form a labor union. If you can join the Republican Party by signing your name on a card, you should be able to join a union by signing your name on a card.”

When he leaves the stage, Edwards and his wife Elizabeth find the crowd clamoring to press their flesh.

Whether the passionate throngs are any indication of the candidate’s prospects in moderate North Carolina or the more solidly conservative South is difficult to predict. Chapel Hill is, after all, is the liberal oasis that was once mocked as “a zoo” by former Senator Jesse Helms.

With pundits like Thomas F. Schaller, author of the recently published Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South advising the party to look to the Midwest and Rocky Mountains for voters, whether the party leadership commits resources to the South and shows favor to Edwards remains to be seen.

After the rally, Saunders calls the sacrifice-the-South strategy “immoral,” adding that “politics is about addition, not subtraction.”

As to whether Edwards’ classically progressive message will fall too far to the left to suit the Southern electorate, Saunders attempts to reformulate the equation.

“It’s been said that it’s the rich versus the poor,” he says. “John Edwards knows there’s a lot more to being rich than economics. There’s serenity and peace of mind. It’s really the greedy against the rest of us. If you’re greedy you best do everything you can to stop this man.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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