Tar Heel archconservative Lauch Faircloth finds himself in a tough race against a personable Democrat who’s got a populist approach and money, too.
Originally published in The Nation.
JOHN EDWARDS KNOWS HE’S WALKING INTO THE LION’S DEN. It’s the Thursday before Labor Day, and the Democratic US Senate candidate is about to address the Rotary Club of Crabtree, a mostly white, mostly male group of business owners and managers in Raleigh, North Carolina. Edwards, one of the nation’s most successful trial lawyers, has been barnstorming the state with a message aimed at millworkers and secretaries, and it’s not one likely to resonate at a gentlemen’s lunch.
Before the chicken parmesan is served buffet-style, the local Rotary president pulls me aside. “Why is this race so important?” he asks. I explain that there are only two states, North Carolina and New York, where the Democrats have any shot at defeating a Republican senator in November’s elections. He looks embarrassed by what he’s about to ask, then blurts it out. “And who’s the Republican?”
The Republican is Lauch Faircloth, a 70-year-old farmer, businessman and career state bureaucrat, a former Democrat so conservative that he refers to Jesse Helms as North Carolina’s liberal senator. First elected in 1992, Faircloth has been a bulldog of a lawmaker, championing environmental deregulation and railing against government spending. One of the Senate’s most vehement backers of welfare reform, he took a more draconian stand on cutting benefits to unwed teen mothers and legal immigrants than his own party could tolerate.
As a lead inquisitor on the Senate’s special Whitewater committee, Faircloth’s criticisms of the Clintons and questions about the Vince Foster suicide were so harsh and relentless — “for this White House, their reputation for ethical integrity has become their worst enemy,” he once said — that committee chairman Alfonse D’Amato had to curb the senator’s zeal. Faircloth plays a leading part in the Whitewater conspiracy theory because of his friendship with Judge David Sentelle, independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s No. 1 defender. Shortly after Sentelle hired Starr, Faircloth hired Sentelle’s wife as a receptionist. And in 1995 Faircloth hired right-wing activist David Bossie, who helped compile the book Slick Willie: Why America Cannot Trust Bill Clinton, as a staffer for the Whitewater probe. Moreover, Faircloth has used his role as chairman of a Senate appropriations subcommittee to help strip District of Columbia officials of control over their city government. “Just as you’d expect, I’ve incurred the wrath of Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry,” he said in a recent fundraising letter.
But the Rotary president could be forgiven for not knowing Faircloth’s name. For all his national exposure, Faircloth has failed to make a strong impression on his constituents back home. This summer, a poll commissioned by the Charlotte Observer and the local NBC affiliate found that 60 percent of North Carolina’s eligible voters had formed no opinion of Faircloth whatsoever, even after his five-plus years in the Senate and almost forty in public life. Republican activists acknowledge that Faircloth has been unable to crawl out from Helms’s shadow.
Little wonder the Democrats are optimistic that, unless Monicagate brings down the entire party, they might have in John Edwards the Wunderkind candidate who could recapture a Senate seat that has flopped back and forth between the parties since the mid-seventies. With the GOP a mere five votes shy of a filibuster-proof Senate, the Democrats have a lot riding on the 45-year-old Edwards. He is an imagemaker’s dream: an athletic, wealthy, hometown boy with blue eyes, a boyish smile and a cleft chin straight out of central casting. A Raleigh trial lawyer, he made his eight-figure fortune suing doctors, hospitals and corporations on behalf of injured clients. He has won settlements for the families of children harmed by improper delivery, a woman paralyzed when her truck-driver husband fell asleep at the wheel and the family of a 9-year-old girl whose intestines were sucked out by a swimming pool drain. In the drain case, he won more than $30 million.
His battles with the powers that be have turned Edwards into something of a populist — albeit a populist with a hefty bank account. “I’ve spent the last twenty years representing people against powerful institutions: insurance companies, banks,” he told me. “These are the people I have the strongest feelings about, and they’re 98 percent of all North Carolinians. These are the people who are left out of the process.” In his campaign travels across the state, Edwards has pledged that, unlike the incumbent, he will be the voice of those who have been screwed over by the mighty, be they rural communities whose rivers have been contaminated or patients who can’t get lifesaving medical procedures because of HMO greed.
But today, there’s the matter of the Rotary Club. And standing at the podium, facing this group of businessmen from his hometown, Edwards seems temporarily at a loss for what to say. He asks them to imagine themselves as fetuses, with the unique ability to legislate from the womb. The catch: They don’t know whether they’ll be born rich or poor, black or white, athletic or disabled. “What every one of you would do is what I would do,” he says. “We would be very, very careful of how we spent your money.” But, he adds, we would also help the needy. “Some people, including the elderly, need protection in this world. We need to provide safety nets when they’re absolutely necessary.” So far, he sounds like a moderate Republican. But then Edwards shifts gears. Too many people, he says, “believe that [government] decisions are going to be made by someone who flies into Washington in a Learjet, someone who gave a gazillion dollars to a politician. If you want to know what this election is about, I can say it simply. It’s about restoring faith. It’s about making people believe that they have a voice again, and their voice matters, and that the government is not some foreign thing — it belongs to you.” This might sound like tempered reformist liberalism in some states, but in North Carolina, where the political arena is entirely dominated by the business plutocracy, words like these are dynamite.
The businessmen applaud politely, and then one asks a question: Will Edwards support tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools? “I suspect you and I disagree,” Edwards replies. “I do not support the diversion of public resources away from the public school system.”
The Rotarian looks disappointed. “There goes my vote,” he says. The room erupts in laughter, and even Edwards smiles.
IF ELECTIONS WERE RATIONAL, this one would be a cakewalk for Edwards. Ideology aside, Faircloth has such a tainted record that his own party should be ashamed of him. Ever since his days as state highway commission chief, when he built roads to his own car dealership and shopping center, Faircloth has been a wheeler-dealer, repeatedly using public office to promote policies that have enriched his campaign contributors and himself. Roll Call magazine called the senator “Un-Faircloth” for his efforts to move Interstate 73 closer to a large tract where the Jefferson-Pilot insurance company was planning to build a shopping mall. At the time, Faircloth owned more than $750,000 in Jefferson-Pilot stock.
Back home, the senator has gotten more heat for his agribusiness operations. Faircloth owns 300,000 pigs, 3,500 head of cattle and the bulk of a 140,000-pound tobacco allotment. The cattle operation has been linked to a fish kill contaminating more than thirty miles of pristine river and creek, and a feed mill he co-owns has been cited for numerous environmental and worker-safety violations. What’s more, Faircloth owns more than $1 million worth of stock in Lundy Packing Co., a hog processing company that was recently fined $65,000 when an 18-year-old worker was killed in an industrial meat blender. It was the worst of several gruesome accidents. In addition, more than fifty Lundy employees have contracted brucellosis, a hog-borne infection.
Despite this record, Faircloth maintains that the government over-regulates businesses and landowners, and much of his lawmaking career has been aimed at removing those regulations. In 1995 he drafted a bill that would have tied the states’ hands in regulating wetlands and reduced the amount of federally protected wetlands by at least 60 percent. Sue Sturgis, a staff writer at The Independent in Durham, reported that Faircloth owns an estimated 500 acres of wetlands, and his legislation would have increased the value of some of them dramatically. Sturgis also noted that Faircloth’s plan to weaken the Clean Air Act would have profited both Lundy Packing Co. and Smithfield Foods, a large hog processor in which the senator owned $100,000 worth of stock. The Feds have called Smithfield a major pollution source. Faircloth has never been cited by the Senate ethics committee — not even in 1994, when he helped convince then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy to help sell hogs, including Faircloth’s own, in the former Soviet Union. The deal brought in at least $50,000 in sales for Faircloth, according to The Independent.
When he’s not helping himself, Faircloth spends a fair amount of time helping his campaign contributors. For example, he has collected $150,000 from anesthesiologists — and sponsored a bill requiring that physicians supervise anesthesia in Medicare-funded procedures. (The Clinton Administration was getting ready to allow states to decide whether nurse anesthetists needed supervision.)
“I’m just dazzled by the bucketloads coming in from special interest — and then his turning around and doing special favors,” says Bob Hall, research director for Democracy South, a North Carolina-based watchdog group. Hall has documented similar Faircloth quid pro quo deals for mobile home manufacturers, mortgage insurance firms and the nuclear power industry. Faircloth’s campaign manager, Chuck Fuller, calls the allegations “fabricated charges by overly ambitious reporters and the Democrat Party, with no evidence to back up the charges.”
In recent months, as the election has come into view, Faircloth has been scrambling to soften his image. Unlike Jesse Helms, who savors his role in bitter Old South/New South electoral showdowns, Faircloth is a pragmatist before he’s an ideologue. Since the campaign has swung into high gear, he has boasted of fighting for $40 million for North Carolina conservation projects, including $15 million for research into pfiesteria, an organism linked to fish kills and human neurological disorders. And after several years of voting against funding for breast cancer research, Faircloth has become a champion of the 40-cent breast-cancer postage stamp. “The next time you go to the local post office, you can become a foot soldier in the war against breast cancer;’ he said during the Republican response to President Clinton’s August 8 radio address. He has also backpedaled on his opposition to regulating HMOs, supporting a business-friendly version of patients’ rights legislation.
Paul Luebke, a Democratic state legislator and author of the forthcoming Tar Heel Politics 2000, believes Faircloth is playing to the new breed of North Carolinian: white professionals, many of them transplants, working in high-tech jobs in metropolitan areas. They don’t have strong political preferences, but they like their conservatism sprinkled with a bit of humanity. A senator who fights against tax hikes but supports breast-cancer and environmental research suits them fine. Faircloth knows that to keep their votes, he must switch gears and stop sounding like North Carolina’s more famous senator. “He’s not using the push-button rhetoric,” Luebke says, predicting that Faircloth “will not engage in the anti-gay campaigns that are Helms’s trademark.”
THE NORTH CAROLINA DEMOCRATIC ESTABLISHMENT has always felt profoundly uncomfortable with anything resembling liberalism. While some GOP politicians like Helms embrace the extreme, the Democrats continue to hug the middle, even veering right of center when necessary. Governor Jim Hunt, the state’s top Democrat, supports schools, roads, economic development and the death penalty. Even Harvey Gantt, the former grassroots activist and Charlotte mayor who twice ran against Helms, abandoned his liberal base in the 1996 campaign, touting such ideas as Clinton’s welfare-reform proposal.
Yet now Edwards is pushing a populist platform. He has hurled his strongest words against health insurers who stand in the way of sound medical decisions by doctors and patients. Though he has not called for a total overhaul of the health-care system, Edwards has been pushing for a sweeping patients’ bill of rights, which would allow consumers to choose their own doctors, give doctors greater leeway in explaining treatment options and insure greater access to specialists. “I think it just infuriates people that medical decisions, things that affect their lives and their children’s lives, are being made by some bureaucrat sitting behind some computer screen up in Hartford, Connecticut,” he said in one television ad.
That kind of language encourages progressives in the state, who believe the Democrats’ business-friendly moderation is the cause of the party’s recent slide. (The GOP controls half of North Carolina’s Congressional seats, along with the state House, which would have been unthinkable ten years ago.) When they do not appeal to working-class voters, the Democrats leave them looking for a champion. Many then turn toward a Republican Party pushing race-coded, anti-poor and homophobic rhetoric.
“For the first time, a politician in North Carolina is unabashedly saying corporate America often doesn’t act in the best interests of the people,” says Chris Fitzsimon, director of the Raleigh-based Common Sense Foundation. “I believe him when he says that he’s spent his whole professional life working with people who have been wronged by corporations, and now he wants to do that on a macro-level.”
THE PROBLEM IS THAT EDWARDS’S POPULISM is a bit thin, not reaching much beyond his attacks on HMOs, insurance companies and the occasional polluter. Many of his most talked-about positions seem right from the mainstream Democratic playbook: requiring criminal background checks on daycare workers, funneling more education dollars into the classroom, setting a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 as the national drunk-driving standard. Other stands, like his enthusiastic support for the death penalty, are indistinguishable from Faircloth’s. And whenever he might be associated with national liberals, Edwards runs the other way. At a convention of trial lawyers this summer, Ralph Nader heaped praise on the candidate, saying, “If the Democratic National Committee had any brains, they would take Johnny Edwards’s presentation in North Carolina for regular people and send it to every candidate all over the country.” When asked for his response, Edwards kept a cool distance. “I think Ralph Nader has done some good things in the past,” he said. “There are probably some issues he and I don’t agree on.”
“Edwards is trying to be a populist but not be viewed as too liberal,” says campaign-finance-reform activist Hall. “He’s trying to play more to the Southern ‘we gotta stand up and fight against the sons of bitches who are trying to take advantage of us.'” It’s true that social liberalism, on issues such as gay rights and the death penalty, doesn’t play well in North Carolina. But for Edwards to win, he needs to shake his reputation as an ambulance chaser and convince voters that his economic populism runs deeper than bashing HMOs — that on all issues, from workers’ rights to progressive taxation, he’s willing to fully confront North Carolina’s plutocracy.