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Business Leaders React Cautiously to Edwards

Times Staff Writer

As corporate America cast a wary eye at Sen. John F. Kerry’s new running mate, the Democrat’s presidential campaign ramped up its outreach to business Wednesday, hoping the selection of Sen. John Edwards would increase support for the freshly minted ticket.

Comments from business leaders and trade associations about Edwards ranged from cautiously optimistic to downright disdainful. The National Assn. of Manufacturers blasted the North Carolina senator for what it described as his “conspicuous hostility to manufacturing and business.”

The biggest concern among many in the business community: Edwards’ career as a trial lawyer which made him a multimillionaire by representing plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases.

“Being a personal injury trial lawyer is a red flag for business people,” said Dyke Messinger, president and chief executive of Power Curbers Inc. of Salisbury, N.C.

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The manufacturer of curb and sidewalk equipment said he considered Edwards “an honorable man with good intentions.” But Messinger said he was going to support President Bush in November because he thought Edwards was not in favor of reforming the judicial system in ways that would protect businesses from what he viewed as onerous and frivolous litigation.

Fletcher Steele, president of Pine Hall Brick Co. of Winston-Salem, N.C., termed litigation reform the “one thing that unites the business community.”

Steele said most in industry thought Edwards’ true allegiance was “to keep the judicial system the way it is rather than support tort reform.”

“Obviously there are business people who will support the Democratic ticket,” Steele said. “But for those sitting on the fence, will he help persuade business people to support the Democratic ticket? I think the answer is no.”

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Tom Campbell, dean of the Hass School of Business at UC Berkeley and a former Republican congressman, said Kerry’s selection of Edwards as his running mate “was for reasons other than approaching business.”

Many Americans, he said, think there are too many lawsuits, that litigation costs jobs, that people file lawsuits instead of taking responsibility for their actions and that “these characteristics come to the fore in the person of Sen. Edwards.”

Campbell, who represented a Silicon Valley district in Congress, suggested that Edwards should “inoculate” himself by sponsoring some kind of litigation reform. If he does not do so, Campbell said, “he certainly runs the risk of having that used against the ticket.”

Edwards has called for a revamping of the medical malpractice system and has spoken out against what he has described as “frivolous lawsuits that don’t belong in court.”

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“If you cut through John Edwards’ record, he’s never been involved in a class-action lawsuit,” said Mark Gorenberg, a San Francisco venture capitalist and Kerry’s California finance chair. “His trials have strictly been for the benefit of individuals.”

He also said Edwards favored restrictions designed to thwart frivolous lawsuits.

Gorenberg argued that Edwards could prove appealing to business in general and high-tech in particular because he was an economic centrist “cut from the same pro-growth fiscal discipline cloth Bill Clinton was cut from.” In addition, he voted in favor of legislation in 2000 aimed at expanding trade with China.

Edwards agonized about the legislation at the time. North Carolina is a textile center, and many feared that it would cost the state jobs as cheaper clothing entered the country. But he eventually supported the measure.

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During the primary season, Edwards sought to differentiate himself from Kerry by taking a tougher stance on trade issues. He said he would not have voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement if he had been in the Senate when it was approved in 1993. Kerry, who voted in favor of the legislation, has since said that he would call for greater labor and environmental protections in future trade agreements.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Assn. of America in Arlington, Va., said that he was “hopeful” that Edwards would “be more reasonable on [trade] issues and understand that the future of the high-tech and biotech industries is outside of the U.S.”

He described Edwards as “kind of a mixed bag” on business issues. On the negative side, in Miller’s view, are his law career and his positions on international trade.

On the plus side, Miller said, Edwards “represents a high-tech state, with information technology and biotechnology, and he’s worked a lot with those companies and knows a lot about the IT industry and has been helpful on important issues -- Internet tax, intellectual property protection.”

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Kerry campaign aides Wednesday called dozens of business leaders to recruit their endorsements on the heels of the Edwards announcement.

Investor Warren Buffet, head of Berkshire Hathaway, former Chrysler chief executive Lee Iacocca and Apple chief executive Steve Jobs have already endorsed Kerry.

A list of 150 tech executives who support him is posted on his campaign website, and advisors promise more high-level business endorsements in the weeks to come.

“Edwards is a terrific choice,” said Roger Altman, a Kerry economics advisor and chairman of Evercore Partners, an investment banking and private equity firm, in part because he’s a “classic centrist” who supports reducing the federal budget deficit and who voted for the China trade agreement.

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