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Trial Bar Shifts Its Weight Firmly Behind Obama

Despite the Absence of Edwards This Year, Lawyers Still Pack Plenty of Political Punch

The trial bar might not have the ballast of fellow lawyer and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) on the podium this convention go-round, but they are still a powerful force for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

As members of the trial bar from around the country mixed and mingled and noshed on heavy hors d’oeuvres at the Hotel Monaco earlier this week, the mood was particularly upbeat.

While many within the trial bar had supported Edwards for years, first helping him get elected to the Senate and then in his consecutive runs for the White House, their focus was now fully on Obama, Edwards recent fall from grace notwithstanding.

“I think it’s safe to say, trial lawyers are a little bit like the Clintons. It is one thing to back another candidate in the beginning, but at the end of the day we are very pro the platform that Obama is running compared to McCain,” said Jay Urban, a Milwaukee-based trial lawyer, who has raised at least $100,000 for Obama.

Edwards’ natural constituency was fractured from the start in this presidential election, with several members of the Lawyers for Kerry group, including Jeremy Alters, moving directly to the Obama camp.

Alters, a Florida trial attorney and member of the trial association’s executive committee, joined Obama’s fundraising team early, hosting a fundraiser in February 2007 after Obama announced his presidential bid.

Still, Alters said he understands that it’s a process for people who supported other candidates to switch and get on board.

“Because with Sen. Edwards and Sen. Clinton you have two dynamic and great Democrats, it’s a longer process because Sen. Obama is new to the scene,” he said.

The addition of Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) to the ticket has also helped shore up support among the trial bar.

Biden has long been a supporter of the trial lawyer community. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee he has opposed legal liability proposals and bills that would limit claims against health care providers.

“The trial bar is very pleased with Joe Biden as a pick because he’s always been such a champion for the so-called average consumer,” Urban said.

Jeff Padwa, Obama Rhode Island finance chairman and trial lawyer, agrees.

“Trial lawyers feel very close to Biden not only because he voted with us, but he advocates and uses our language and understands our importance to the court,” Padwa said.

As trial lawyers turn their attention to November, the group is expected to put its full support behind Obama.

One key strength of the American Association for Justice (formerly the American Trial Lawyers Association) is its PAC. Obama’s refusal to accept PAC money, however, means trial lawyers will be lacking one of their most persuasive tools.

The PAC doled out more than $2.5 million during the last presidential election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As of June, the AAJ PAC had contributed $1.9 million to federal candidates.

Still, the lawyers said they would use their own personal funds as well as a wide-ranging network of contacts in local and state politics to help Obama win the White House.

“I think trial lawyers are not just about money, although that certainly is the place where they get the most exposure,” said Kirk Wagar, a Florida-based trial lawyer and Florida finance chairman for Obama.

“A lot of our folks get involved in issues at the state level and I think this network has begun to activate. It’s activated much more quickly than it ever did for John Kerry or Al Gore.”

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