Was John Edwards ever serious about helping the poor?

Some of the former senator's high-profile efforts have fallen by the wayside since he left politics

Published June 17, 2009 9:40PM (EDT)

If former Sen John Edwards, D-N.C., ever wants to get back into politics -- and he's not ruling it out -- he'll have a tough time of it. His very public sex scandal is obstacle enough, mostly because of his wife's illness but also because of the trail of onetime supporters who now feel betrayed that he left in his wake.

But revelations in a new Washington Post article, which also contains the highest-profile interview Edwards has given since he confessed to his affair, are the kind of thing that could ultimately be even more trouble for the one-time vice presidential nominee. The article raises questions that go to the heart of the image Edwards tried to project during his last presidential run, and are liable to leave anyone who reads them wondering whether he's at all sincere about his quest to alleviate poverty, or whether it was all just another political stunt.

Margy Waller, who served as senior advisor for welfare and working families in the Clinton White House's Domestic Policy Council, thinks she knows the answer. "The way he treated the issue overall always seemed insincere," Waller told the Post. "His whole history of working on the issue was fairly limited and always somewhat suspect."

Personally, that was always my suspicion as well; as far back as 2004, hearing him speak always gave me the sense that he was, at his core, insincere, that -- even more than most politicians -- he was someone who would say or do anything for personal gain, smile at you and tell you exactly what you wanted to hear and not mean a word of it. The Post article seems to confirm that suspicion with these new details:

One legacy still stands: a poverty think tank that he created in 2005 at the University in North Carolina. It is now led by law professor Gene Nichol, who puts on occasional events and oversees student fellowships. The center is funded by a $2 million pledge by a Chapel Hill couple who were strong Edwards supporters ....

But assistant superintendent Patricia McNeill said many had been bracing for the program's end once Edwards dropped out of the presidential contest. "Our children today are very astute and they are cognizant of what goes on in the political world," she said .... Edwards said he had to pull the plug because campaign supporters were less likely to give money to the program once he was out of the race. "But it served its purpose," he said. "A lot of kids benefited."

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, residents who had been foreclosed on after Hurricane Katrina by subprime lenders owned by Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that Edwards worked for and invested with, have not received the special assistance that Edwards promised after their troubles were reported by The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal in 2007.

Edwards, who launched his campaign in a Katrina-stricken section of New Orleans, had vowed in 2007 that he would raise $100,000 to set up a fund that, administered by the anti-poverty group Acorn, would see to it that the 32 affected homeowners would be made whole.

Among the homeowners were Ernest and Ollie Grant, whose storm-damaged house faced foreclosure by Fortress-owned Nationstar Mortgage, on an adjustable rate loan that shot to $1,200 per month. The Grants say that after months of waiting for Acorn to call them, they reached out on their own and found a helpful employee, "Miss Kristi," who got their monthly payment down to $649.

But six months ago, Nationstar started sending letters saying the payment was going back up above $900. The Grants called Acorn back, but Miss Kristi was gone, and others there provided no help. With their home finally fixed up, they are again worried about losing it. They bristle at Edwards' name.

"I just thought he was trying to cover his tracks while he was a candidate. I even told my wife that if he didn't win, we would feel these repercussions just like we're doing," said Ernest Grant. "It was probably all for show in the end."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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