Five Minutes With John Edwards

Hurricane Katrina raised awareness about the desperate poverty that so many residents of the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana live in every day. But John Edwards has been talking about American poverty since long before Katrina made landfall.

After a career of representing individuals against corporations in personal injury suits, he ran for the Senate from his native North Carolina and won. Six years later, in 2004, he ran for president, making poverty alleviation and greater equality a central theme of his campaign, and he continued to do so as the Democrats' nominee for Vice-President.

Now he is pursuing those objectives as director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and as Honorary Chair of the Center for Promise and Opportunity in Washington DC.

Tell us a little about your Project Opportunity college tour, why you think it's necessary, what you want it to accomplish and how?

Well, my view is that after Hurricane Katrina we have an extraordinary opportunity. The country is hungry to do something about poverty, not only on the Gulf Coast , but in America. And so many times in my life I have seen what impact students and young people can have. I saw it in the 1960s when I was a teenager -- when students led the fight for civil rights and they spoke out against the war in Vietnam. They had a huge impact on their own country, not just for that time, but forever. And I think we have that kind of opportunity available to us now.

So what I'm gonna do is go to ten college campuses to get young people engaged in fighting against poverty: to get 'em to come to the event that we have on campus, and to commit to at least up to twenty hours of community service, and to advocate for policy ideas, projects, that can do something about poverty in America. Actually in some campuses we're focused on community service and others we're focused on advocacy for policy ideas.

We have ten campuses, on every campus we have a core group of students who are doing the organizing, getting people to the event and helping determine what it is in the community we're gonna ask young people to do. So bottom line is, we're gonna get more students, more young people involved in their communities, and find that they can make a change in poverty.

In light of all the reports of voter disenfranchisement in Ohio and other swing states what are the steps you think we need to take to make sure that every vote is counted next time?

What I think is more important than focusing on the last election is focusing on moving forward and on what we should do to make sure our election system works the way it should. I think there was a lot of evidence and a lot of anecdotes in our last election about the voters being unable to cast their votes. We know there were people in Ohio that had to wait many hours just to be able to vote, while people in other areas, in some cases in more affluent communities, were able to vote in minutes -- that's not the way our election system is supposed to work. These are also some of the things we saw in the 2000 elections, particularly in Florida.

We have important work to do to make sure that everybody is confident that when they go to the polls, they'll be able to vote, and they'll be able to cast their vote in a reasonable amount of time, and they will be certain that the vote they cast was counted. Those things include making sure that we have the resources in place, particularly in poor voting precincts, to have adequate equipment -- it means making sure that we have an audit trail for the voting process.

Beyond that, I think we should take the election process out of the hands of partisan politicians and instead set up non-partisan election officials and election boards to monitor what's happening so that we know that the election process works appropriately. We live in what is supposed to be, to the rest of the world, a shining example of democracy. And we also live in the most prosperous area on the planet. There is no reason for anyone, in the process of our elections, to have a question about whether their vote counts.

What do you think students should do, especially southern progressive students, to counter the conservative influences on their campuses?

Well, we've heard a lot of talk about moral issues. Some people use that language to divide America. The truth is that poverty is the great moral issue that faces our country, here, within our own borders. The fact that we have 37 million people who live in poverty is wrong, morally wrong, in a country of our wealth. Some people think about this as, you know, they lump everybody who lives in poverty together, and they think of this as charity.

Here's the truth: the truth is that people who live in poverty fall in one of two categories: they either have serious bills or physical disabilities. For those people, helping them get by is in some ways charity, because we believe as Americans that that's what we should do. For the rest, and that's the majority of people who live in poverty, they are either employed or employable. For those folks, it's not about charity. It's about fairness and justice, because the rest of the country depends on them to provide the services they provide, whatever jobs they have.

I think what we want to do, I grew up in a rural town in the South, is give people a fundamental sense of fairness, of justice -- that it's not right for people to be working two jobs, in some cases, both parents -- in a two parent family, two parents are working two jobs -- they're working four jobs between the two parents -- it's not right for them to be doing that and not be able to at least provide a minimum standard of living for their family. So, I think talk about this as a moral issue, and talk about it as a fairness issue, because I think most people, whether they're a Democrat or Republican, will be responsive to that.

We were also wondering if you could talk to us about your College for Everyone program in North Carolina that you launched a few weeks ago.

This is an idea that I talked about in my own presidential campaign. The idea is that any young person who has taken college prep work, who is qualified to go to college, and has stayed out of trouble, and is willing to go to work ten hours a week will be able to go their first year of college completely for free -- tuition, books etc, paid for.

And what we've done to test the validity of this idea is found a place in eastern North Carolina , one the poorest counties in North Carolina , but the community is committed to doing something about their kids having a chance. And what we've done is, in Greene County, privately, we've raised the money for it to implement the program. In Greene County if you have taken all the prep courses, not gotten into trouble and commit to work ten hours a week, then your tuition and books will be paid for. The idea is many young persons who would not have gone to college will get a chance to go.

We've seen some numbers in recent articles saying that the income level at which a white family is more likely to vote progressive than conservative has been dropping from about $50,000 to $25,000 per year in the last three presidential elections. When progressives such as yourself are putting forward an economic platform that is beneficial to white working class families, why do you think it is that they aren't voting for you? And what can progressives in general do to alleviate that? What might you do if you're thinking about running in 2008?

Let me talk in general about what I think it's important for progressives to do. I think first of all to the key to success in today's political world is exhibiting strong leadership. People are worried about jobs, healthcare, and safety, and certainly worried about the war in Iraq and the impact it's having on our country and the people serving there. For all those reasons people want leaders who exhibit strength. Strength comes from conviction. Strength does not come from looking at yesterday's poll to figure out what it is we're supposed to say. We need to stand up with strength and backbone for what it is we believe in.

If the country sees that confidence in our leadership they will follow, because the reality is that what people care most about -- jobs, healthcare -- they trust us more than they trust the other side. They have to see that we will not walk away from our core beliefs whether they are popular or unpopular. And one indication of that is our willingness as a party and as a political movement to stand for doing something about poverty in this country.

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