The American Association for Justice, the largest advocacy group for plaintiff's lawyers, sponsored a Presidential Candidates' Forum at their Summer Convention at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, Illinois. I was there. The invited guests were served a mixed green and bean salad, along with a big side of red meat from the five candidates who spoke: Bill Richardson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton.
The Association holds two conferences for lawyers each year. This was a gathering of lawyers who represent plaintiffs in cases ranging from slip and falls to massive class actions against the pharmacuetical giants. Many of these lawyers are staunch Democrats, and give much of their time and money to progressive candidates and causes.
What was foremost on their minds was the way--in their minds--big business has tried to block the courthouse door to ordinary people by way of caps on damages, mandatory arbitration clauses, and federal pre-emption. However, the candidates were asked questions about Iraq, the economy, the environment, and other issues important to all voters.
Each candidate held the stage for twenty minutes. They each gave an opening speech, and then took questions from the moderator, Kathleen Flynn Peterson, the President Elect of AAJ. These questions had been sent in ahead of time by the members of AAJ, and were not limited to the attack on the court system by monied interests. The candidates took questions on Iraq, immigration, and the deficit.
All of the candidates were unafraid to give the crowd what they wanted. They all talked about getting out of Iraq on day one, providing universal health care, and finding ways to make college more affordable. It was all red meat to the room of several hundred democratic donors.
Here 's what else they said:
Bill Richardson: Richardson was solid, and definitely improved his standing with the crowd. He told the crowd that regular Americans need "unfettered access to the courts against large enemies," and that his appointments to the Supreme Court would "represent the American People, not corporations. I will appoint justices who will protect civil rights, affirmative action, and privacy." He promised to appoint an Attorney General who is "a lawyer for the people, and not for the political arm of the President." Most of the people I talked to were impressed with Richardson, and were muttering "Secretary of State" or "Vice-President" as he left the stage.
Barack Obama: Obama gave the longest opening speech, and won a lot of support from AAJ members for coming out firmly against caps on damages in claims involving victims of medical negligence. "Caps won't lower insurance costs or protect patients." He gave a great speech about his vision of hope, but wasn't otherwise too wonkish when it came to policy. He left everyone very impressed, and certainly cemented his status as a frontrunner.
John Edwards: Although Obama lives in Chicago, Edwards had the "home field advantage" with this crowd. John has a lot of friends and donors in the room, and he arrived to the biggest ovation of the day. Edwards told the crowd that powerful interests wanted to "hijack the jury system." He added, "If the people of the United States can decide on the President of the United States-the leader of the free world-they can decide a dispute between two parties." He envisioned a foreign policy of "not just ending war, but doing good." He evoked JFK in saying to the crowd "What are you willing to do?' to change the country's direction.
Joe Biden: Biden was the winner in this forum. Everyone voting in the Democratic primaries needs to take a long second look at Joe Biden. He had the best presentation of the day. His speech was the most passionate, and several of his lines brought the house down. He presented the most thorough analysis of what direction our foreign policy must head in to right the wrongs of the past four years. He left to the loudest ovation of the day.
Hillary Clinton: Ms. Clinton was the last to speak. Her presentation was outstanding, and she gave the most wonkish presentation of the day, stressing the need to end FDA pre-emption of suits against drug manufacturers, saying: "Why is the government working against the American people." She pressed the need for diplomacy by telling the crowd, "If none of you talked to bad people you wouldn't make a dime practicing law." She also maintained her position at the head of the pack.
At the conclusion, the assembled crowd left energized and feeling a little more confident that a true progressive can win the White House in 2008. While the frontrunners did well, those in the Chasing pack certainly won new converts. Most of the people I talked to said that all the candidates were excellent, and there were no winners or losers. True enough, but, at the end of the day, Joe Biden helped himself the most.
Bio: Jeff Marion is a lawyer from Amherst, New York who represents injured and disabled persons. He is a sole practitioner, and a member of the American Association for Justice. Jeff is active in AAJ, serving on the National Finance Council, Small Firm and Sole Practitioner, Products Liability, and Social Security Sections. Jeff is an avid soccer fan and still turns out for an amateur team in Niagara Falls, Ontario.