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Biden balances middle-class appeal with ritzy fundraisers

June 18, 2019
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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to local residents at Clinton Community College, Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Clinton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to local residents at Clinton Community College, Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Clinton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

HIGHLAND PARK, Texas (AP) — During the early weeks of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden stopped by this exclusive Dallas-area enclave to headline a fundraiser at the home of Russel Budd, a lawyer known for overseeing billions of dollars in settlements with corporations sued for asbestos exposure. The former vice president urged the lawyers in the room to go after pharmaceutical companies and told them their work mattered.

Trial lawyers, he said, “are the only ones who shout out and scream for people who don’t have the ability to do it for themselves.”

His visit to Highland Park, a neighborhood with Spanish Colonial mansions and residents including Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is becoming routine. During the first six weeks of his campaign, roughly half of the more than a dozen fundraisers Biden headlined were in the opulent homes of prominent trial lawyers in cities including Atlanta, Boston and Chicago. On Tuesday, he was slated to attend two New York fundraisers held by attorneys, including one hosted at a personal injury law firm.

Biden’s ties to trial lawyers could help pad his campaign coffers for what’s expected to be a long, bruising primary fight against nearly two dozen Democratic rivals. But they could also leave him vulnerable to criticism that he’s cozying up to wealthy donors who may want something in return if he becomes president, an argument that could undermine his efforts to portray his campaign as a battle to protect the middle class.

A politician courting wealthy benefactors who are tied to specific industries or interest groups is nothing new. But the legal profession is already vastly overrepresented in American politics, with lawyers more than 100 times as likely to get elected to Congress as the average voter, according to Adam Bonica, a Stanford University political science professor who studies the political influence of the legal profession.

An administration that favors their interests would lend them even more sway.

“That is pretty much the most extreme form of interest group self-protection,” Bonica said.

Biden’s campaign declined to comment for this story.

The former vice president has walked a fine line during some of his fancier events. At a Monday fundraiser at the New York home of billionaire investment manager Jim Chanos, Biden said 360,000 people had contributed an average of $55 to his campaign this quarter, far less than the thousands of dollars it takes for a donor to attend a fundraiser.

During another event in a high-rise on Chicago’s Gold Coast hosted by lawyer William Singer, Biden credited his wealthy audience as the product of the middle class he’s pledging to strengthen.

“You all have done very well, and you deserve what you’ve done because you’ve worked hard for it,” Biden said. “But this country was built by ordinary people in the neighborhoods you come from.”

The amount of money Biden has raised from trial lawyers will become clear when his second quarter fundraising report becomes public next month. During his brief 2008 presidential bid, about 20% of the $8.5 million Biden raised from donors came from lawyers or people in the legal profession, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data.

His ties to the profession go back decades. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995, Biden left a record of siding with trial lawyers by blocking Republican efforts to limit punitive damages in federal cases. He supports suing drug manufacturers, attributing the nation’s opioid crisis in part to them.

As president, Biden could be counted on to appoint friendlier plaintiff’s lawyer judges to the federal bench, said Ken Jacobsen, a lawyer who attended Biden’s first fundraiser as a 2020 candidate in April.

“Trial courts have taken a very pro-business, anti-consumer approach,” said Jacobsen, a Philadelphia lawyer who also teaches at Temple University law school. “I believe Joe’s approach to justices is going to be that, now, we’ve got to make up for the years past.”

Biden is hardly the first or only Democratic politician to lean on trial lawyers for money.

During the 2016 election, they were a major source of campaign cash for Hillary Clinton, who collected at least $41.5 million from them, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In 2012, they gave about $27 million to Barack Obama, the data shows.

Lawyers were the top industry donors listed in the first quarter fundraising report for Biden’s 2020 rival Kamala Harris, who was previously California’s attorney general.

Harris, elected to the Senate in 2016, is among a handful of lawyers who rose to prominence in their states as a doorway into politics. Harris was San Francisco’s top prosecutor before she was elected attorney general in 2010.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the top prosecutor in her state’s most populous county before being elected to the Senate in 2006 and has historically received much of her campaign cash from the legal profession. And attorneys were also a top donor to a political action committee for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who was his state’s attorney general before he was elected governor in 2012.

But some of Biden’s lawyer supporters say he has an edge over his rivals. Like any successful courtroom lawyer, Biden has the ability to connect personally with his audience and the perception of what it takes to sway the convincible, they say.

“The art of trying cases is all about being able to persuade,” said Tom Nolan, a Los Angeles lawyer planning a July fundraiser for Biden. “What I like about Biden — and other trial lawyers do — is that people will listen to him, and he can persuade them.”

Fellow Los Angeles lawyer Tom Girardi, who attended a Hollywood fundraiser for Biden in May, put it more simply: Biden, he says, can win.

“It’s a jury trial, baby. And you’ve got to get nine of those 12 jurors, or you lose the case,” he said.

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Slodysko reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to local residents at Clinton Community College, Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Clinton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)