Dallas ex-trial lawyer Baron stays in politics despite Edwards scandal

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by By DAVE MICHAELS / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 2:48 PM

WASHINGTON - John Edwards' political career is probably not coming back. But Fred Baron insists he is not going away.

NAN COULTER/Special Contributor

The Dallas trial lawyer, both celebrated and vilified as the King of Toxic Torts, made a handsome living confronting big companies on behalf of sick and some not-so-sick plaintiffs.

He's a lightning rod again, after admitting he paid to move the presidential candidate's mistress away from prying tabloid reporters. He says political enemies will try to use the episode against his efforts to elect Democratic candidates in Texas.

"The folks who have been ... successful in getting their way in the state Legislature are not particularly happy about me," Mr. Baron said of his Republican critics. "They are going to come after me, and they would like to take me out. But they're not going to."

Trial lawyers have long been a target for Republicans and business groups. Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, still calls Mr. Baron "exhibit A about why we needed" tort reform, even though Mr. Baron is a full-time politico and is six years removed from involvement with any lawsuits.

Mr. Baron, 61 and perhaps the single biggest financial backer of Texas Democrats, has no regrets about his role in the Edwards scandal. He insists he meant only to help Rielle Hunter and Andrew Young, a former Edwards aide who said that he - not Mr. Edwards - is the father of Ms. Hunter's baby.

John Eddie Williams Jr., a Houston trial lawyer and Mr. Baron's friend, said the notion that Mr. Baron's actions constituted "a payoff" is absurd.

"The reality is that Fred would help any human being that he cared for at a time of need, and to misinterpret his generosity and twist it to make it somehow evil, is the worst kind of politics," he said.

Even some of Mr. Baron's critics say more would have to emerge about the circumstances to wound him.

But Ms. Hunter isn't talking about Mr. Baron. And he won't say how much he helped or for how long.

"It should matter, but in reality it doesn't very much," Mr. Hammond said.

More than a donor

Mr. Baron has long wanted to be more than just a donor. He sold his interest in Baron & Budd in 2002 to take a more hands-on role shaping policy and research to revive the state's Democratic party.

Then along came Mr. Edwards. Mr. Baron had known him since the two taught at legal clinics in the 1980s. They became closer in 1999, after both went to Washington: Mr. Edwards as the fresh-faced senator from North Carolina, and Mr. Baron as president-elect of the trial lawyers' rich and powerful lobbying outfit.

Over weekly lunches or dinners, they formed a bond, finding they had many things in common beyond law.

In the summer of 2002, Mr. Edwards asked whether he would oversee fundraising for his presidential campaign - just two days before John Kerry popped the same question. Mr. Baron knew the first-term senator was "a long shot." But he liked his message and thought voters needed to hear it. He turned down Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Edwards lost the Democratic nomination to Mr. Kerry but later joined the ticket at the urging of the country's most politically active trial lawyers, said Ben Barnes, a prominent Texas Democrat and lobbyist.

After Mr. Kerry lost the 2004 race, Mr. Baron continued fundraising for Mr. Edwards, who formally announced he would run for president in 2006. Sometime earlier that year, Mr. Edwards began an affair with Ms. Hunter, who had been paid to shoot campaign videos.

The first reports of Mr. Edwards's affair appeared in the National Enquirer a few months before the Iowa caucuses, which "we thought we had in the bag," Mr. Baron said.

Without telling Mr. Edwards, who at the time denied the affair, Mr. Baron helped move Ms. Hunter and Mr. Young to California, he said.

Some of Mr. Baron's acquaintances believe he would have followed Mr. Edwards to Washington had Mr. Edwards won the presidency.

"Fred had ambitions to go into government, whether he went to the White House or to be an ambassador," Mr. Barnes said. "But I think he would have wanted to go to the White House."

Trust

Mr. Baron insists he didn't plan to move to Washington even if Mr. Edwards had won the presidency.

"My ambition is to stay in Dallas, Texas, which I love," said the father of three.

He calls Mr. Edwards's situation a "tragedy" but insists the former North Carolina senator could return to the public stage one day - as an effective advocate for a poverty or housing program.

Running for office, though, is out of the question, he added.

Mr. Baron doesn't intend to keep such a distance from politics.

Two years ago, he founded the Texas Democratic Trust, a state political action committee meant to focus on more than just individual legislative races.

While the trust has attracted other contributors since its inception, Mr. Baron remains its biggest donor. He's given $621,200 to it in 2008.

Mr. Hammond, the business lobbyist, thinks his purpose is to "see tort reform rolled back," but Mr. Baron insists the goal is bigger: returning political parity to the state.

Mr. Baron knows the coming months will see more attacks on candidates who accept contributions from the trust or from him personally.

"I have not figured out what it is that I have done that is either illegal or unethical," he said.

"We're in an area where they see an opening, and they are going to pursue."

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