Edwards' Nest Grist for Critics: New $6 Million Home
The following article on former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who grew up in Robbins, is reprinted from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who toured the country last fall talking about other people's homes, is now fielding questions about his own $6 million estate outside Chapel Hill.
Edwards had hit the talk show circuit to plug his book "Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives," which describes the childhood homes of various more-or-less famous people, including his own modest mill village houses.
But since he announced his second run for the presidency in December, Edwards has been more likely to be asked whether there is any contradiction between his 29,000-square-foot Orange County estate and his pledge to reduce poverty and help the working poor.
The questions underscore how everything about a presidential candidate -- including lifestyle decisions -- becomes fair game in a political campaign.
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004, was not available for comment last week. But he told CNN last month that he didn't think the house presented him with an image problem.
"I came from a very different place," he said. "And I have been lucky enough to -- to have everything you could ever have in this country. And I feel a responsibility to help people help themselves. It's for you and the American people to judge whether they think that's real and authentic. I believe it is, but that's not my judgment to make."
It is not unusual for presidential candidates to be men of wealth -- Franklin Roosevelt to John Kerry to George W. Bush. Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, noted that Sen. Edward Kennedy, who is rich, has been a major supporter of raising the minimum wage.
"I think it is a greater testimony to Teddy, Sen. Kennedy, that he has taken on that cause that doesn't have an effect on his life," she said in a telephone interview Friday.
The criticism of John Edwards' wealth is not new. He was attacked during his 2004 presidential campaign for living in a Georgetown mansion at the time he was stressing inequalities of "the two Americas."
But his more intense emphasis on fighting poverty in his current campaign, which was announced from a hurricane-ravaged neighborhood in New Orleans, is likely to invite greater scrutiny.
"It might well cause problems," said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. "We have a crowded field for the Democrat-ic nomination. Candidates' voting records, things they said on the stump and their lifestyle will be used. There will be Demo-crats who say, 'You clearly are not practicing what you preach here.' Some may see some inconsistency."
The Edwards house has already become grist for his critics, who have called it a plantation or "Uncle John's Cabin."
Conservative New York Post columnist Ian Bishop wrote that Edwards "is playing to the poorest people in America to propel his presidential bid while living in the lap of luxury on a North Carolina estate that makes the famed Kennedy compound look like a seaside cottage."
Unlike former President John F. Kennedy, Edwards did not inherit his wealth. His parents started as textile mill workers, and his father eventually became a manager with a middle-class lifestyle. His tiny mill village house in Seneca, S.C., became one of the major images of his 2004 presidential run, and photographs of the house were used in a campaign TV commercial.
Edwards made millions as a Raleigh trial lawyer, and the family has moved into increasingly expensive homes. During the last presidential campaign, Edwards listed assets valued between $19 million and $69 million.
The new Edwards home is in the rolling countryside south of Chapel Hill, not far from University Lake. The area around Old Greensboro Road is in transition -- cows graze on pastureland, and there is a scattering of modest homes. There are also high-priced subdivisions, one of which includes the home of former Tar Heel basketball coach Dean Smith.
But the area has not been completely gentrified.
Across the road from the entrance to the Edwards estate is Big Valley Auto Repair, a modest garage crowded with cars.
There is a sign painted on the fence: "Go Rudy Giuliani 2008," a reference to the former New York City mayor who is expected to seek the Republican nomination for president.
Monty Johnson, owner of the garage site and one of Edwards' closest neighbors, is no Edwards fan. Johnson has left standing an abandoned house facing the entrance to the Edwards property.
"He claims to be for the poor people," said Johnson, 55, a farmer and retired landscaper. "He don't care about us. I see him jogging. He doesn't pull over and say, 'How are you doing?' "
Danny Hulon, 48, who operates the auto repair shop on Johnson's land, is not anti-Edwards. But he is concerned about disruptions to his business if Edwards advances far enough as a candidate to receive Secret Service protection. Hulon has already noticed TV helicopters overhead.
Elizabeth Edwards said they purchased 102 acres -- valued for tax purposes at $1.1 million -- in 2003 after spotting it while searching the Internet.
The Edwardses began building their home shortly after his Senate term ended in January 2005. They moved in last summer, although construction is continuing on one wing.
Through their campaign spokeswoman, the Edwardses declined to allow a reporter or photographer to view the property. There is a no-trespassing sign at the entrance.
Visitors to the estate leave the highway and take a long, winding road to the house, which is set in a clearing.
The building is valued for tax purposes at $4.2 million, making it the most expensive house in Orange County, according to Tax Assessor John Smith.
The main living section of the house is 10,778 square feet and has a tax value of $3.1 million, according to tax records. It has five bedrooms, 6 1/2 baths and a library. A second wing of the house is connected by a heated enclosed walkway, valued at $192,664, that is lined with family and political photographs.
The second wing, called "The Barn" by the family, has 6,336 square feet and includes a lounge and offices that are 70 percent complete. It has a current tax value of $567,403. It also has a basketball court, which is 60 percent complete and valued at $300,960; a racquetball court, 70 percent complete and valued at $41,000; and a pool, according to tax records.
The tax value for those projects is based on appraisals as of Jan. 1. The appraisals will rise when the house is finished.
Elizabeth Edwards said the gym fulfilled her husband's dream of having his own basketball court to use when he wished.
"Every kid who grew up in North Carolina has exactly the same dream," she said. "Even though he is 53 and not in basketball shape, he goes down and shoots."
The racquetball court, Elizabeth Edwards said, was a sort of "valentine" from her husband to help with her lifelong battles to control her weight.
Functional, not grand
She said that there is nothing "grandiose" about the house and that it was designed to be a functional home with room for her children to play outdoors and a large kitchen to entertain friends and family.
"This house is a truly fabulous family home," she said. "The house has one fireplace, no grand staircase. It's not unlike our lives in smaller quarters for over 30 years, starting with John's apartment in Oakwood."
She portrayed their lifestyle as lacking pretension.
"We don't take fancy vacations," she said. "When the kids were young, we used frequent flier miles to take a trip to Europe. We don't have jewelry. We don't have furs. We don't have fancy cars. Those kinds of accoutrements don't matter to him. What matters to him is home."
Elizabeth Edwards said owning a large house does not conflict with Edwards' political principles of making sure others have an opportunity in life.
She said the political views of her husband -- whom she described as "the embodiment of the American dream" -- were informed by growing up in mill towns across the South. She said she and her husband have used their wealth for community projects, such as computer labs to help disadvantaged children in Raleigh and Goldsboro.
Elizabeth Edwards said she and her husband never discussed the political implications of a $6 million estate. They chose to spend their money on their abode.
"We'd rather spend our money on family and home," she said when asked about the wisdom of building a mansion while running for president. "If people are uneasy with that, I'd like to know. But you have to be who you are. The minute you make those calculations, you are no longer running as you."
Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.
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