Cover Story

Mister Edwards' neighborhood

Campaign 2008 | For the presidential campaign of John Edwards, message and method are at crossroads on the street where "two Americas" meet

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.- John Edwards is heartbroken. That's what he told the congregation at Riverside Church in Harlem, N.Y., during a recent Sunday morning service: "We have to break the silence about the extraordinarily deep divisions between the haves and the have-nots."

Five hundred miles south, next to a modest auto shop off a short gravel driveway, Monty Johnson says the silence between him and Edwards is deafening. That's ironic because the Democratic presidential candidate lives just across the street.

Johnson, 55, a retired farmer with arthritic knees, has lived in a simple home on Old Greensboro Road in the rolling countryside near Chapel Hill, N.C., all his life. Edwards and his wife Elizabeth bought 102 acres across the street in 2005, and last summer moved into their custom-built 28,000-square-foot estate, valued at $6 million.

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The Edwards estate isn't visible from the street, but county tax records reveal details of a lavish home belonging to the candidate who during the 2004 presidential campaign complained of "two Americas" under President Bush-one "that does the work, another that reaps the reward." The main living section has five bedrooms, six-and-a-half baths, and a library. A heated, enclosed walkway valued at $192,664 connects the house to a second wing that includes a basketball court, a racquetball court, a pool, a lounge, and offices.

Johnson wouldn't know about the house. In fact, he's never met his neighbors. Only approved visitors to the estate enter the long, winding driveway flanked by "No Trespassing" signs nailed to trees. Johnson hasn't been invited up, and though he sees the Edwards family drive by, they've never stopped to say hello.

But the silence was broken in March when a reporter asked Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, about a handmade sign nailed to Johnson's fence near the road. The sign reads: "Go Rudy Giuliani 2008." Mrs. Edwards unleashed on Johnson, saying he is "a rabid, rabid Republican," and calling his property "slummy."

Johnson was confounded. "I thought they were supposed to be for the poor," he told WORLD.

Though Johnson isn't rich, he's not exactly poor, and his 42 acres aren't slummy. (An abandoned house where he grew up does still face the road, but Johnson says he hasn't had the heart or money to tear it down.) Johnson's grandfather bought the property nearly 100 years ago. His father built an auto shop next to the road in 1955 and opened a small general store that served the rural community for years.

Johnson helped his father farm the land and run a successful landscaping and grading business before retiring. "We're proud of what we built," he says, climbing into a giant, gold Ford F-350 truck with a brown cowboy hat on the dashboard.

Driving down a winding road on the property, Johnson points out newly mended fences and freshly cut grass. He just planted a row of Bradford pear trees, and the yard is full of dogwoods and flowers in full bloom. Johnson and his wife live in a double-wide trailer near a pond that his father stocked with catfish 40 years ago.

Johnson says Elizabeth Edwards' comments about his property were hurtful, and that kids at the local elementary school now tease his 9-year-old granddaughter. Neither Elizabeth nor John Edwards has offered further comment. "Sometimes when you get where they are," says Johnson, "I guess you forget where you come from."

It would be hard to forget where John Edwards came from. The former North Carolina senator made the story of his humble upbringing a major theme in his 2004 presidential campaign, constantly reminding audiences that he was "the son of a mill worker." That thread is re-emerging in his 2008 presidential bid, and Edwards says his modest background drives his major campaign theme: helping the poor.

For Edwards, helping the poor hinges on expanding government programs and raising taxes. But his own rags-to-riches story doesn't hinge on government intervention. Instead, like the story of Monty Johnson, it hinges on a strong family and hard work.

Edwards was born in Seneca, S.C., in 1953 to Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, who lived in a tiny, three-bedroom rental home in a housing project owned by the textile mill where his father worked. Eager to progress professionally, Wallace moved the family several times before settling in Robbins, N.C., when John Edwards was 12 years old.

Though he didn't have a college education, Wallace worked hard and eventually earned a management position at the Milliken textile mill, solidifying the family's middle-class status. (Edwards remembers his father watching math classes on public access television at 5:00 in the morning to gain more work skills.)

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