Hoarse from speeches, Edwards hits hometown

Democratic candidate considers S.C. primary a must-win for campaign

February 03, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SENECA, S.C. - The small house, one of hundreds clustered together that were owned by the mammoth textile maker that operated the three-story brick plant in the center of the neighborhood, still stands to mark the humble beginnings of John Edwards.

It's pictured in his television ads and he mentions it every day to emphasize his kinship with working-class voters and as a rebuke to what he calls the "rich man" policies favored by the incumbent administration.

"It's great to be back in my birthplace," a raspy-voiced Edwards said yesterday at a homecoming rally for him at a family community center not far from his childhood home.

Keeping hopes alive

It was his last campaign stop over a busy final two days of campaigning in South Carolina before today's primary, which he says is a "must-win" to keep alive his hopes of gaining the Democratic presidential nomination.

The North Carolina senator, who left Seneca as a small boy, finished second in the Iowa caucus and fourth in the New Hampshire primary. He is clinging to a narrow lead in the Palmetto State, according to the polls.

But his margin is thin, with the campaign front-runner - Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts - offering a formidable challenge, though he has not been in the state since Friday.

A loss here and Edwards gets relegated to long-shot status, so he has left nothing to chance. He has held eight campaign events here since Sunday, hence the waning voice, and will visit at least two polling stations today lobbying for votes.

The J.P. Stevens textile mill that long dominated his birthplace was his campaign backdrop last night. For more than a half-century, it made cotton sheets and other household goods; at its high point, it employed 6,000.

But it was shuttered about 18 months ago - one of a wave of mill closings around the state that Edwards frequently cites in his stump speech.

Today barbed-wire fencing surrounds the plant, which some still refer to as Utica Mill. Its windows and doors are boarded or bricked in. The houses, most of them two-bedroom Cape Cod-style, are in various states of repair.

Some homes have new siding and manicured lawns with lawn chairs and birdfeeders stuck in the grass. Others appear just short of shacks, with rotted wood siding that years ago lost its coat of paint, and rusty pickup trucks and junk piles in the yards.

This is where Edwards was born, to a father and mother who both worked at the textile plant. Edwards has promised all during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination that he wouldn't forget the South and, more importantly, he wouldn't forget where he came from.

Two Americas

At yesterday's rally, Edwards again delivered his two Americas speech, charging that President Bush favors the rich and privileged at everyone else's expense.

That speech figured to go over well in this blue-collar town, where most workers still earn a living at one of the dozens of textile plants around the area. There are one high school, one middle school and one elementary school. There are 32 officers on the city police force who, at worst, deal with petty drug ar- rests, domestic disputes and public drunkenness.

Even though the Stevens plant is shut, Seneca, about halfway between Charlotte and Atlanta, has not withered away. And while textile plants around the area still employ most people, the best-paying job is at the nuclear plant owned by Duke Power in Oconee County just outside Seneca.

Just beyond the city line in Oconee County, there are new subdivisions, restaurants and stores. Beyond that is plenty of open space and natural beauty - lakes, streams and mountains that attract tourists and others willing to set down roots.

"At one time, I knew everybody in town," said Joe Bradley, 65, a retired textile worker and a lifelong Seneca resident.

"Now I don't hardly know anybody. It's just all these northerners moving here because it's a good vacation spot, a good location."

Mayor Dan Alexander considers all of them part of Seneca: "The county has about 70,000 people and about 35,000 to 40,000 of them live within minutes of the city limits. We're growing."

These are the people that Edwards came home to talk to.

Debra Anacrelico was born in Seneca and moved away. But nine years ago she left her job as a New York City police dispatch supervisor to move back home.

"I love it here," said Anacrelico, who is now a dispatcher for the Seneca Police Department. There are now integrated neighborhoods, unlike when Edwards lived here. But there is still a disparity between the haves and have-nots, even as Seneca grows.

"You have all of it, from big new houses being built to people living in little two-bedroom houses that still heat with kerosene," Anacrelico said. "It's so beautiful and affordable. And it has gotten so much more diverse."

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