Search Continues for New Trade Chief

The search is on again for President-elect Barack Obama’s trade chief after the leading contender, Rep. Xavier Becerra, took his name out of the running.

WASHINGTON — The search is on again for President-elect Barack Obama’s trade chief after the leading contender, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.), took his name out of the running on Tuesday.

This story first appeared in the December 18, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, and Harold Ford Jr., a former congressman from Tennessee, are two names that have surfaced in the past 48 hours as leading candidates for the cabinet-level post, according to news reports and industry lobbyists.

Becerra, a California Democrat who has served in the House of Representatives since 1992 and holds a coveted position on the House Ways and Means Committee, issued a statement Tuesday night saying he had decided to stay in the House, where he will become vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and withdraw his name from the running.

Becerra told La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper, that he was concerned Obama would not make trade a top priority in his administration.

His sudden departure from the race left the fashion industry in a holding pattern.

Obama’s choice for the trade slot has far-reaching implications for the industry, which has imported more than $94 billion worth of apparel and textiles to the U.S. in the past 12 months.

The U.S. trade representative is responsible for setting the tone of the president’s trade agenda and acts as the lead negotiator with foreign countries and top enforcer of existing trade deals. Once named, the designate must be confirmed by the Senate.

Some issues that could impact the industry and may be addressed early on include the elimination at the end of the year of quotas on textile and apparel imports from China, alleged subsidized apparel imports from China, pending trade deals with Colombia and South Korea and the Doha talks, the moribund WTO global trade round that has limped along for the past seven years without any breakthroughs on a global tariff-dropping trade treaty.

Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said he will look for a trade chief that is “familiar with trade and shares our position on free trade.

“It is my hope that President-elect Obama and the U.S. trade representative take a more Clintonian view [referring to President Bill Clinton, who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement], which is that free trade and opening up markets is good,” said Burke.

Burke said he had just learned that Ford, the former congressman from Tennessee, was a possible contender.

Ford served in the House 10 years, ran for the Senate in 2006 and lost and is now the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist nonprofit organization.

“We have looked at his record on trade, and he has been with us [supporting trade deals and related issues] 67 percent of the time, which is not that unusual for a Democratic member from Tennessee,” said Burke.

Ford voted in favor of permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam and a trade deal with Bahrain, but he voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and a trade deal with Oman.

The second leading candidate to surface recently is Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, but he is a virtual unknown to industry lobbyists and some Washington trade veterans.

Kirk was the first African-American mayor of Dallas and served in that position from 1995 until 2001. He is now a partner with Houston-based law firm Vinson & Elkins LLP.

“I have absolutely no knowledge of him,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “It is intriguing as to what his actual views are in regard to trade policy.”

Several other names were circulated early on as possible candidates for the position, including Daniel Tarullo, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center who held several senior positions in the Clinton administration; Lael Brainard, vice president and director of global economy and development for the Brookings Institute and former economic adviser for Clinton, and Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under Clinton.�