By  on September 28, 2010

NEWBERRY, S.C. — Rep. John Spratt, co-chair of the congressional Textile Caucus and the Palmetto State’s longest-serving member of the House, is facing a difficult reelection campaign against state senator Mick Mulvaney.

Spratt is one of a handful of Democratic representatives targeted by Republicans in their quest to take back control of the House and his votes for the economic stimulus package, health care and energy legislation are drawing fire.

A longtime defender of the nation’s textile and apparel industry, which once had a prominent role in the South Carolina economy, Spratt continues to mount a defense of the industry as plants shutter and move overseas. Nationally, textile and apparel employment is expected to fall 15 percent through 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While traditional cut-and-sew operations are expected to decline nationwide, in South Carolina jobs in textile plants supplying producers offshore, as well as manufacturers of nonwoven products, home furnishings, dyeing and pigment plants, and manufacturing and medical textile products, are poised for growth, according to BLS predictions. South Carolina textile employment had gone to 15,996 last year from 52,226 in 2001, according to the state’s Commerce Department. Apparel jobs in the state have fallen to 1,861 in 2009 from 7,999 in 2001.

In Spratt’s district, which stretches across the northern state border from the Republican-dominated upstate to the Pee Dee region that borders I-95 and is home to more Democrats, textile plants have not fared well. That decline stings as voters watched Spratt back government assistance to the U.S. automakers and banks last year.

“Twenty-five years ago we had three textile plants here and now they’re gone,” said Don Saylor, chairman of the Newberry County School Board, who listened intently to Spratt as he spoke to a crowd of about 100 people in the Newberry Opera House last month. “They were private enterprises and no one bailed them out, but we’re bailing out GM. Why were they allowed to leave and we bailed out other industries? They were South Carolina’s lifeline.”

Though he was wearing a red-and-white Spratt sticker on his shirt, Saylor said he usually votes for Republicans and is not a Spratt supporter. He criticized President Obama’s economic policies, which Spratt has supported, and said, “We can’t just keep printing money.”

At the campaign rally, Spratt said, “There’s a lot left to be done. I want to help put the country back on track for an economic recovery, I want to help create jobs. You know, they say it’s not the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog. I’ve got a lot of fight left, and I want one more opportunity to do something good for South Carolina and the United States.”‘

Rob Chapman, chairman and chief executive officer of Inman Mills, which has three plants and 620 employees in South Carolina, said the textile industry has survived in the state much because of Spratt’s help. The Inman Mills political action committee gave Spratt $500, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

“He’s used his seniority to help us in many ways,” Chapman said.

Spratt’s 15th congressional race is his toughest yet, said Dave Waldrop, chairman of the Newberry County Democrats.

“People think that politicians get to a certain stage and it’s time to go,” Waldrop said of Spratt, who is 67. “That’s why John Spratt has drawn opponents for his last three campaigns.”

Waldrop also said that Spratt’s health has become an issue since he announced the day after he filed for reelection in March that he has Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s giving opponents something to talk about,” Waldrop said.

The Tea Party has a loud voice in the state, which has voted for Republican presidential candidates since 1980. Their vocal opposition of Obama’s economic policies won’t alter the vote in Spratt’s district, but will shape the debate, said Scott Huffmon, associate professor of political science at Winthrop University, which is in Spratt’s district.

“They can excite different conservative constituencies in the state,” Huffmon said. “They’ll impact the debate by shouting the loudest about several things, especially health care. They’ll force any Democrat running for office to talk about it. But it’s unlikely they will submarine any Democratic candidate.”

Mulvaney, who didn’t respond to requests to participate in this story, is playing to the Tea Party crowd, Huffmon said. In speeches, Mulvaney says he opposes the health care law because he wants to choose his own physician. He calls it socialized medicine. A state senator since 2008, Mulvaney, 42, has $472,000 in his campaign account and is some $200,000 in debt, according to the FEC. The Republican Congressional Committee has said it plans to offer Mulvaney money and support.

Spratt’s campaign, according to FEC records, had $1.2 million on hand at the end of June with $44,000 in debt. He’s reported $742,000 in PAC contributions, most of which is from defense firms. Spratt is second in seniority on the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the House Budget Committee. He received a little more than $10,000 from textile and cotton PACs, according to FEC records.

Glenn McCall, chairman of the York County Republican Party, said Mulvaney is appealing to independents, Republicans and conservative Democrats because of Spratt’s support of the stimulus.

“I think Spratt’s in trouble,” McCall said. “This stimulus didn’t create jobs. Look across Spratt’s district, unemployment is nearing 20 percent. Also, Spratt has portrayed himself as an independent thinker and a conservative Democrat for years, but now he’s voting with [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi 95 percent of the time. That proves he’s not conservative.”

South Carolina Rep. Paul McLeod, a Democrat, noted that South Carolina voters often split their tickets between parties, explaining how Spratt has served the state’s Fifth District at a time when Republican presidential candidates dominated the state.

“I think the traditional support for Spratt is intact,” he said.

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