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A Presidential Divide: 7th Ave. Tilts to Kerry, CEOs Leaning to Bush

Designers for Sen. Kerry, chief executive officers for President Bush — that generally is how the industry is lining up in the runup to the...

New York — Designers for Kerry, chief executives for Bush.

The statement might be a bit general in the complex world of politics, but that is more or less how the industry is lining up in the runup to the presidential election. The topics that matter to industry executives vary from the economy and trade policies to gay marriage and the Iraq War, and votes are being planned based on where the candidates stand on the respective issues.

Those issues are likely to be front and center as the Democratic Party holds its national convention in Boston, which started Monday, to nominate Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as its presidential candidate.

Many Seventh Avenue designers favor Kerry based on social causes and the Iraq war, while some executives want to reelect Bush because of his stance on terrorism and handling of the economy. But even many of those voicing support for Kerry seem to be doing so more because he isn’t President Bush than because they are fervent supporters of the Massachusetts senator.

“There are a lot of really important issues — equal rights, universal health care, obviously what is going on right now in our world with the war and our relationships with other countries. I think Hillary Clinton is great, but she’s not running, so I am voting for a Democrat and doing whatever I can to help. John Kerry represents what I believe and my personal agenda more than Bush does. I like what he has to say about health care and what he has to say about equal rights,” said Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs International.

And a large number of executives remain undecided — or at least unwilling to express their political leanings — especially surprising in the South, which backed Bush in 2000. Their indecision stems from the falloff in manufacturing jobs, which is a central election-year issue in the textile and apparel industry, which has lost 365,000 jobs over the last four years.

“I could not vote for him right now, but therein lies the dilemma: I’m not sold on Kerry,” said Roger Chastain, president of Mount Vernon Mills in Greenville, S.C.

Chastain is upset Bush hasn’t trimmed government spending more and tackled the rising cost of health care. He is equally miffed at Kerry for the recent fund-raiser in New York, where entertainers aimed caustic humor toward Bush, including comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who was subsequently dumped by Slim Fast as its spokeswoman for her sharp presidential critique.

But Bush may not have to worry about losing some Southern votes, with Florida being the only exception, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

“In areas where the mills have closed down and the economic future is bleak,” voters may be angry at Bush, Black said. “But it’s unclear what Kerry and [running mate Sen. John] Edwards would change. They don’t have policies to bring those mills back and everyone knows that.”

She said, “Kerry’s seen as a Massachusetts liberal here — that’s a nonstarter in the South.” However, in Florida, the electorate is different, as it’s a state full of transplants from other regions. “Florida will be very close again,” Black said. “It’s something the Bush camp needs. It’s hard to imagine them winning without Florida.”

Overall, however, the one imponderable remains the war in Iraq, according to Lee Sigelman, a political science professor at George Washington University. The economy also can work for either candidate, Sigelman said. If it continues to create insufficient jobs to stimulate consumption and growth, Kerry could get a boost. But if indicators such as auto sales, housing starts or the like continue upward, Bush can continue to claim an economic rebound.

Here’s what other industry executives had to say about the presidential race.

In Kerry’s Camp:

Designer Marc Bouwer: “I want a president who will give gays and lesbians the right to marry [although Kerry has not voiced support for gay marriage] so that we can dress them, because that would be good for business — we can design all those gowns. But on a serious note, I don’t think designers are different from anybody else. We need to vote for a candidate that’s not going to lead us into unnecessary wars and that’s not going to feed the American population with propaganda. And as a small business owner, I’d like to see a little break for manufacturing everything in the United States.”

Arie Kopelman, Chanel Inc. president and chief operating officer: “I’m a Republican for Kerry,” adding that he was alarmed at how the federal deficit has climbed to $500 billion on Bush’s watch. He was also critical of Bush for not garnering more international support for the war in Iraq and departs from the President on social issues. “Based on how the Republican Party has shifted to the right, someone who’s a liberal Republican today like me is essentially a mainstream Democrat.”

Belgian-born designer Diane von Furstenberg, who is voting for the first time since becoming a U.S. citizen two years ago: “Kerry is serious, knowledgeable. I think he is honest, a quality person. No country can be by themselves anymore. Let’s just say on Sept. 12 [2001], everybody felt very close to America. There were American flags everywhere. Unfortunately, the opinion has changed so much and a change [in presidents] is most desirable.”

Michael Kors: “I support John Kerry and I think John Edwards is a great running mate. The most important thing this year is to make a lot of noise about it and let young people who aren’t used to voting know to make them realize it’s important. The list of issues goes on from how we’re perceived in the world, our economy, human rights, gay rights, freedom of choice, everything. I don’t think there’s any area right now that’s not at risk of change and the future of the Supreme Court is a huge issue.”

Charles Nolan: “John Kerry has a bigger global vision of America as it could be engaged in the world, so all business will probably benefit as a result of that, eventually. And from a fashion perspective, I love Teresa Heinz’s energy and attitude. She’s an exciting role model and she has a lot of joie de vivre.”

Cynthia Rowley: “It’s the current President who is making it so easy for me to decide who to vote for, to do anything to get Bush out of office. The most important thing is our country’s safety. It’s too late to go back and change anything that’s already happened, but we need to get out of Iraq as soon as possible.”

Chantal Bacon, president of Betsey Johnson: “[The election is] beyond fashion, it’s everybody. And right now it’s ABB — Anybody But Bush.” As for Kerry, she said, “It’s too early to tell, it looks like he’s keeping his head down and letting Bush do what he’s going to do, fall on his own sword.”

Kenneth Cole, who said he’s leaning toward Kerry: “Everybody’s focused on the 8 percent undecided. However, I have a billboard up now on the West Side highway which says, ‘100 million Americans had a very big impact on the last election. They didn’t vote.’ So the big issue to me is not the 8 percent undecided, it’s the 30, 40 percent disenfranchised and unenlightened and uninspired, and to the degree you can get those guys to go out.”

Ron Chereskin: “The Kerry-Edwards ticket represents far more promise and stability to this country and to the industry. The mistrust and uncertainty fostered by the current administration does nothing for American optimism, which is what we need at work, at home and abroad.”

James Gutman, president of the New York importer Pressman Gutman: “The international policies of the current administration are just all wrong, alienating the allies. I don’t like the unilateral world approach. I’d like to see a much more multilateral approach to world affairs.”

Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations: “People are really looking toward the future and looking at how the candidates handle the China issue. We’ve gone through one of the worst economic downturns in our history and we face the greatest threat in our history come Jan. 1, and it’s been very hard to get the administration to sit down and have a constructive dialogue. It’s a very troubled relationship.”

Jonathan A. Stevens, president of Ames Textile Corp. in Lowell, Mass.: “I’m leaning toward Kerry-Edwards because it is essentially a vote against the President for his stance on trade and what he is doing around the world, not making friends but making enemies. When you factor in all of the changes in the global economy, particularly what China is doing, you can’t believe the positive economic reports. Exporting manufacturing jobs is the biggest negative effect on our economy.”

Bruce Raynor, general president of the UNITE HERE union: “Bush has destroyed America’s image around the world, mismanaged generations of alliances, cost us public support around the world and mismanaged the economy, putting tax cuts through for people that didn’t need them.”

Backing Bush:

Hal Upbin, chairman and ceo of Kellwood Co.: “I think things have started to change.” Upbin underscored one of Bush’s main arguments — that the economy is out of the woods after the 2001 recession as overall employment and other economic indicators are gaining. As for the war in Iraq, Upbin said he’s “a little upset about [Bush’s] leadership,” but argued that the President was “horribly misled” by intelligence in deciding to go to war under the impression Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Jay Allen, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president for corporate affairs: “Bush seems to be more attuned, I guess, to the business community and the role that business plays.”

Katarina Dal Piaz, president of SML Sport: “As far as our business is concerned, I think the trade agreements are very important and Bush is probably better at that than Kerry. He’s more realistic. The Republicans tend to be more pragmatic and the Democrats tend to be more idealistic and when it comes to trade, you have to be very pragmatic.”

Abe Chehebar, chairman and ceo of Accessory Network Group: “Bush’s tax policy is good for business, which has been proven over the past few quarters. We are seeing companies across every sector showing record profits and growth. The economy right now is good. Consumers feel better and they’re spending. There is a renewed affluence that has not been here for decades. As far as terrorism, I believe the Bush administration is doing a terrific job combating this evil. People know he is serious and he means business. He has what it takes to defend us and make it happen.”

Kevin Burke, president and ceo of the American Apparel & Footwear Association: “[Bush has] been good on tax cuts, a strong leader. He’s not without mistakes, but no politician is. [Kerry’s] campaign rhetoric doesn’t match up with his votes. Here’s a man who’s supported free trade, but yet he’s being very vocal now about” renegotiating the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is pending in Congress, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Undecided:

R. Brad Martin, chairman and ceo of Saks Inc.: “The most important issue in this election, for retailers and our country, is our national security and protecting ourselves against potential terrorists. That’s the number one message I want to hear from President Bush and Sen. Kerry. We must do better than we have done to date on insuring the security of our people and our properties.

“Secondly, we need a continuation of the lower tax rate that was implemented in early 2002. It would be a grave error to raise taxes, as the recovery is finally taking hold. It helps the retail industry and helps our economy in general. If we have a safe and secure homeland and lower taxes and a simplified regulatory process, including tort reform, then I think the market can take care of jobs.”

Erik Autor, vice president of international trade at the National Retail Federation:
“With respect to Kerry, he had a darn good voting record on trade until he declared his candidacy.” Bush also has a “mixed record” on trade, according to Autor. “On the one hand, he did get trade promotion authority passed, as well as permanent normal trade relations with China and he has a very ambitious trade agenda. But you still see a lot of the same old attitude in the trade equation and that is that exports are good, but imports present political problems.”

Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, who said her association’s members are divided:
“No one can fault the Bush administration for taking an aggressive position on negotiating free-trade agreements and also supporting the multilateral [global] negotiations and moving toward duty-free treatment for the textile and clothing sectors. Our only critique is the unresolved issue of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but he has done a good job overall.”

Keith Hull, president of marketing and sales at Graniteville, S.C.-based Avondale Mills: “You’re seeing a lot of people who have been dyed-in-the-wool, very conservative Republicans looking at the Democratic ticket a lot more favorably. It does appear that the Bush administration has been more supportive of a global policy that hasn’t been tremendously helpful to textiles. We don’t frankly know where the Democrats will come out.”

George Horowitz, chairman and ceo of Everlast Worldwide: “We are in unstable economic times right now. At this point, I am not really sure which candidate is better for the industry. I am a domestic manufacturer and an importer, so for me there needs to be a balance between protectionism and globalism. I think both Kerry and Bush have that balance.”

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