WASHINGTON — Roger Milliken and his comrades in the domestic textile industry may have lost their bid to unseat South Carolina GOP incumbent Jim DeMint, but they’re determined, leading up to November’s congressional elections, to work against other candidates they claim vote against their sector on trade issues.
This story first appeared in the June 13, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Milliken and other mill officials in the state’s northern textile-manufacturing area had strong hopes of replacing DeMint in the House with Republican challenger Phil Bradley, a state utility commissioner. However, in Tuesday’s 4th District primary, DeMint scored a victory, with 61.57 percent of the vote to Bradley’s 38.43 percent.
“Part of it is our fault,” said Roger Chastain, president and chief executive officer of Mt. Vernon Mills in Greenville, S.C. “We should have been involved earlier in the campaign.”
The textile executives didn’t start campaigning against DeMint in earnest until earlier this spring when Milliken — whose Milliken & Co. is a big local employer — backed Bradley. Like his colleagues, Milliken dropped his DeMint allegiance after the congressman voted to renew President Bush’s trade promotion authority. The bill passed the House by just one vote.
With the authority, Bush could more easily deploy his ambitious plan to strike more tariff-lowering agreements, which he said is needed to boost U.S. exports and the economy. DeMint’s textile opponents argued that such trade pacts tend to favor low-cost foreign imports at the expense of U.S. manufacturers, including the flagging textile industry.
Despite DeMint’s primary victory, the job-losing side of U.S. trade policy remains pivotal for voters in the November general election, particularly in the South, said Chris Chafe, political director of the textile-apparel union UNITE. Milliken and UNITE, long-time foes in the organizing of mills, have joined forces to form a new lobby group, the American Textile Trade Action Committee or ATTAC, to push their agenda of saving textile jobs. “There is a different level of accountability and interest in the general public around trade that hasn’t been there in a long time,” Chafe said.
Like DeMint, several House Republicans in North Carolina are being challenged on trade and if they lose this fall, the GOP could in turn lose their slim five-seat GOP majority in the House.
With almost 40 percent of the vote, Bradley’s showing did underscore a strong vein of discontent with DeMint’s trade stance, said Milliken’s Washington trade counsel and lobbyist, Jock Nash. In Spartanburg County, where the Milliken mills are based, Bradley garnered almost 50 percent of the vote, he said.
“We are learning and we’re not going away,” said Nash, declining to say which races Milliken will target with campaign ads.
Among the GOP House members who are on the political hit list for their yes votes on trade negotiating authority are North Carolinians Robin Hayes, Sue Myrick and Cass Ballenger.
For his part, DeMint, is still smarting from textile executive criticism.
“My hope is Mr. Milliken and a few others who were involved in this very negative campaign against me will work with us on tradeso we can get these bills built in a way that helps textiles,” said DeMint, whose reelection is practically guaranteed because his district is so heavily Republican. He faces Democrat Peter Ashy and Natural Law party candidate Faye Walters.
DeMint said he proved his textile loyalty by voting in favor of TPA. In exchange for his vote, DeMint exacted a pledge from GOP leaders that a bill would be passed requiring that U.S. textiles be dyed, printed and finished in the U.S. if they are used in Caribbean Basin apparel that receives duty-free treatment. The bill has passed the House.