By  on December 20, 2005

WASHINGTON — Rep. Robin Hayes (R., N.C.) — scion of the Cannon textile family and one of the most influential members of Congress on trade matters — has performed a balancing act during his four terms in Congress.

He has been on both sides of trade-related issues — free trade versus protecting jobs in his home state, which has lost hundreds of thousands of textile jobs, many to imports. He has voted in favor of free trade agreements but he also defended "Buy American" provisions in the defense arena.

Hayes helped push the Central American Free Trade Agreement over the finish line last summer, as well as helping to strengthen language in the Department of Defense's procurement regulations in favor of U.S. textile and apparel manufacturers.

In his latest key move, Hayes successfully sponsored a provision in the 2006 Defense Authorization legislation that extends protections to domestic textile and apparel manufacturers that make millions of dollars of apparel and component parts for military use. The House on Monday approved the legislation with the Hayes provision and the Senate was to vote on it. The provision expands the Berry Amendment governing Department of Defense procurement and urges "Buy American" guidelines. It requires the Secretary of Defense to notify Congress within seven days if contracts are awarded for items such as T-shirts, pants or uniforms to foreign manufacturers. The Secretary must also place the contract on the Internet and allow U.S. companies to bid.

Hayes, 60, honed his survival instincts in the wilderness. In 1980, he moved his family to a remote corner of Alaska, where they lived in a wood-frame house without electricity, indoor plumbing or phones for a year. There, between ice fishing and hunting caribou, he helped form a company that bid on contracts to clean up remote oil field sites. It was a long way from the comforts of home in Concord, N.C., and textile politics on Capitol Hill.

"It was a spiritual experience," Hayes recalled in his Capitol Hill office.

He has taken political heat from key trade-related votes and rebounded time and again. Caught at the crossroads of the demise of the Southern textile industry and the rise of newer high-tech industries, Hayes has managed to survive the transition with a combination of determination, a rich textile legacy, accessibility and party loyalty.But the Congressman could face a major political test in next year's midterm elections, largely because of his handling of a controversial vote on CAFTA in July. Hayes acknowledged that he yielded to pressure from the Bush administration and changed his vote on the trade accord at the last minute in exchange for a commitment from GOP leaders to help find ways to minimize the impact of Chinese imports on the textile industry. His vote, which triggered a debate in Washington and in his district, propelled CAFTA to a 217-215 win in the House.

However, Hayes' subsequent indirect involvement in negotiations over the U.S.-China textile import restraint agreement, which restricts 34 types of apparel and textile imports from China through 2008, could help mitigate any adverse impact of his CAFTA vote. Hayes represents the eighth district — from Charlotte east to Fayetteville — where registered Democrats (195,452) outnumber registered Republicans (118,069). He has been reelected three times by outspending and outpolling his Democratic opponents.

"When I came to Washington in 1998, the majority of textile folks were all saying to me 'You know we need help,"' Hayes said. "'China's currency is killing us, imports are killing us and you have to do something.' I had the most extensive background and the most focus on doing something for the textile industry. There are not that many textile states and there are not that many textile-oriented representatives, so it has been very difficult for us to win legislative and policy battles. When you have 120 to 125, depending on how you define us, out of 435 [representatives] you don't have a whole lot to work with, so I came in looking for unique opportunities to do things to help this industry."

Hayes grew up as an only child in the heart of textile country in Concord, N.C., and spent part of his youth working at Cannon Mills Co. under the watchful eye of his maternal grandfather Charles Cannon, starting in the cotton ginning room.

He has a firsthand account of the travails of the U.S. textile industry and his political career has been shaped by the sharp consolidation in his state and in his district. North Carolina has lost 165,200 apparel and textiles jobs since January 1995, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. Employment in the sectors now stands at 93,100.His family eventually sold Cannon, which morphed into Pillowtex, following the path of so many other textile giants and ending up in financial straits, prompting the largest single layoff — some 5,000 workers in 2002 and 2003 — in North Carolina's textile history.

"The textile industry is gone in Kannapolis [Cannon's hometown]," said Hayes. "They are literally tearing down every single brick."

Rep. Sue Myrick (R., N.C.) who has worked alongside Hayes in the House Textile Caucus on significant textile issues, said: "Robin was a representative at the time the closure happened and that was a very hard thing for him to swallow, but he handled it well."

Myrick said his textile background has been "healthy for him," as he has watched the evolution of the industry and his district, "which has had some hard hits, as we all know."

Textiles run deep in his blood. He owns and operates a small hosiery mill, Mt. Pleasant Hosiery Mills. To hear him talk about "reciprocated heels and toes," he sounds like any another textile or garment manufacturer and that is one key to his political success. As a hosiery manufacturer, he has shared many of the same experiences as his constituents, including one in which a foreign company skipped out on paying him for an order.

"We got a great export account in Canada and I literally got involved in shipping the order and they were going to pay us extra for [an expedited order] and they literally disappeared off the face of the earth," he recalled.

Hayes, who served for four years on Concord's city council and four years in the state House of Representatives, has voted in favor of President Bush's tax cuts, legislation barring gays in the Boys Scouts, arming commercial pilots and limiting patient's Bill of Rights, according to the "2004 Almanac of American Politics."

"I find Robin Hayes to be very much a hands-on congressman," said Rep. Howard Coble (R., N.C.), co-chair of the House Textile Caucus. "In fact, I told him one time: 'Robin, you are the only Republican in North Carolina who could be elected in that particular Congressional district."Coble said his "hands-on" exposure to the textile industry has been given him a leg up on his challengers.

"Robin Hayes is by all means an old shoe that wears comfortably with no pinch and no pain," he said.

Eric Heberlig, a political science professor for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said the family's legacy in the textile industry has also helped Hayes.

"His grandfather built many mills, particularly in the Concord and Kannapolis area, which is where the big plant shutdowns have come, so many workers have that family connection to him and even some unions have been split about him," Heberlig said. "I think the other key to his political success is that even though he is quite wealthy, he comes off as a down-home country boy and his style is a good match with his district."

Joseph Gorga, president and chief executive officer of International Textile Group, the merged company of Burlington and Cone Mills, which operates a couple of plants in Hayes' district, said Hayes is one of the most accessible congressmen.

"There was a piece of legislation I was very interested in a couple of years ago and Robin called me on a Friday night around 11 p.m. to talk to me about it instead of having someone from his staff do it," said Gorga, who wrote an opinion piece in The Charlotte Observer defending Hayes' CAFTA vote. "He has been in a district that has been hit pretty hard with job losses for a lot of reasons and Robin doesn't run away from it. He hits it head on and listens and I think he stays close to the people."

Martin Foil, chairman of Tuscarora Yarns, in Hayes' district, has known him for years and said he "walks a straight line."

"If he thinks he screwed up he will tell you and he will tell you what he does is a tough job," Foil said. "He's not a guy who shows you a $24,000 tooth smile and his brand new suit off of the latest fashion out of Italy. Robin is nothing more than a good old country boy and that is where he is most comfortable."Hayes' textile heritage has largely been a blessing, but it has also helped generate anger among critics who charge he has betrayed the interests of the industry his family helped foster.

"It tends to be in close votes when you get this kind of switch," said Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, citing CAFTA. "He alienated a lot of people he told he would vote one way. It's better to be undecided to the last or make a position, even if unpopular, early in the game. But switching a vote attracts the most penalties in political terms."

Still, Hufbauer said Hayes will "not pay the ultimate price" of losing his seat for his vote on CAFTA because he is an incumbent and enough time will have lapsed between the vote in July and the November 2006 elections.

"Here is someone as embedded in the industry as you can get and yet when he was pushed out of party loyalty and faced with a choice [on CAFTA] he went the wrong way," said Mark Levinson, chief economist at UNITE HERE, the apparel and textile industry's main union, which represented 8,000 Pillowtex workers before the company closed. "It's because he won't stand up to his party in support of his own industry."

The eighth district is closely watched and highly competitive, and Democrats plan to mount a campaign likely centered around Hayes' CAFTA vote.

"This is one of our top targeted races," said a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The bottom line is CAFTA will eliminate thousands and thousands of jobs in North Carolina. He had a choice and he chose to vote in favor of a trade bill that will hurt thousands of North Carolina families."

Defending his decision, Hayes said: "I had a very clear-cut, established history of [the administration] being true to their word," citing concessions the administration made to textile-state lawmakers during the vote roundup for trade promotion authority in 2001. "I wasn't walking out on a limb where I had never been before.

"When they say I flip-flopped, that's ridiculous. You do it based on what's available to you, what's right and what is best for your constituents at the time," he said, noting that many of his textile constituents were pressing him to vote for the trade accord. "If I went in there locked into not being willing to accept an offer [from leaders], which is huge for the industry, then I wouldn't be very bright."

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