By  on January 9, 2007

WASHINGTON — One of Matt Priest's top priorities as the Commerce Department's new deputy assistant secretary for textiles and apparel is to maintain an open door to the industry. Given the trade agenda, he is bound to get plenty of visits and an earful from domestic textile producers and importers.

The job, which he began on Monday, gives Priest, 29, an important voice in the formation of trade policy and the opportunity to weigh in on issues such as a controversial program to consider antidumping cases against Vietnam, negotiations for a free trade agreement with South Korea and the implementation of existing agreements.

Like his predecessor, Jim Leonard, who stepped down in September, Priest is also chairman of the powerful interagency Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements, which helps turn negotiated trade pacts into a set of on-the-ground practices.

"Our goal is not to be an impediment," Priest said. "It's to be a colleague and a friend and an ally in the global economy, and to work with, as tricky as it can be sometimes, both sides of the equation."

On one side of that equation are the importers who want to loosen restrictions on foreign-made goods, mostly those from Asia. Domestic textile firms are on the other side, wanting to protect their export business to Central America and stave off competition from China, Vietnam and elsewhere.

As a native of Havelock, N.C., Priest, who is 6 feet, 4 inches tall with an easy demeanor and a Southern politeness, also has an innate understanding of the importance of the textile business to the region.

"Whether you work for the industry or not, it's a major part of the economy, so you're always cognizant of the importance textiles play in the state's economy," he said.

Priest, who lives in Springfield, Va., with his wife, Lisa, and two-year-old daughter, originally moved from North Carolina because of his father's career in the Marines. He went to junior high and high school in Northern Virginia before venturing south again to get a bachelor's degree in political science from North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

But it was as legislative assistant and then legislative director for Rep. Sue Myrick (R., N.C.) where Priest picked up the skills he expects to rely on in his new role."A lot of the principles I feel like I bring to the job aren't specific to textiles or apparel or importers or retailers," he said. "They're just good practices for when you're dealing with constituents."

Priest also said he wants to help people feel like they've had their say, even when things don't go their way.

"It's important that you're able to build relationships and communicate well with folks who have an interest and who have a lot on the line in some of the decisions we make," he said.

Priest enters the job, which isn't so far removed from his most recent post as senior adviser to David Spooner, assistant secretary for import administration at Commerce, at a time of some friction between importers and the Bush administration.

That friction stems from a plan to monitor imports from Vietnam and possibly self-initiate antidumping cases, which could increase costs and has injected a degree of uncertainty into the business of importing from the Southeast Asian nation.

Importers complain they had no say in the initiative before it was publicly laid out in September, though interested parties have since had a chance to offer advice on how the program should look.

"Moving forward, we are committed to keeping this as open a process as possible," said Priest, who noted there has been a "healthy exchange of ideas" recently.

Auggie Tantillo, who held Priest's job under President George H.W. Bush and is now executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said Priest's time in the job could be quite active. Tantillo also took the job as a 29-year-old with experience working on Capitol Hill.

"You just have to trust your gut instincts," said Tantillo. "You have to acknowledge that you don't know everything and you do have a grouping of experts there to help you."

Tantillo also said Priest will have to operate in the larger framework of the Bush administration's policies.

Importers would like to see some of those policies tweaked.

"The most difficult job that [Priest] could do, but the most important thing he could do, is really be the change agent to make [the committee] have a stronger role in helping the domestic industry adjust to the commercial realities of 2007 versus looking for special protection," said Julia Hughes, senior vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel.

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