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WASHINGTON — As special textile negotiator in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, Scott Quesenberry is a man caught in the middle.
Quesenberry has to strike a balance between the business interests of domestic textile firms and the importing community, as well as the varied political concerns of Capitol Hill and his bosses, USTR Rob Portman and President Bush.
“My hope is to try to work in a way that we replicate what happened with the China agreement and that is: Not everybody went away a little mad, it’s everybody went away a little bit happy,” Quesenberry said during an interview last week.
The China agreement, inked just before he took over supervision of U.S. textile and apparel trade negotiations in December, restricts 34 kinds of imports from China until the end of 2008. His predecessor, David Spooner, is now assistant secretary for import administration at the Commerce Department.
Textile firms wanted stricter controls, but hailed the deal as vital protection for U.S. manufacturing. At least for now, the agreement has halted the uncertain process of restraining China through temporary safeguard quotas. Importers were loath to give up any access to Chinese production and wary of possible future safeguards, but thankful for a more stable business environment.
Even making a majority of his diverse constituents “a little bit happy” is a tall order for the 34-year-old Quesenberry, who faces a series of thorny issues, from the Doha trade liberalization talks in the World Trade Organization to the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Several other pacts to ease the flow of goods between the U.S. and other countries are in various stages of completion, including talks with Thailand, which continue this week in Chiang Mai. Last week, Bush alerted Congress of his plan to sign an agreement with Peru.
The jam-packed U.S. trade agenda faces a tight deadline as well. Bush’s trade promotion authority, which eases the way for trade bills in Congress by forcing an up or down vote with no amendments, expires in July 2007 and might not be renewed.
“The job that Scott has is going to take on an added level of importance in the next year, year and a half, because of the negotiation of the Doha round, which is clearly going to establish the overarching international trading rules for textiles and apparel for at least the next 10, maybe 15 years,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. “It will determine what our tariff rates are going to be here in the United States, as well as [in] key markets overseas. It’s going to determine whether there’s any hope of having an extended safeguard system.”
Quesenberry, who had been legislative director for Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.) and grew up in Lexington, N.C., comes to his new job with an intimate connection to the domestic industry, which he knows he’ll have to transcend to work successfully with importers.
His father spent nearly two decades as an engineer in the U.S. industry, joining textile giant Burlington Industries in 1966 and moving the family between towns where the company had facilities before settling in Lexington. Quesenberry also worked in Dole’s office when Pillowtex, a home furnishings manufacturer, shut its doors and nearly 5,000 people lost their jobs.
“Growing up in those towns, I understand both the micro and macro effects of the decisions that are made here,” said Quesenberry, of the USTR’s office. “I’ve seen the dislocation, particularly the textile industry and the furniture industry have caused, both personally from friends in high school, and also in Sen. Dole’s office seeing the larger numbers. But at the same time, I recognize that retailers are now the number-one employer overall in the state of North Carolina. The largest single employer is Wal-Mart.”
Stephen Lamar, senior vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which usually lines up with the free trade philosophy of importers, described Quesenberry as “very qualified” for his new job.
“He works for Rob Portman, so he’s going to be a reflection of where Portman is and I don’t see him slanting one way or the other,” said Lamar.
In addition to an ability to listen to the many voices in apparel and textile trade, Quesenberry’s success, as his job title implies, will hinge on his ability to negotiate with both foreign governments and U.S. businesses and lawmakers.
“I pride myself on understanding,” he said. “I may not necessarily agree with whomever I’m talking with, but at least I want to understand where they’re coming from and understand other people have different pressures, different priorities, different needs. Once you’ve got that understanding, you often find that there’s a lot more common area to work on than you might otherwise have expected.”
That rather open negotiating philosophy is buttressed by the former offensive lineman’s commanding physical presence. Quesenberry took to the gridiron in high school and was on the team for two years at Dartmouth College, but even at a bulky 6-feet, 1-inch was too small to see playing time.
He left the team after his sophomore year and studied in London with the history department’s honors program. Quesenberry wrote his thesis on David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister in North Carolina during the late Colonial and Revolutionary period, and also closely studied the Middle East.
After college, he received a law degree from Emory University School of Law and was counsel for the pubic affairs firm Mercury Group. During Dole’s campaign for the Senate, he met his wife, Heather, a career civil servant with the Agriculture Department and a microbiologist by training.
Quesenberry, who presents a polite speaking style in which he chooses his words carefully, reveals a boyish charm when talking about his wife of two years and describes spending time with her as “a very neat thing.”
How much of that gentle giant side will come out in tense trade negotiations remains to be seen.