CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The heated election fights in North Carolina’s Senate and House races will not only help determine the fate of the state’s and country’s textile industry, but also play a key role in deciding the balance of power in Congress over the next two years.

The outcome of Tuesday’s elections will also take a hand in writing the next and possibly final chapter in the storied history of the Southern textile mills, which have dwindled to a precious few and continue to face steep challenges from free-trade policies and cheap foreign imports.

There are three key North Carolina races being closely watched: GOP incumbent Reps. Robin Hayes and Cass Ballenger are facing strong challenges, and there’s a duel between Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Elizabeth Dole to succeed a Senate seat being vacated by Jesse Helms, the trumpeter of textile country, who is retiring.

On the hustings, candidates are facing voters from communities with increasing unemployment, where shuttered textile mills with bricked-over windows offer a glimpse of former prosperity.

"We’re going downhill," said Roger Snyder, 68, mayor of Albemarle, population 16,000, whose own dyeing and finishing plant, E.J. Snyder & Co., in business for 55 years, now operates only three days a week with 240 workers.

Snyder’s firm represents one side of the North Carolina textile landscape of factories struggling to survive. He is supporting Hayes’ opponent, Democrat Chris Kouri, whom Snyder said strikes populist tones he likens to the Kennedys.

The other side of the equation are companies — still with some domestic business — that are going global and have moved manufacturing to low-wage countries.

"We’re playing the hand as it’s been dealt," is how Ross Haymes, chief economist with Burlington Industries, headquartered in Greensboro, explained the fabric makers’ decision to switch its domestic-based strategies to producing offshore, while maintaining a niche business in the U.S. Burlington has contributed to Hayes’ and Ballenger’s campaigns.

One of the most expensive and bitter races in the nation is the Senate contest to fill the seat being vacated by Helms, beloved in the state as an anti-textile and apparel import hawk during his three decades in office. Textile industry solutions are high on the platforms of hopeful Helms successors: Dole, a former cabinet secretary in the first Bush administration and one-time presidential hopeful, and Bowles, a Charlotte investment banker and former Clinton administration chief of staff."Their focus is almost entirely on textiles," said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "It is a hot political issue because, at least traditionally, textiles is one of the dominant industries, especially in rural districts. Both of them are playing like they are forward-looking on the issue of textiles, with solutions like preventing China from sending illegal imports. Those people who actually follow trade politics closely know these efforts may not have much of an effect, but they are good for a 30-second commercial."

Dole and Bowles, who are close in the polls, question each other’s textile credentials. Dole likes to play to GOP loyalists by highlighting Bowles’ affiliation with President Clinton. She also accuses Bowles of coming up short in defending textile worker interests because his wife, Crandall, is chief executive officer of the South Carolina textile mill Springs Industries, which has sizeable domestic employment, but has closed some U.S. mills and has production in foreign countries.

"His $2 billion family textile company is laying off North Carolina workers and buying textile facilities in Mexico and China," one Dole ad warned of Bowles.

In response, Bowles lashed out at Dole for having "the absolute gall to attack my wife" and explained that Springs’ foreign investments are part of operating in a global economy. In another ad, Bowles accuses Dole of wanting to "send our jobs overseas."

Neither candidate appears willing to take up Helms’ strict anti-import mantle, a political calculation seen as courting the state’s agricultural, high-tech and other sectors with livelihoods tied to international sales. However, Bowles now disavows NAFTA as being bad for U.S. jobs, although he supported its passage. Likewise, Bowles now opposes trade promotion authority, also known as fast-track authority, which enables the President to more readily negotiate foreign trade deals. He said the authority will be used to negotiate job-losing trade pacts.

Dole supports TPA, saying it gives the President the chance to negotiate the opening of foreign markets to U.S. goods. But, she argues, if elected, she would vote against trade bills that would cost North Carolina jobs. In addition, Dole advocates use of a country-of-origin "tracer" dye that the U.S. Customs Service wants to use to better detect when imports are being transshipped to avoid quota and tariffs, a technology Bowles questions.North Carolina is considered a toss-up state politically, since registered voters are evenly split between the two parties. However, in recent presidential elections it has narrowly favored Republicans, who depended on conservative Democrats to be elected. The state remains the hub of domestic textile manufacturing, but its shrinking base in that sector reflects the nationwide trend.

In 2001, the state’s two economies — the old, traditional manufacturing base like textiles and a burgeoning high-tech sector — were ambushed by the national economic downturn. Making things worse for textile producers was increased competition from Asian imports being discounted further because of Far East currency devaluations.

Since the last congressional election in 2000, the state’s textile industry has lost 23,100 workers to employ 118,500. In overall manufacturing, jobs in the state during the period fell by 93,800 workers to employ 930,000.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate of 6.3 percent is among the highest in the nation, after spending almost a decade below the national average, even dipping to 3 percent, as a national model for balancing new investments while maintaining traditional industries like textiles. The state’s economy has fallen so much that a declining tax base forced Moody’s Investors Service in August to downgrade the state’s triple-A bond rating.

Jobs and North Carolina’s economy are key issues in the two contested House seats defended by GOP incumbents Ballenger and Hayes. Their districts are in the western part of the state and are steeped in textile-manufacturing history. Ballenger’s 10th district covers a narrow strip west of Charlotte that runs north-south almost from the Virginia to the South Carolina borders. Hayes’ 8th district extends from Charlotte east to Fayetteville.

Both candidates are being dogged by opponents for allowing TPA renewal. Hayes, who owns a small hosiery factory and who’s related to the Cannon textile family, cast the deciding vote, allowing the bill to pass 215 to 214. This distinction now prompts local UNITE members to call Hayes "Mr. 215" in campaigning for his opponent, Kouri, a political newcomer who, after college, played professional football one season in France after being briefly signed by the Miami Dolphins.

Kouri, 32, now a Charlotte attorney, dismisses TPA as "Washington, D.C.’s fancy way of saying your jobs are going overseas." He envisions new textile jobs being created for high-tech fabric producers to supply aeronautics and other industries.On a recent stop at UNITE Local 1501 in Kannapolis, Kouri, who has been endorsed by the union, shook hands with unionists before heading to a Pillowtex-Fieldcrest Cannon factory to greet workers at a shift change. Brenda Miller, 37, who has worked in the mill for 14 years, said Hayes betrayed his textile mill roots by not trying to block TPA.

"You would think he would care about these workers instead of sending these jobs overseas," she said. "It’s heartbreaking."

Hayes, 57, a tall man with a hitch in his step from a bad hip, has survived tough challenges in his two previous elections. Redistricting this year has made his face-off with Kouri problematic, since a larger part of Charlotte, and thus more urban Democrats and Kouri voters, are now in the 10th district.

Hayes bristles at the claim that he’s been politically unfaithful to the textile industry. At a recent unveiling of a 230-acre park in Monroe County dedicated to Helms, Hayes said of his vote for TPA: "It’s a discussion in Washington, not in the 8th district." Despite Hayes’ vote on TPA — Helms opposed it — the 81-year-old endorses Hayes, who told the gathering the senator is his "hero."

Hayes recounted how he, as well as Ballenger, traded their votes on TPA to help the textile industry. The deal: in exchange for helping the President, the Bush administration promised to help domestic mills compete abroad and force foreign countries to open their markets to U.S. textiles.

"I’m hearing about jobs from voters," said Hayes after the ceremony, as some 200 attendees ate red, white and blue cake with a likeness of the U.S. Capitol.

Hayes ticked off other ways he said he’s helped his district, like securing federal grants to create an economic development plan. He supported a tax measure allowing businesses, like textile mills, to claim losses from five years back instead of just two on tax returns.

Martin Foil, chairman of Tuscarora Yarns in Hayes’ hometown of Concord, is again backing the congressman, a childhood friend. Hayes’ deal with the President to open foreign markets to U.S. mills helped to ease Foil’s anger over the congressman voting for TPA."If it helps, wonderful. If it doesn’t, I’ll work to push George Bush out of office," Foil said. "There are no easy solutions to the textile dilemma."

For Ron Daugherty, Ballenger’s opponent, tax breaks and promises to open foreign markets aren’t enough. A lifelong Republican, Daugherty, 44, became a Democrat to challenge Ballenger, 75, a 16-year incumbent and owner of a Hickory plastic packaging business with apparel customers. Daugherty said he switched parties after Ballenger toured the mill man’s factory and appeared indifferent to his tale of apparel customers closing or moving production offshore because of low-price import competition.

"I decided there wasn’t really anything else I could do under my roof within the walls of my plant to make the situation better," said Daugherty, whose 143,000-square-foot Miami Thread Co. has 20 workers left. "Congress continues to act in a particular way that benefits large corporations and some specific areas in our country. However, as far as the manufacturing sector, they’ve traded it away for cheaper foreign goods we can get at discount retailers."

Daugherty’s solutions: redo international trade agreements to curb imports, which would include repealing NAFTA and halting shipments from China. His fantasy: standing on an ocean freighter and pushing containers of imported textiles and apparel overboard.

"I thought I was going to retire from the textile business and now it looks like the textile business is going to retire from me," Daugherty said on a recent drizzly Sunday afternoon campaigning with his wife, Amy, at the Wooly Worm Festival in Banner Elk in the colorful autumn foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Daugherty has spent $150,000 of his own money on his campaign. "That’s not coming from a Mason jar, let me tell you," said Amy Daugherty, underscoring her husband’s underdog candidacy, as the heels of her black suede pumps sunk into the wet ground. Ballenger has raised $400,000 for his reelection.

Later in the day, speaking to voters at the Caldwell County Library, cut-and-sew contractor Howard Cannon, a registered Republican who previously voted for Ballenger, said he’s now a Daugherty backer. Cannon is struggling to keep his Industrial Seaming Co. factory open with 40 workers and he blames Ballenger and other politicians who voted for NAFTA. The company once had three plants and 450 workers."All of our good work now goes to Mexico or other places overseas," Cannon said.

Ballenger discounts Daugherty’s solutions for the textile industry. The congressman said he remains loyal to the sector and points to his backing a bill to keep dyeing and finishing jobs in the U.S. as one example. However, Ballenger said the global economy is bound to continue whittling away at the industry.

"In my district, you are going to have to be a niche provider," said Ballenger, calling Daugherty’s platform for more textile import protection "crazy" and going against the historical shift of apparel jobs to increasingly low-wage markets.

Burlington’s Haymes, whose company gave $1,500 to Ballenger’s campaign, agreed with the candidate’s assessment, however lamentable. He said: "The days of making tonnage and trying to run your business that way are no longer here."

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