By  on October 9, 2006

WASHINGTON — Three top candidates have emerged to succeed Jim Leonard as head of the powerful federal panel that implements trade agreements.

People close to the situation said lobbyists Missy Branson and Mike Hubbard, who work for the National Council of Textile Organizations, and Matt Priest, a senior adviser to the Commerce Depart­ment's assistant secretary for import administration, are being considered as the next chair of the interagency Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements. The post also carries the title of deputy assistant Commerce secretary for textiles and apparel.

Philip Martello, director of the Office of Textiles & Apparel, has assumed Leonard's duties, pending a presidential appointment of a replacement.

Small adjustments in implementation, such as how a particular kind of sweater is defined, can mean big changes and big money for fashion companies.

Leonard, 67, who stepped down last month after four and a half years, had simple advice for his successor: "Listen to all sides of the issue. Take all of that information into account."

The NCTO has taken stands against imports from China and Vietnam, so appointing Branson or Hubbard might displease importers. Priest is more of an unknown quantity.

"If they name someone from NCTO that sends a clear message to the retailing and importing community that the position is going to take an even more lopsided view of what is good for the future of the industry," said an importing representative who declined to be named because of the need to work with the new committee chair.

Hubbard said whoever is picked will work for the President and represent the entire industry, including importers. "You don't want to do any harm unto anybody," he said.

Branson declined comment and Priest did not return phone calls. It is unclear how close the Bush administration is to naming a replacement.

"When you think about the $90 billion of imports — that gives you a feel for how intense and how critical these decisions are," said Auggie Tantillo, a former CITA chairman who is executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. "There's a ton of money sitting on the table."The next chair will help shape the trading environment beyond 2008, when quotas on China expire. The job often means making tough decisions. Domestic textile firms at times feel they are being run over by China and other nations, while importers complain they have been unfairly restricted.

"Many of the issues have just been very complicated and very intense," Leonard said. "We talk about trying to limit imports and yet the importers are U.S. companies, so none of these issues are black or white. There are sort of no right or wrong answers. I think the thing that I've tried to do is look at both sides of the issue."

When he took the post, Leonard, who worked 34 years at Burlington Industries, which is now part of Wilbur Ross' International Textile Group, was asked how it felt to be on the other side of the fence.

"I don't view myself as on the other side of the fence," he recalled answering. "I view myself as on the fence."

The hallmarks of his tenure, the implementation of trade pacts such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the installation of quotas on China and Vietnam, were balancing acts, he said.

"The world is moving toward a more global economy," Leonard said. "The industry is still here; it will continue to be here. This is evolution, I guess. This is what happens in the world....It's tough to lose your job, there's no question about that, but life goes on and people end up doing different things."

Leonard maintained that the Bush administration has used the tools at its disposal, imposing safeguard quotas on China, for example, to support U.S. textile and apparel producers.

"I've been involved with trade for a long time, been through a lot of presidents and a lot of secretaries, and they've all said the same thing," he said. "But I really feel very honestly that this administration, from the President all the way down, has tried to be responsive to the domestic industry."

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