The erosion of the once mighty textile industry in South Carolina has been supplanted as the top issue among most voters in the state’s presidential primaries — the first in the South.

This story first appeared in the December 4, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Although tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs and bitterness about the steady decline lingers, a Winthrop University/ETV (public television and radio) poll found that the war in Iraq was the leading concern of Democrats in the state, with health care second. Illegal immigration was the foremost issue for Republicans, followed by the war.

“This election is about leadership,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert on politics in the Southeast. “For both parties, it’s about who can unite.”

South Carolina’s textile and apparel jobs have declined steadily in the last 20 years as manufacturers moved offshore to cut labor and other production costs, or closed. The state Employment Security Commission reported 151,600 jobs in the industry in 1987. Ten years later that was down to 105,300 — and the pace has quickened.

The South Carolina Manufacturers Register said the state now has 41,117 textile and apparel jobs.About 7,740 textile and apparel manufacturing jobs have been lost in South Carolina since August 2006, according to the register. Textile and apparel account for more than half the losses of all industrial jobs in the state, which have dropped 18 percent since September 2001 and 4 percent since August 2006.

Textiles and apparel still constitute 16 percent of the state’s manufacturing jobs, compared with 9 percent for rubber and plastics and 8.7 percent for the auto industry among the state’s fragmented industrial base.

As presidential campaigning in the state heats up, however, many current and former textile workers are focusing on trade and jobs.

For Doris Gouin, a registered Republican who spent almost 25 years working in textile plants before her job was cut by Springs Mills last year, that translates into a possible vote for John Edwards in the Democratic primary on Jan. 29.

Gouin, 49, who was employed at Burlington Mills for 16 years, moved to Westpoint Stevens for a year, and then to Springs Mills for seven years, and is now studying accounting in a bid to start a new career.

South Carolina’s primaries are open, which means that voters do not need to declare a party affiliation before casting a ballot. The Republican primary is Jan. 19.

Gouin blames the Bush administration’s free trade policies for speeding the flow of textile jobs overseas. Edwards got her attention with his calls to provide start-up capital for rural businesses, more job training and unemployment assistance for those whose jobs have gone offshore and creation of a renewable energy industry in the South.

“If we don’t bring jobs back into this country and stop the inflow of immigrants and the outflow of jobs, we won’t have anything,” Gouin said. “I’m absolutely leaning toward voting for John Edwards. I’m a registered Republican, but in the last several years they’ve let me down.”

Foreign-controlled companies accounted for almost 21 percent of total manufacturing in South Carolina in 2005, according to the latest available figures. More than one-quarter of all manufacturing workers in South Carolina depend on exports for their jobs. State exports are growing; last year $13.6 billion in merchandise was exported, with transportation equipment topping the list.

Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina who ran for vice president with John Kerry in 2004, took his campaign this month into the heart of what used to be textile country. He is running third, behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, according to polls.

The son of a mill employee, Edwards told a dozen former textile workers gathered in the Lancaster, S.C., home of Donnie C. Ingram: “Some of these jobs won’t come back. But we need incentives to bring the economy of these towns back.”

Edwards advocates creating funds for industry start-ups in the hardest hit rural areas. He favors expanding unemployment insurance programs to a 26-week extended benefit, and broadening job training and unemployment insurance programs to 600,000 workers a year under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. To boost South Carolina’s economy, Edwards said he would create a fund to provide start-up capital for renewable energy investment.

Ingram, 51, is one of the few remaining employees at Grace Bleachery in Lancaster. He works in engineering and maintenance and is helping to shut the plant by the end of the year. A Democrat, Ingram also is leaning toward Edwards.

“It’s obvious American trade policy has affected the United States in a negative way,” Ingram said. “I’ll put this in my language: The big dogs are looking to make money the simple way, and they’re going overseas and out of the U.S. to do it. They aren’t worried about the little people who got them where they are.”

Almost one-third of likely registered voters in South Carolina surveyed in a Winthrop University/ETV poll from Oct. 7 to Oct. 28 were undecided. Among the 534 Democrats surveyed, Clinton got 33 percent, Obama 22.7 percent and Edwards, who won the state presidential primary in 2004, received 9.6 percent. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.24 percent.

Among the 522 Republicans who were polled, Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson were in a statistical dead heat. Thompson got 17.9 percent of the vote, and Giuliani and Romney each received 16.5 percent. Arizona Sen. John McCain registered 9.2 percent. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.29 percent.

Clinton has not visited South Carolina since mid-October, sending her husband, former president Bill Clinton, to campaign on her behalf. He most recently came to the state on Nov. 12 to tout her plan to withdraw from Iraq and her health care and education proposals.

While the former president didn’t address trade specifically, Clinton’s campaign Web site outlines her stance on trade, which doesn’t appear to differ dramatically from that of Edwards’. She proposes increasing employment in high technology to replace lost manufacturing jobs, and also backs labor and environmental standards in trade pacts. Clinton would expand the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act and her plan would include service workers who have lost jobs overseas, as well as workers whose plants moved to countries with which the U.S. has no free trade pacts. In addition, Clinton wants to double spending on job training to $440 million annually.

Republican candidates have largely steered clear of discussing trade policies. Giuliani said taxes and business regulations have driven away jobs and proposed lowering corporate tax rates and lifting regulations. Thompson also supports lower tax rates. Romney said he favors free trade that’s “on the level” and added that the U.S. can’t return to protectionism. He has advocated renewing the president’s authority to negotiate trade deals free from Congressional interference. That power expired in June.

Debra Horton, 51, who also met with Edwards, is a registered Republican but hasn’t voted in years. She has a one-word answer when asked what happened to her job at Springs Mills: NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — which went into effect in 1994. She recently registered at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster and is studying to be a victims’ advocate. But she doesn’t blame the elimination of her job on any political party.

“It’s just greed with businesses wanting to make more money,” Horton said.

Rep. John Spratt (D., S.C.) said candidates are afraid to commit strongly on trade in the South because it could hurt them in other parts of the country where voters have not seen as many jobs move offshore.

“They should instead talk about local concerns: job security, economic growth and health care,” said Spratt, who has not endorsed a candidate. “But they should bring fresh air to the debate and speak with clarity and efficiency so people can understand them. People in the South feel insecure because they have been laid off or know people who have been laid off.”

Jock Nash, Washington counsel to Spartanburg, S.C.-based Milliken Mills, said Roger Milliken, the retired company founder, is backing Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California but is not making public appearances. Milliken declined a request for an interview.

South Carolina mirrors what could happen in the rest of the country, said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.), who is House majority whip. “It’s a small state, but we’ve got the demographics of blacks, whites, young, old, Native Americans, farmers and manufacturing,” he said.

Roger Chastain, chief executive officer of Mount Vernon Mills in Greenville, S.C., said voters so far appear apathetic.

“People seem to accept things the way they are and I really wonder if we’ll get much of a turnout in the primary,” he said. “None of the candidates are really sparking any interest.”