Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON — Erskine B. Bowles, the new White House chief of staff, has some textile and apparel executives concerned that his textile connection will cast an undue influence on certain trade negotiations.
Bowles is married to Crandall Close Bowles, who is executive vice president of Springs Industries Inc., president of the Bath Fashions Group in Fort Mill, S.C., and an heiress to the Springs fortune.
Bowles was tapped Friday by President Clinton to succeed Leon Panetta as White House chief of staff. A lifetime businessman, Bowles was hired by the White House two years ago as deputy chief of staff but returned to his home in Charlotte, N.C., 14 months ago to resume his career as an investment banker.
Some in the retailing community fear Bowles might be influenced by his wife’s business interests. Before joining Springs Industries in 1991, she was president for nine years of the Springs Co., a family holding company that manages other non-textile investments such as insurance, railroads and real estate ventures. Bowles was also a classmate of Hillary Rodham Clinton at Wellesley College, although the two women did not know each other well, and has a masters in economics from Columbia University. She also is the sister of Elliott Close, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Strom Thurmond (R., S.C.), for his Senate seat.
One retail lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous, sharply criticized Bowles’s choice by Clinton and said that he has a “direct financial interest” in China policy.
“His money is Springs money,” the lobbyist said. “The question is whether he will recuse himself of U.S.-China trade policy decisions. The fact is that he will influence negotiations on China’s bilateral.”
The U.S. and China are about to begin round two of negotiations on their textile bilateral, which expires Dec. 31.
Brenda Jacobs, an attorney for the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, also raised the question of whether Bowles should avoid participating in U.S. trade matters pertaining to textiles.
“His wife could influence how he views things,” Jacobs said. “He lives in North Carolina. That has given him a certain perspective on the textile industry. Will he recuse himself from textile matters because he may feel too much influence? I don’t know if he should, but it raises a question when you have someone that close to the industry.”
On the other hand, Robert Hall, vice president and government affairs counsel for the National Retail Federation, agreed that Bowles “is clearly someone who has close links to the textile industry, but there is no reason to be concerned at the present.”
“I don’t know if in any previous incarnations he showed any influence,” said Hall. “Hopefully, Bowles will do a good job as chief of staff and not get involved in parochial politics from his home state in an inappropriate manner.”
Crandall Close Bowles did not return phone calls seeking comment, and a Springs Industries official declined to comment. The firm, which produces textiles and home furnishings, is not reliant on its connections with the new chief of staff, however, for Washington assistance. Springs president Walter Elisha is a member of President Clinton’s trade advisory committee and is a past president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.
Ron Sorini, senior vice president of government relations and international development at Fruit of the Loom, doubted that Bowles would be influenced by his wife’s textile connections.
“I wish that were the case,” Sorini said, “but I highly doubt it. I’ve met his wife, and I don’t think she would use influence improperly with her husband. From everything I know about Bowles, he’s fair, objective, thoughtful and a good soldier for the President. He’s an excellent choice and a man of tremendous integrity. He will make decisions on the merits of an issue and not to help any one segment of the economy.”
Carlos Moore, executive vice president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, agreed.
“Anyone who knows Erskine Bowles and his reputation would certainly agree that he is one of the most honest, objective and scrupulous of people, and that is clearly the way he will operate as chief of staff,” said Moore. “If the importers have a case to be made and need to see the chief of staff, they will get to see him. He was there as deputy chief, and there were no complaints.”