ou’re not addressing trying to sustain the fundamentals that are sustainable. You’re just mad at the world and you want it to go away. It’s probably not a long-term rational policy to deal with these issues.”
Over the years, Thomas has become known for being detail-oriented and relentless in pursuit of legislation he backs. Last year, in an earlier dust-up over the dyeing, finishing and printing issue, he tangled with Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), refusing to defer to a party elder even in the face of Bush administration pressure.
The chairman can be so intense that during last December’s volatile debate on the trade negotiating authority legislation, in the midst of doing battle, he fought back tears. Thomas explains his emotion was tied to anger over Democrats who received flak from their party for co-authoring the legislation.
Thomas is also well known for being abrasive and prone to lecturing when challenged. A former political science professor, his style is in evidence at Ways & Means meetings, often displayed in exchanges with the committee’s top Democrat, veteran Rep. Charles Rangel (N.Y.), who sits next to Thomas.
Of his relationship with the chairman, Rangel said, “We haven’t developed one, yet.”
Committee Republican Phil English of Pennsylvania complimented Thomas for coalition-building with moderate Democrats and said the chairman “has gotten a bad rap” for being outspoken.
“He has a strong personality,” English said. “He is very intense about what he does, but he’s also sophisticated enough to use his personality to his advantage. He has a sense of grand strategy that goes beyond what is generally seen in the [GOP] caucus.”
Thomas defended his abruptness and said it stems from frustration with his opponents, but noted that in more than two decades in office, “I probably haven’t mellowed.”
It almost seems fitting that Thomas would find himself embroiled in a textile trade dispute. His mother taught him how to sew, a skill he recently used to make denim slipcovers for two club chairs. The son of a union plumber, Thomas is also an accomplished mechanic and also repairs sewing machines and completely refurbishes cars. His current project is rehabilitating a 1971 MGB-GT.
In the fashion industry, emotions for Thomas run hot and cold.
At the recent ATMI annual meeting in Washington, one visibly angry mill executive referred to Thomas as a snapping “old bull gator” for his opposition to requiring dyeing, printing and finishing in the U.S. in trade bills.
Jock Nash, the Washington lobbyist for textile giant Milliken & Co., challenged Thomas’ vision of the textile industry, arguing the sector’s decline isn’t inevitable and that U.S. trade policy is wrongly eroding the country’s manufacturing base and gutting communities along the way. He disputes the notion of the industry benefiting by having production move to other countries in this hemisphere and uses NAFTA as an example.
“NAFTA held out a false promise,” said Nash, who’s helping to form a new textile industry coalition to help fight the dyeing, finishing and printing battle and other trade issues. “It held out the notion that the U.S. could, in concert with Mexico, win back market share from Asia, and that has been proven wrong.”
For their part, retailers and other importers of textiles and apparel, who’ve long complained that the dyeing, finishing and printing issue being in limbo is hindering trade in the region, are Thomas boosters.
“He’s a tough cookie and a force to be reckoned with, and I’m just glad he’s sympathetic to our position,” said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation. “He is a very smart guy, understands the issues, and once he gets the bit in his teeth, he’s relentless.”