BURKE SHARPENS AAFA’S WASHINGTON FOCUS
Byline: Kristi Ellis
WASHINGTON — Kevin Burke, the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s new president, didn’t grow up wanting to be a lobbyist.
“I wanted to be an astronaut, until I realized that my math skills wouldn’t get me off the ground,” he said in a recent interview at his Arlington, Va., office.
But if Burke hasn’t gotten to see how the Earth looks from space, his 12th-floor windows do offer a bird’s-eye view of the Capitol, which is appropriate since politics is a main focus of the job he started a month ago.
Burke plans to meet the diverse needs of the nonpartisan AAFA’s nearly 700 members by capitalizing on his connections forged while lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill for the past 20 years.
“I am a hands-on operator and I’m going to deal with every aspect of the association, from financial to government relations to the programs side,” said Burke, who is a Republican.
While Burke said he will delegate most of the day-to-day buttonholing to vice president of government relations Steven Lamar, he added, “I am still a registered lobbyist.”
Certainly, Burke will have plenty of other responsibilities. Last year, on former president Larry Martin’s watch, the organization formerly known as the American Apparel Manufacturers Association broadened its focus by merging with two other trade groups, Footwear Industries of America and The Fashion Association.
Burke’s experience inside the Beltway goes back about two decades. In 1983, he took his first lobbying job, as a director of government relations for the National Association of Broadcasters, where he stayed for four years. That post was followed by a stint at the American Bakers Association and finally his most recent position, vice president of government relations at Food Distributors International.
During his career, he also considered running for office but eventually opted against it.
“Most of the time, politicians take a huge pay cut, sacrifice time with families and give up successful businesses because they want to do the right thing,” said Burke. “I thought I wanted to do that myself until I realized I could do the same thing as a lobbyist and not have to get re-elected every two years.”
He and the AAFA board have crafted an aggressive agenda. Among the top priorities are lobbying for trade-promotion authority (TPA); supporting pending bilateral agreements with Vietnam, Singapore, Jordan and Chile, as well as the five Andean nations; tackling the workplace ergonomics issue; increasing his members’ participation in the Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production Certification Program, and increasing the AAFA’s membership base.
That’s a full plate for someone who has no direct experience in either the apparel or footwear industries, but Burke plans to use that to his advantage.
“I don’t bring prejudice to the table,” said Burke. “I can look at things without knowing what the past was like and bring new ideas.”
Burke said that forging coalitions with other industry groups will remain a key part of the AAFA’s lobbying strategy.
Most recently, the group joined U.S. Trade, a coalition of 300 companies and business associations fighting to push TPA. In granting the president TPA, Congress would agree to only approve or disapprove future trade pacts negotiated by the administration, and would give up the right to change details of those pacts.
“The only way you really get things done in this town is to be part of a coalition, part of a larger group to effect change,” said Burke. “You have to bring very different groups together under the same mantle in trying to move a trade bill, to push ergonomics or a tax cut.”
But attempts to push through TPA this year may be futile since the Senate, now controlled by Democrats, appears to have pushed the Republican agenda to the sidelines. Burke is not concerned about the apparent shift in course.
“I wouldn’t say the administration’s trade agenda is in trouble,” he said. “They have some challenges in front of them but at the end of the day, we are going to get TPA.”
Another issue on the AAFA agenda is ergonomics. A congressional battle in March killed the Clinton administration’s workplace rules designed to protect workers from repetitive motion and other stress-related injuries.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has vowed to determine a final course of action, based on input from three forums around the country by September, but she has not made a commitment to issue regulations.
“We support ergonomic regulations as long as it is not a one-size-fits-all regulation so the apparel industry is not stuck with the same regulations as steel or food,” said Burke, noting that many AAFA members currently have their own ergonomic programs in place. He said the federal government should be flexible and ergonomic regulations should be voluntary.
While vocal on most issues, Burke cautiously approached the contentious topic of whether fabrics dyed and finished fabrics in the Caribbean should qualify for duty- and quota-free treatment under the Trade and Development Act of 2000.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.) and Treasury Department officials are in a standoff over a proposed U.S. Customs regulation that would grant duty breaks to apparel made in the Caribbean of U.S. textiles even if the fabric is dyed and finished in the region. Helms opposes that rule and is currently holding up confirmation of Treasury nominees in response.
Burke was reluctant to take a stand on the issue, though he said the AAFA is generally more supportive of “flexible,” open trade.
Those are just some of the issues Burke plans to tackle this year on the Hill.
Internally, he is determined to increase participation in Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP), an independent labor monitoring and compliance certification program, which was originally established by the AAMA but became independent in July 2000.
Participating companies agree to have their facilities as well as those of their contractors around the world certified based on standards that insure a safe and humane workplace.
“We are working diligently to get our members to participate. But like any new program, it takes time to grow,” said Burke. “It is good for business and the reputation of our industry to support a program that respects human rights and working conditions.”
Burke said the topic was a focal point at the association’s recent annual meeting held in Aspen, Colo.
“We represent close to 700 companies in apparel and footwear, and my board and I need to nudge some of the companies we represent into participating,” said Burke. “Another part of my goal is bringing AAFA membership up and rebuilding a [financial] reserve in case we have another CBI [Caribbean Basin Initiative] fight down the line.”
That goal poses its own set of challenges due to industry consolidation and stable membership.
“The industries are having some difficulties. It happens to us all,” said Burke. “We’ll come out of it, but we want to come out of it stronger than we were when we went in.”
Lastly, Burke also plans to increase the size of the association’s political action committee, which was established in June 1998. The AAFA said its PAC raised $50,000 over its first two years.
“That’s pretty good,” Burke said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t be a challenge for us to raise political money because it is not corporate money — it is out of their own pockets.”
Burke said he believed his agenda was amb’itious, and he likes it that way.
“The way I’ve always viewed life is you run with what you’ve got,” he said. “You try to create a situation that is better later than it was when you inherited it.”