WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim DeMint’s day of political judgment is today.
In a primary to select the Republic candidate for South Carolina’s fourth district seat in the House, he’s facing Phil Bradley, a state public utility commissioner who can thank disaffected DeMint backers from textile mills for giving his underdog candidacy a chance.
Roger Milliken and other textile mill executives from northern South Carolina are hoping to spoil the reelection plans of their local congressman, whom they say is voting against the industry on trade legislation.
“I am a lifelong Republican. Thus, opposing a sitting member of Congress who is also a Republican is a unique position for me,” Milliken, 86, told a group of several dozen Bradley backers at a May 30 fund-raiser.
Milliken declined to be interviewed for this article, but provided a copy of the comments he delivered at the Piedmont Club, a private social haunt in Spartanburg, S.C., which is also home to his Milliken & Co., the global textile company he heads as chairman and chief executive officer. One of the largest local employers, Milliken & Co. has 3,600 employees.
DeMint miffed Milliken and other textile constituents by voting in December to renew President Bush’s trade promotion authority, formerly called fast-track authority. That authority limits Congress’ say in trade deals to a simple “yes” or “no” vote, meaning that the legislature can’t amend deals negotiated by the president. The authority expired in the mid-Nineties, during the Clinton administration, though Clinton and now Bush have pushed to have the authority renewed.
Trade authority is a hot-button issue among domestic manufacturers, whose ranks have dwindled in the face of import competition. It is generally believed that giving the president trade authority would result in the negotiation of more trade agreements with foreign countries.
Domestic textile manufacturers see fast-track authority as an enemy of the U.S. economy. They claim it furthers what Milliken called “American de-industrialization.”
“Jim DeMint supports fast track. [Phil] Bradley does not,” Milliken said in explaining why he’s abandoning the incumbent, whose campaigns he had financially backed in the past.
The district in question is largely rural with 581,000 residents. It borders Georgia and includes parts of three counties.
The area has been a magnet in the last two decades for new manufacturing, largely because it’s close to Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta. The Spartanburg airport can also handle large cargo jets. BMW makes its roadster sports car there, General Electric produces gas turbines and Michelin manufactures tires.
The district is solidly Republican, so the winner of today’s GOP primary will likely be the victor in the November general election.
Milliken’s recent public backing of Bradley has turned into the wild card of the campaign, since the textile titan casts a long shadow in the fourth district. He has a father-figure-like stature in the community, having donated to local institutions including colleges and the YMCA. He has also served on local civic boards. In addition to Milliken & Co. employees, other potential Bradley voters are Milliken retirees and workers from other mills.
“He’s probably the most respected businessman in the state and best known,” Roger Chastain said of Milliken. Chastain is president of Mount Vernon Mills in Greenville, S.C., part of the fourth district, and was one of the first textile executives to declare DeMint persona non grata.
“If DeMint has any political aspirations, which he’s hinted at, and he later runs for senator, then I think he can forget that too,” Chastain said.
Milliken hasn’t always backed winners, but he has been consistent in choosing candidates who follow his political agenda even if it means turning against the Republican Party. In 1992, Milliken supported Ross Perot for president and in 2000 Pat Buchanan. Both candidates shared Milliken’s views on trade and were disaffected GOP members running on the Reform Party ticket.
The only time Milliken is known to have sided with a Democrat was in 1998, when he campaigned for South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings’ reelection against former congressman Bob Ingles, the Republican nominee. Hollings has been a steadfast supporter of the textile industry and shares Milliken’s trade views.
Milliken for decades has also been politically involved outside of South Carolina. He was a prominent backer of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 GOP presidential bid against Democrat Lyndon Johnson. He also campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1968, at a time when much of the South was seen as solidly Democratic. Milliken has also given to the Republican Party’s war chest.
Recently, Milliken joined forces with the apparel-textile union UNITE and Cranston Print Works chairman and ceo George Shuster to form a lobbying group, the American Textile Trade Action Coalition, to agitate for trade policy reform in Congress.
The administration argues that its trade agenda has been stymied without trade promotion authority because trading partners are unwilling to negotiate without assurances that agreements will not be changed.
Moreover, the White House maintains that U.S. economic growth is dependent on expanding foreign trade through agreements like the pending Free Trade Area of the Americas because, while encouraging import growth, they also are designed to increase U.S. exports.
Opponents of the authority argue that low-priced foreign imports are killing the U.S. economy. They contend they want international trade to continue, but with policies that do more to limit imports and boost exports.
“American manufacturing today is endangered,” Milliken said in his Bradley fund-raiser remarks. “Today, the globalist view prevails in Washington. For almost two decades, a succession of presidents and Congresses have pursued trade policies, such as NAFTA, that encourage cheap imports and the movement of U.S. manufacturing to low-wage nations, particularly Communist China.”
Adding to the textile executives’ anger over trade authority is that the measure squeaked through the House by a one-vote margin, an outcome they say DeMint and a handful of other GOP textile-state lawmakers who voted with the President could have changed.
DeMint, 51, bristled at accusations he’s working against textile interests. He said he didn’t blindly vote for trade authority, but rather exchanged his vote for a promise from House Republican leaders that could potentially save tens of thousands of textile jobs.
The promise calls for legislation that would require Caribbean Basin or Andean apparel makers to use textiles that were dyed, printed and finished in the U.S. if they want to receive duty and quota breaks on their shipments.
“This is a strategy of `Hey, let’s get on the train and work with the conductor,”‘ DeMint said after the vote. “In the past, members from textile state have basically taken a just-say-no strategy” to trade legislation.
The House has since approved DeMint’s measure, which would reverse an earlier Customs ruling. The bill hasn’t yet been aired in the Senate. As for trade authority, differing versions of the bill have passed both chambers. A compromise measure is now being worked on.
In his campaign, DeMint has been capitalizing on the House dyeing, printing and finishing vote to demonstrate an allegiance for the domestic textile industry. Radio ads point to praise given DeMint by the American Textile Manufacturers Institute for the House vote on the issue.
“The entire United States textile industry owes a debt of gratitude to Congressman Jim DeMint,” ATMI chairman Van May said in a statement after the House vote — words used in part in ads running up to election day.
The ATMI isn’t backing a candidate in the Fourth District and Milliken lobbyist Jock Nash said DeMint’s use of May’s comments are misleading.
“Jim DeMint’s a politician,” Nash said. “Before that, he was an advertising and marketing guy. He knows how to use a statement like that.”
While DeMint said he’s gotten assurances the dyeing, printing and finishing legislation will eventually clear Congress, that isn’t happening fast enough to get his detractors in the textile industry to back off.
“I certainly don’t blame Jim DeMint for the decline of the textile industry,” said Bradley backer Jimmy Gibbs, owner of a used textile-machinery concern. “I voted for him in his previous two elections and early last year gave him money for this campaign. But I disagree with him on trade policy.”
As far as attracting campaign contributions, DeMint has raised $261,577 so far, outpacing Bradley’s $36,292, according to the Federal Election Commission. Those figures don’t include the results of Bradley’s May 30 textile industry fund-raiser. Milliken contributed the maximum-allowable amount of $1,000 to Bradley’s bid.
President Bush has campaigned for DeMint, and several local business leaders have rallied for his reelection.
“There are a number of people who are upset and angry about the loss of textile jobs, and I think the Bradley message will resonate with that group, but I think it will resonate with the minority of voters,” said Barry Wynn, president of Colonial Trust, a financial management company, who views DeMint’s trade authority vote as good for local manufacturing. “The business community as a whole has supported DeMint over Bradley.”
For his part, 61-year-old Bradley, who in a low-budget campaign uses his cell phone as his main campaign phone number, said he’s ready to move to Washington. A former state legislator, Bradley said, if elected, he would agitate for Congress to have more of a role in setting trade policy.
“I am not opposed to negotiating international trade agreements,” he said, “as long as they are fair and Congress has input.””