WASHINGTON — Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina, who is retiring after 38 years in the Senate, is the last of the protectionists of the Southern textile industry and his departure is shaping up as a test of whether the era of unequivocal import-fighting lawmakers is over.

Hollings, 82, a Democrat, is a leading proponent of government policy that gives preference and assistance to U.S. textile mills against the influx of imported apparel, fabric and yarn. He drew the ire of retailers by using Senate rules to his advantage on trade bills. His booming baritone, thick with the drawl of his native Charleston, often punctuated long speeches on topics such as the impact of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse.

“They make the clothing, they make the airplanes, they make the computers, they make it all…and we’re going out of business,” Hollings said in a characteristic speech in 2000 that opposed China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. “We don’t understand the forces of globalization.”

Hollings argues that U.S. trade policy, under Democratic and Republican administrations, has favored low-cost imported goods and allowed for flagrant circumvention of trade rules on country of origin and intellectual property rights at the expense of U.S. producers.

When he stopped recently in the Capitol to talk about his retirement, Hollings said the issue of fair trade is still alive among voters. “Oh yeah, it’s still got legs,” he said.

Hollings acknowledged that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s chances of winning South Carolina against Republican President George Bush are slim — “if he can carry South Carolina, he can carry Moscow” is how the senator put it. But he said the Democratic Senate candidate in the state, Inez Tenenbaum, has a broader reach. Tenenbaum, the state school superintendent, is facing Republican Rep. Jim DeMint, a two-term congressman, in the race to succeed Hollings. DeMint opposes Hollings’ on trade and Tenenbaum supports him.

Hollings is “the last one to wear the mantle of protectionist proudly,” said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel with the National Retail Federation, representing import-reliant department and specialty stores, which have been among Hollings’ key opponents.

This story first appeared in the October 19, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“If DeMint wins, I think that is going to be a wake-up call for a lot of (congressional) members that the textile industry doesn’t have the political clout it used to and we can move on,” Autor said.

Polls conflict over whether Tenenbaum and DeMint are ahead. In debates and on the stump, DeMint has sought to characterize his opponent as being behind the times on international trade policy. He considers import pressures facing the textile industry to be a competitive economic reality, while Tenenbaum calls for a moratorium on new trade pacts until existing agreements are reviewed for fairness. DeMint supports continued expansion of agreements and immediate passage of the recently negotiated Central American Free Trade Agreement.

“Textile executives have come out for Inez right in his (DeMint’s) backyard, so there’s no question” textile trade remains a viable issue, Hollings said.

In addition to trade and jobs, Tenenbaum and DeMint are battling over Tenenbaum’s record as the state’s education chief and she has pummeled DeMint on comments he made about a 23 percent national sales tax on all goods and services to replace the federal income tax. He said that isn’t a serious consideration, but added that the federal tax code should be scrapped.

“This tax code is the biggest job killer in this country,” DeMint said Sunday on a debate with his opponent on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” during which international trade wasn’t discussed.

Tenenbaum’s backers include textile executives from Mt. Vernon Mills, Inman Mills, Cheraw Yarns and Springs Industries, according to Federal Election Commission records. Springs is run by Crandall Bowles, the wife of Erskine Bowles, the Democratic candidate in the North Carolina Senate race.

“Fritz has been a very strong friend to the textile community for years and years,” said Roger Chastain, president of Mt. Vernon Mills in Greenville, S.C., a Republican who is backing Tenenbaum. With DeMint, Chastain said, “we have a guy running for the Senate who really doesn’t want to have textile mills in the South.”

South Carolina’s economy has been in a four-year malaise, with its unemployment rate increasing to 6.4 percent from 4.3 percent since January 2001. Nationally, the jobless rate is 5.4 percent. South Carolina’s manufacturing sector has been hit particularly hard during the period, with production jobs declining 17 percent to 270,500 from 327,700, according to the South Carolina Employment Security Commission. Of the 57,200 production jobs lost, 23,350 were in textiles and 9,591 were in apparel. Textile mills in the state now employ 36,967 people and 4,732 in apparel.

Hollings’ retirement follows the departures of longtime U.S. textile proponents. Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), left office in 2002 after 29 years. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Republican, retired in 2002 at age 100 after 42 years in office and died a few months later.

The three Southerners from the two top textile-producing states teamed up to pare down or delay import-expanding trade legislation and treaties, such as the Trade Act of 2000. In that bill, the senators were able to lessen the amount of apparel receiving duty-free treatment from sub-Saharan Africa and Central America.

Probably their biggest triumph, though short-lived, was Senate passage of five bills from the late Seventies through the early Nineties that called for placing limits on the annual growth of imported apparel and textiles.

“They were successful fights — they passed the Senate, all five of them, and four passed the House and were vetoed,” Hollings said. “Carter vetoed one in ’79 and Reagan vetoed two, and Papa [President George H.W.] Bush vetoed one. Those were good fights.”

However, support for quashing trade deals has waned in the last 20 years, as the philosophy that lowering trade barriers boosts the U.S. and global economies has taken hold in both parties. In the Senate, only Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Thurmond’s successor in South Carolina, has cast himself as a textile industry advocate in the Hollings-Helms-Thurmond tradition.

In North Carolina, Helms’ successor, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole hasn’t been tested by a trade vote, but she has worked to secure congressional textile research funding, including technology to trace imported textiles to detect illegal transshipments that avoid duties. During Dole’s stints in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, she aligned herself with free-trade policies.

The other North Carolina senator, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, has had a mixed voting record on trade, according to the textile industry. In his single, six-year term, Edwards angered textile makers by voting for China to join the WTO, but gained their support for opposing apparel duty-dropping bills for sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean basin.

The contest to fill Edwards’ seat has generated textile industry empathy from both candidates: Bowles, a former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, and Republican Rep. Richard Burr. Each has said they would vote against CAFTA, which the textile industry opposes, and support the continuation of quotas limiting Chinese apparel and textile imports, a must for domestic mills.

The decline in textile industry clout in Washington can be traced to the extended decrease in the sector’s employment. Since Hollings took office in 1966, national textile jobs have fallen to 413,000 from 966,000, as apparel jobs have slid to 282,800 from 1.4 million.

Bob Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political science professor, said, “There is no impression the state is prospering at this point.”

He said Hollings’ departure signals the end of a chapter in South Carolina’s political history. Hollings, a fiscal conservative who gradually became more progressive in his social views, began in elected office in 1948 as a state legislator when the South was dominated by Democrats.

The shift toward a Republican majority occurred as Southern conservatives resisted the civil rights movement and efforts to unionize in the Sixties. After eight years as governor, Hollings was elected to the Senate in 1966 to fill the last two years of a term vacated by the death of incumbent Sen. Olin D. Johnston.

In his early years in the Senate, Hollings opposed civil rights and social welfare legislation and advocated deep cuts in federal spending. However, his views on race and the poor began to shift in the late Sixties when he became one of the first Southern leaders to acknowledge widespread poverty in the region.

Hollings fought against concentration of ownership in media corporations, polluting oceans and inadequate port security. In 1983, he made an unsuccessful run at the Democratic presidential nomination.

Hollings will not go quietly during his last days at the Capitol. He is critical of Bush’s $2 trillion in tax cuts and the mounting $410 billion deficit, saying, “We’ve got the economy on steroids.”