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Trade Measure Puts Undecided Lawmaker in Lobbyists' Sights

By Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 1997; Page A01

Karen Hiott doesn't need a political consultant to tell her what will happen if her congressman, Adam Smith, votes to give President Clinton authority to negotiate "fast-track" trade agreements with other countries.

"He probably won't be reelected," said Hiott, lounging in the back yard of her suburban Puyallup home, with snow-capped Mount Rainier looming grandly to the east. "Our union watches these labor issues very closely. And this is an important one. It's a very, very active union."

If fast track is an arcane issue to many Americans, Hiott, a machinists union shop steward at Boeing Co., is not among them. Clinton yesterday proposed legislation to give him authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress cannot amend, only vote up or down. Organized labor and environmentalists are opposing it vigorously, as they did with the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s. Big business is strongly behind it and Clinton appears ready to put the full might of his popularity behind the measure.

Smith is among a handful of lawmakers who are undecided, making themselves targets for intense lobbying from both sides. The outcome of what officials expect to be a very close vote may come down to what a few moderate Democrats like Smith do.

"Adam's got a tough decision to make," said Fred Benson, vice president of federal and international affairs for Weyerhaeuser Co., a giant private timber company based in Smith's district. "This certainly has all of the ingredients for a lot of tension."

Benson said his company, the nation's largest exporter of softwood products, plans to lobby Smith now that the bill has been released by Clinton. But, he said, the company never conditions support for a candidate on a single issue and wouldn't oppose Smith based solely on a vote against fast track.

On this issue, Smith is in as tough a position as anyone in Congress. His state is among the most trade dependent in the country. At the same time, the 9th District has perhaps the strongest union presence in a strong labor state. Snuggled around the southern end of Puget Sound and west of the Cascade Mountains, the district is home to thousands of low- and medium-skilled union workers such as Hiott, who makes insulation blankets for commercial airplanes. It is a district that has in many ways benefited from freer trade around the world – and that remains suspicious of it.

The district is predominantly suburban, white and blue collar, with a median household income of about $32,000 a year. It includes some high-income communities, particularly around Puget Sound. The employment base includes offices and factories around Sea-Tac International Airport and shipyards and docks in Tacoma. Thousands of residents are associated with the Fort Lewis Army base.

Officials at Boeing, which employs about 16,000 people in Smith's district and is the nation's No. 1 exporter, yesterday reiterated their support for fast track, but said they hadn't seen Clinton's bill and refused to comment specifically on it.

The majority of Boeing's commercial sales are overseas, said spokeswoman Maria Sheehan. Fast track, company officials argue, will help open up foreign markets so it can better compete with its only commercial competitor, Airbus; that will increase, not reduce, jobs domestically.

"Sure, this gives Boeing a better opportunity to sell planes to Mexico," replied Linda Lanham, political director for the International Association of Machinists in Smith's district. "But then Mexico says, 'We'll buy your planes but we need you to move some jobs to Mexico.' That's what concerns people. They don't want to worry about losing their jobs to a foreign country."

Smith has also heard from advocates far from home. The opposition lobby, which has been extremely organized, is coordinated from Washington, D.C., by groups such as the Citizen Trade Campaign, an arm of Ralph Nader's consumer and environmental group Public Citizen.

This summer, Smith and 14 other Democrats were invited to the White House, where Clinton and Vice President Gore wooed them. Smith said it's the only time he's been personally lobbied by Clinton. It will probably not be the last.

Fast track is a huge issue for Clinton, who believes he needs it to craft other NAFTA-like agreements and shore up his legacy as an international leader in his last few years of office, White House sources said.

Top administration officials have paid Smith a couple of visits on Capitol Hill. And U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has called on the New Democratic Coalition, a moderate group that includes Smith as a member. For the moment, though, they don't appear to be winning the day.

Smith said he prides himself as a supporter of free trade, but questions how far the country should go in trying to address labor and environmental concerns. The question, he says, is not whether to trade, but how to do it.

Tall, clean-shaven and fresh-faced, the 32-year-old Smith has a legislative style that embodies the personality of his district. Washington state doesn't register voters by party, but Smith's district is generally thought to have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, with a plurality of independents.

The 9th District has shown a willingness to boot first-termers. In 1996, the moderate Smith defeated conservative Republican Randy Tate, who defeated liberal Democrat Mike Kreidler in 1994.

In an interview in his Capitol Hill office yesterday, Smith said he has spent the last few months listening to all sides. He said he's leaning toward opposing the trade measure, based on his concern that it doesn't sufficiently address environmental and labor concerns.

But if the pressure bothers him, Smith does a good job of hiding it.

"I don't sit around going, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, I'm going to lose my job,' " said Smith, whose deceased father was a baggage handler and member of the machinists union. "If I think that way, I probably deserve to lose my job."

Last year, the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club spent tens of thousands of dollars on a television ad campaign aimed at Tate – ads that helped Smith win 50 percent of the vote to Tate's 47 percent. This year, in meetings in his district office, union leaders and environmentalists have not been shy about reminding Smith of the role they played.

"This is an important issue, and [the state's congressmen] need to know the consequences of how they vote," said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, who has personally lobbied Smith.

In the end, it may be the number of those workers and their unease with global trading rules that outweigh the evidence by the management of Boeing, Weyerhaeuser and other companies that trade has been a great boon to the economy.

They would be people like Frances Fialho, an electronics technician who hasn't lobbied Smith. Last year, the electronics manufacturer he worked for in Smith's district closed and moved its plant to Mexico. He said 150 workers lost their jobs. Workers at his plant were able to apply for an extension in unemployment benefits that Congress approved for people whose job loss could be attributed to NAFTA.

Fialho said he's using the money to go back to school for computer training. But the upheaval in his life has been very stressful, he said.

"They're always talking about family values in Washington [D.C.]," Fialho said. "Well, next to my family, those people I worked with were like my family."

Hiott relates a similar experience that she also blames on NAFTA. Her unit at Boeing has been gradually downsized as work making insulation blankets has been transferred to Mexico. However, none of the 145 or so workers will lose their jobs with the company. She and others are being trained to do new jobs and will eventually be moved to other departments.

Nevertheless, she said, morale is low and people are worried that fast track will eventually lead to real job losses. She suspects the only thing that saved their jobs was the prospect of bad public relations for Boeing.

"They very well wouldn't want to lay people off because that would be big-time in the papers," she said.

Boeing spokesman Dick Daulton said he understands the concerns, but sees fast track as only leading to more jobs. "The world market for commercial airplanes is projected at $490 billion from 1997 to 2006. Fast track is what will enable us to compete."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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