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Democratic Votes on Trade Still Scarce

By Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8 1997; Page A08

Armed with a head full of facts and figures, Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio) offers an almost professorial discourse on the merits of bringing down barriers and expanding international trade.

He believes his district in northeastern Ohio is flourishing largely because of global trade. But if you ask him whether he will vote for a measure designed to expand President Clinton's authority to negotiate future trade agreements, the best you can get is that he is undecided but "inclined to support it."

The ambivalence of Sawyer's public position is indicative of what Clinton faces on this measure, known as "fast track." Today, the measure faces a key vote in the House Ways and Means Committee where, despite weeks of lobbying by the White House, the handful of necessary Democratic votes have been painfully scarce.

Sawyer is like a substantial number of Democrats who know that no matter how hard the White House pushes – Sawyer has been invited to the White House several times – they have to face a substantial number of suspicious voters back home. For these voters, the issue of "trade" has become a metaphor for broader economic problems.

Largely poor or working class, they have seen their lives or the lives of friends disrupted by far-reaching changes in business over the last two decades. Now they find themselves holding steady at best while those around them prosper in the humming global economy. The number of those voters may ultimately decide if fast track wins or loses.

"There are a lot of people here who believe we have given away a lot more than we've gained with trade agreements," Sawyer said in an interview in his district office near the University of Akron. "It is easier to elevate people's discomfort than it is to return their comfort."

Sawyer's discomfort has been intensified by a costly labor-financed television ad campaign that denounces fast track and urges people to call him. As of late last week, Sawyer's office had logged 418 constituent calls, most urging opposition.

"I just had $100,000 spent against me in my media market," Sawyer said, noting the basis for his caution.

A former Akron mayor and state legislator, Sawyer has won his six congressional elections handily. But trade issues have proved difficult in this Democratic stronghold with a big labor base. So far, he has been willing to buck labor, voting in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement and others in recent years.

But this year, Sawyer is concerned about the impact the labor ads may be having on a constituency that has seen its city, once a vibrant and healthy tire manufacturing hub, fall on tough times as the nation shifted from an industrial to a service economy.

For much of the last two decades, this Rust Belt city had fallen on hard times. But the economy has looked rosier, rather than rustier, of late. The Akron region has experienced a net increase of about 36,000 jobs since 1989, according to the Akron Regional Development Board.

As the tire industry, and other manufacturing industries, have left, high-tech and service industries have filled the void.

The Akron area has one of the highest concentrations of companies specializing in plastics and synthetic rubber, an outgrowth of the tire industry. And many of those companies rely on exports to survive.

Total exports shot up to $2.3 billion last year, from $1.9 billion the year before, Sawyer noted. The city ranked 51st of 253 cities in the value of finished goods exported, according to a recent Commerce Department study. The higher-ranked cities were larger, or the East or West coasts.

John and Kay Putman count themselves among those who have benefited from global trade. They started a company 15 years ago that builds specialized polymer testing equipment. John Putman's father worked for a tire company for 47 years. And he worked for a rubber company before starting his company, which employs about 30 people.

About 45 percent of the company's business is exports.

The couple said they would like to see Congress pass fast track. Akron, they said, has gained more than it lost from global trade. And unlike many people they know, they do not blame the death of the tire industry in Akron so much on global trade as on a combination of complicated economic forces. The creation of small- and medium-sized companies that trade overseas has helped rescue the local economy, they argue.

"We really are competing globally now," John Putman said. "And there are a lot of marginal [countries] where the only way they're going to improve their labor and economic standards is to bring in some business."

Not everyone feels that way. Job growth has exceeded payroll growth in the Akron area, suggesting a slight decline in worker wages, according to the regional development board.

Art Minson, 83, said he has seen the gravy train pass many by. For 40 years he worked at Goodyear, before retiring in 1980 as an inspector of racing tires.

A former union activist, he has spent much of his time since working in soup kitchens and running shelters for the poor. He believes trade agreements have forced down wages.

"We have more jobs, but less money," Minson said. "What this is doing is diminishing the middle class. That's the way I see it, and that's the way it is."

Minson said his former union associates have been burning up his telephone line, asking him to lobby Sawyer, whom he knows from political circles. But he has not, because he understands Sawyer "is a Democrat and he has to help the president on this."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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