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Textile trade wars becoming bigger political issue

It's Monday morning, and the challenge of filling a nearly blank computer screen is as formidable as ever. But my task is nothing compared to that Albert A. Frink Jr., a California business executive, has agreed to take on.

In his new position of assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing and services, Frink will be responsible for reversing the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. Some believe Frink's success could help determine whether his boss serves another term in the White House.

The nominee should be no stranger to job losses. Frink is the founder of Fabrica International, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based company that manufactures carpeting. He has also served on a federal advisory panel on textiles, the manufacturing sector that has been hit about as hard as any.

Industry officials estimate that 337,000 or 32 percent of all U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing jobs have disappeared since China joined the World Trade Organization in January 2001.

“Mr. Frink's extensive background as a manufacturer makes him a great candidate to serve in this position because he has walked in their shoes and knows firsthand the barriers,” said Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, who introduced Frink during a tour of a plant in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

The California executive is the second person picked for the post after it was created last September. The first, the CEO of a Columbus, Neb.-based manufacturing company, withdrew from consideration after reports said his firm had laid off 75 workers while announcing it was building a plant in China.

Although it's scrambling now to rectify the problem, this administration has been slow to catch on to the depth of feeling over the movement of American jobs to China, India and other countries.

The chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisors made the headlines a few weeks ago when he said that the out-sourcing of computer-programming jobs in places like India was not necessarily bad for the U.S. economy. Other officials have created flaps with similar comments since then, but the White House is trying to get back on track.

The issue is becoming especially heated in states like North Carolina, which has lost an estimated 100,000 jobs to textile mill closings and layoffs. Even the state's Republican congressmen have been asking the administration to do more to stem the tide of Chinese textile imports and other foreign goods.

In recent days, Erskine Bowles, former Clinton chief of staff and a candidate for the open Senate seat in North Carolina, has promised to not vote for new trade agreements unless existing trade rules are enforced.

His opponent, Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C., accused Bowles of flip-flopping on Clinton's pro-trade stances. A Bowles spokesman says his candidate hasn't changed his views. “He has always believed in free trade and fair trade, but what we see now is neither,” the spokesman said.

If both sides would take that message to heart in the next few months, maybe Frink's challenge would be less formidable.


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