Prepping for Midterms

The footwear industry’s political action committees have given thousands of dollars to federal candidates in the run-up to the Nov. 2 congressional election, backing people who they hope will share their views on issues ranging from international trade to climate change.

With the entire House and one-third of the Senate at stake, the industry’s PACs targeted key Democrats and Republicans in tight contests during the 2009-2010 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records and the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats control the House and Senate and are seeking to maintain and increase their margins to push their agenda, while Republicans are gunning for a sea change in public support and are seeking to win back majorities in one or both chambers.

Two of the biggest trade-related legislative issues for the industry during this election cycle have been the Affordable Footwear Act, a bill that would permanently eliminate duties on certain types of lower-priced and children’s footwear, and a temporary tariff suspension known as the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill. Congress finally passed that bill last month and sent it to President Obama for his signature.

The American Apparel & Footwear Association has given a total of $40,300 to candidates and political committees thus far in this election cycle. (The FEC records are from January 2009 through July 2010, and the industry still has another quarter of giving to political candidates before the midterm elections.)

Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the AAFA, said the Affordable Footwear Act, which has been stalled in Congress, remains the group’s No. 1 trade issue. The measure would eliminate some $800 million in duties, or 40 percent of the total duties the U.S. collects on footwear imports annually.

The group gave a $2,000 contribution to Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and $1,000 to Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the two leading co-sponsors of the bill.

“They were the first supporters to help us get rolling on the Affordable Footwear Act, and they have been very supportive of trying to move that issue along,” Burke said. “And they’re also free traders.”

Burke said the AAFA supports members of both parties who champion issues impacting the industry.

“We don’t support candidates who are not supportive of our issues. That is clear and simple,” Burke said. “They are either with us or not with us.”

Nike Inc., which has given $30,400 in this election cycle, rates international trade issues as a top factor when it doles out contributions.

“We are pretty focused on who we give to and what we give to,” a Nike spokeswoman said. “Free trade is a very important issue to us.”

Climate change and energy policies are also high on Nike’s list. The company, which belongs to Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy, or BICEP, gave $3,250 to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) because he is a “big advocate of climate and sustainability issues.” BICEP, whose other founding members include Levi Strauss & Co. and Timberland Co., aims to spur climate and energy legislation in Congress that establishes a cap on carbon emissions and sets short- and long-term reduction goals for greenhouse gases.

Other large companies are throwing their support behind committee chairmen who wield significant influence.

Collective Brands Inc. has given just $3,400 in this election cycle, but its contributions have been targeted. For example, the firm gave $750 to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade and tax legislation.

Reebok International Ltd., which has contributed $6,000 in this election cycle, gave $500 to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the powerful chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee; $2,000 to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who sits on the Senate Finance Committee; $500 to Blumenauer and $1,500 to Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.).

But lawmakers who receive substantial industry backing don’t always align themselves with the industry’s objectives.

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), a two-term House Democrat who is running for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), is an example of the political gamble the industry often faces. Hodes received contributions from the PACs of the AAFA, Collective Brands, the Outdoor Industry Association and Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America in this election cycle, but he was the only Democrat in the House of Representatives to vote against the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, for which the footwear industry had been vigorously lobbying. The legislation will reinstate tariff breaks and provide retroactive refunds to companies that had paid the duties for the past seven months.

“From the OIA’s perspective, there is a vibrant outdoor recreational economy in the state of New Hampshire, and Hodes is typically supportive of the outdoor recreation industry from a public lands perspective and international trade perspective,” said Alex Boian, director of trade policy for the OIA. “We were disappointed with his vote on the MTB bill, but we are confident over the long term that he will strongly support the OIA agenda as evidenced by his support of the Affordable Footwear Act.”

The OIA’s PAC, which was launched in 2008, gave $6,000 in this election cycle: $1,000 to Hodes and $5,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the Senate. The PAC contributes to both Republicans and Democrats.

The FDRA, which has donated $2,100 in this cycle, places less of an emphasis on contributions and relies more on grassroots activities, said Matt Priest, president of the association. The group has given to Hodes and to Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), who is running for her second term in the House and is “new to the scene and supportive of our industry.”

Priest said FDRA also partners with other associations in coalitions on issues such as the tariff-dropping bills.

“When you advocate on behalf of working families — and footwear is a commodity that everyone needs no matter which congressional district you live in — it’s easy to drive change without having to make political contributions,” said Priest.

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