The Shoe Industry’s Battle Cry Ahead of the 2018 Midterms: ‘We Want Certainty’

With the 2018 midterm elections just four days away, those rallying on behalf of the footwear industry in Washington, D.C., say — after months of tumult — they’re eyeing one thing: certainty.

“For our industry, the best outcome is cooler heads prevailing on the trade space — no matter who’s in power,” said Matt Priest, president and CEO of D.C.-based Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America. “Things are so upside down: The Trump administration has flipped the script on a number of things, and trade is one of them. He’s not behaving like a normal Republican would in the trade space. So it’s hard to know how you want things to turn out. All I know is, we want certainty.”

This year, the fashion industry — apparel and handbags in particular — has shouldered a series of both threatened and enacted tariffs as the U.S. and China spiraled into a trade war. The battle was initiated in March when President Donald Trump slapped sweeping steel and aluminum tariffs on several countries, including China.

Since then, the global trade tit for tat has seen the U.S. place new levies on $250 billion in Chinese imports, including apparel and handbags. Although footwear was spared from a direct hit, industry insiders have said the new tariffs will have implications for shoe firms and their consumers, who will grapple with rising costs of goods. (Beijing retaliated against the U.S. with tariffs on $110 billion of American goods.)

“The biggest issue facing our industry now is trade policy and the prospect that more tariffs on U.S. footwear and apparel imports from China will soon be assessed,” said Steve Lamar, EVP at the American Apparel and Footwear Association. “Although tariff policy is currently in the hands of the Trump administration, that power ultimately resides with Congress because of Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. This election will decide who controls Congress, its agenda for 2019 and whether Congress will reassert its authority to set and manage trade and tariff policy.”

Still, Priest cautioned that in the current government structure, he’s seen Trump’s trade policy tilt more to the left — favoring tariffs and protectionist rhetoric — with little intervention from a Republican-controlled House. If things change and, as projected, Democrats take control of the House, he said the shoe industry may actually experience an exacerbation of trade perils.

“Our question is: Who will emerge from the Democratic leadership, and what will they do in the trade space?” Priest said. “It will be interesting to see how the Democratic leadership positions itself with all this China stuff — in opposition to Trump, in support of some of his initiatives or if they just remain quiet and let the president do his thing.”

Access exclusive content