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Industry Places its Political Bets

Thus far into the 2008 election season, contributors from the nation's retail industry have plowed some $7.7 million into the coffers of presidential hopefuls, and also earmarked portions for friends in Congress or favored challengers — sometimes both.

Contributions by the textiles industry have been more modest but no less strategic, nearing $616,000.

Home Textiles Today derived the data from the Federal Election Commission and the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics; the cutoff point for data was early January.

People within the textiles industry seem to like Hillary Clinton but largely rejected John Edwards (son of a mill worker). Retailers, too, are putting their money on Clinton, but to varying degrees have supported Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain.

In recent election cycles, contributors with links to Linens 'n Things have gone red (Republican); Bed Bath & Beyond favored blue (Democratic), as did Costco. JCPenney was mostly red, as was Wal-Mart.

Home textiles suppliers are almost always red — unless they're based in the Northeast, where bluer candidates find greater favor.

Democrats have gained a few more dollars in 2008 than in past election cycles from the two industries, which have been generally more supportive of Republicans, the data indicate. But it's still too early to make hard comparisons.

The money flows from individuals and from political action committees (PACs) constructed mostly around companies, unions and trade associations (corporations and unions may not contribute directly to a candidate's committee). But a Supreme Court ruling last June weakened the reform-minded McCain-Feingold Act and broadened the definition of issue ads, which some complain are thinly veiled shadow campaigns for or against candidates – recall the Swift Boat Veterans

Hot-button issue

Corporate involvement in politics — particularly fundraising and contributions — is a sensitive issue and often treads some very fine legal boundaries. Most executives were loathe to discuss it, even off the record.

Nationally, only about 1% of PAC money goes to presidential candidates. Instead, most is earmarked for local congressmen and senators, and ranking members of powerful committees.

"PACs want something and they want it now" — so most presidential candidates are of little use. "They want to get to the people in Congress that have the votes to affect their company or industry," said Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

In the textiles industry, individual contributions account for 86% of the total, with 14% from PACs. Within the retail world, PACs make up 30% of the total.

In retailing, Sears Holdings-related contributions in the 2008 cycle have so far topped $88,950, slightly more than half for Democrats, despite chairman Edward Lampert's and cfo William Crowley's support of Republican Mitt Romney.

BBB is the ninth largest retail contributor, ponying up $133,200, with 97% to Democrats, according to the CRP.

The heaviest contributors at BBB are co-founders Leonard Feinstein and Warren Eisenberg, each of whom gave $25,000 last October to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as directly to candidates' committees. BBB president Arthur Stark, meanwhile, provided $2,300 to the presidential bid of Rudy Giuliani.

The BBB contributions barely hold a candle to the $719,808 in contributions with a Wal-Mart connection, 59% of it to Republicans. Nearly all, 92%, is being channeled through PACs. But evp of corporate affairs and government relations Leslie Dach plunked down her own $2,300 for former Wal-Mart board member Hillary Clinton, while vice chairman Mike Duke and ceo Lee Scott coughed up $1,000 each for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Megabucks

With another nine months to go in primary and general election campaigns, insiders predict campaign spending in the presidential race alone will likely exceed $1 billion.

The business side of politics, however, mainly focuses on legislation and regulation — and on congressional contests. Contributions to federal campaigns in 2006 exceeded $2.6 billion; this year's campaigns (including president) will probably touch $4 billion, experts say.

Money and politics are inseparable. In Washington, D.C., there are nearly 40,000 registered lobbyists. Whether seeking favor or a sympathetic ear — or simply contributing to a personal favorite — businesses and the people who run them are at the center of the equation.

"It's not that you're going to gain an audience," just because of a campaign contribution, asserted one home textiles executive whose company runs its own PAC. "But you've got to be engaged in order to be taken seriously. There are a lot of issues — international trade being just one of them — that affect our company. You've got to be involved."

The heaviest contributions in the textiles industry are centered around Milliken and Co., and have to date amounted to $78,233, 97% of it to Republicans. Chairman Roger Milliken placed his financial support, hedged though it was to just $1,200, behind Giuliani.

When it was led by the Close family, Springs Industries had a history in politics, capped when former chairman Crandall Bowles' husband, Erskine, became chief of staff in the Clinton White House and later launched an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2004. Following the takeover by Brazil-based Coteminas, the Springs PAC was terminated.

Policy goals

Among a multitude of issues, textiles companies are seeking help on agriculture policies to lower the cost of cotton, emergency loan guarantees, stop-gap measures in foreign trade and, along with retailers, tax breaks and incentives.

The retailers are spending time resisting some increased port security measures and lobbying for an increase in the amount of time truckers may spend on the road.

Former textiles mill workers have their own issues, namely jobs. In Lancaster, S.C., where Springs machinery once clattered incessantly, the unemployment rate stands at 9.9% — 5% higher than the U.S. average.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was the No. 1 recipient of textiles industry money ($70,250) and the 11th largest recipient of retailer funds ($61,800) thus far in the 2008 election cycle, even though he faced no significant primary challenge.

Graham sits on the Senate Agriculture; Judiciary; and Budget Committees and is ranking member of the Subcommittee on Domestic and Foreign Marketing, Inspection, and Plant and Animal Health. His voting record got a National Retail Federation 100% rating.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) received $108,115 from the retailers. He has a 100% voting rating from the NRF and he sits on the Senate Agriculture; Homeland Security; and Small Business Committees.

And, Sen. George Voinovich, (R-Ohio) received $15,050 in contributions from the textiles industry. He sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works; Homeland Security; and Government Affairs Committees.

Across the textiles industry, the dollars headed to candidates' campaigns seem to be getting smaller, and the sources of those funds fewer. As the U.S.-based manufacturing industry continues to thin out — regrouping off-shore and melding into international operations — the issue of domestic political influence may simply become moot, but perhaps instead will warp into an outflow of donations that treat internationally-based politicos as extensions of those whose home offices are on American soil.

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