Ron Kirk’s Deputy Trade Cops

posted by
on April 6, 2009

On April 3, newly sworn-in U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced his new senior staff members. Before taking a closer look at the credentials and backgrounds of the key men and women who will be helping formulate and implement the Obama administration’s international trade policies — including some telling details that the USTR didn’t include in his official press release — first briefly consider the overarching political context.

Talk about the permanent campaign. Kirk’s top team is heavy on political fundraising experience and campaign skills — so heavy in political talent that it looks like a future campaign-staff-in-waiting. Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002. And whether or not Kirk uses his new job as President Obama’s top trade negotiator as a personal political springboard, he and his team would seem to be positioned to advance an Obama reelection campaign in 2012. Last year, John McCain easily beat Obama in Texas, 56%-44%. Next time around, Texas Democrats like Kirk could hope to at least force the Republican opposition to divert money from other key battleground states to Texas — a red state rich in Electoral College votes that, the Democrats would hope, the Republicans could not afford to take for granted. And of course, the USTR can pick trade fights that will also play well in other politically important states (please forgive a crusty old reporter’s cynicism that would suggest such an agenda).

If Kirk is looking for a model on how a U.S. trade representative can use the office for maximum political advantage for a sitting president, Mickey Kantor showed how it can be done. Kantor played a lead role in the Clinton-Gore 1992 presidential campaign, and was then tapped by President Bill Clinton as his first U.S. trade negotiator. The politically astute USTR Kantor skillfully turned the resentments that the Detroit auto lobby had concerning its Japanese competition into a major political issue, threatening to slap 100% tariffs on Japanese autos. It was quite a fight — or at least, the appearance of quite a fight. By the time Kantor was done, Clinton was positioned to run for reelection in 1996 as a president who had the gumption to stand up to the “unfair” foreigners. It was a classic smoke-and-mirrors act, but one that worked politically. A grateful Clinton then promoted Kantor to be his next secretary of commerce.

While we wait for Kirk’s record to unfold, here’s the rundown of the new deputy U.S. trade cops who will play key roles in helping him set that record.

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Kirk’s chief of staff is Julianna Smoot. The daughter of now-retired North Carolina golf pro Ed Smoot, Julianna Smoot was the Obama 2008 national finance director. Before Obama sought her out, Smoot had previously raised money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when it was headed by Sen. Chuck Schumer.

The Washington Post profiled Smoot in Oct. 2007, calling her “the $75 million woman.” The reference was to the first millions that Smoot had helped raise for Obama by the previous month — some 14 months before the Nov. 2008 elections. Smoot had spearheaded “the beginning of a fundraising juggernaut that, perhaps more than any other single factor, helped transform Obama into a serious contender for the presidency,” Post reporter Matthew Mosk noted.

When Obama first approached her on a cold day in January, 2007, Smoot told Mosk that the Illinois senator had a rather skimpy list of potential contributors. “He asked me what he should do, and I said, ‘Start calling. And don’t forget to ask for their credit card numbers.’”

By the time Smoot was done, the Obama campaign had raised a record $750 million.

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Lisa Garcia is the assistant U.S. trade representative for the Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison office. Translation: She will deal with the pressure groups. “Garcia will lead domestic outreach efforts to state and local governments, the business and agricultural communities, labor, environmental, non-governmental organizations, consumer groups and state and local governments on trade matters,” according to Kirk’s April 3 press release announcing the appointment. “She will also be responsible for improving the public’s understanding of U.S. trade policies through education and strategic communications initiatives.”

Although the official press release didn’t mention it, Garcia seems to be well-informed on one current hot trade topic that the public tends to find a tad confusing. Before she became involved in Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign — where she focused on the races in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Virginia and Maryland — Garcia was a political operative for EDS, the company that Ross Perot originally founded in Plano, Texas in the early 1960s. EDS is in the business of outsourcing jobs, having “founded the information technology outsourcing industry nearly 50 years ago,” as the company’s website notes.

As government relations director for Electronic Data Systems, Garcia was well-positioned to see the domestic political outcry over outsourcing from ground zero. EDS maintains the computer- and communications infrastructure for call centers practically everywhere they exist: from India’s Bangalore to similar outsourcing facilities in countries including Canada, China, Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Hungary, Egypt, Australia, and New Zealand. EDS clients are said to include the UK Ministry of Defence, Royal Dutch Shell, Bank of America, and General Motors. Say, that’s pretty good international business experience — wonder why this detail wasn’t in Kirk’s press release?

Garcia grew up in Houston and earned a BA degree in communication from the University of Texas. Garcia has also worked on a number of political campaigns in Texas, including those for Barbara Jordan, Paul Hobby (for controller in 1998), Mario Gallegos (state senate, 1994) and Mickey Leland, according to a press release put out by the 2004 Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign. She also worked for the Texas Legislator for some six years.

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Every campaign needs an issues director, which brings us to Peter Cowhey, the new senior counselor to USTR Kirk. Cowhey is on leave as Dean of the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and Qualcomm Professor at the University of California, San Diego.

By contrast to the overtly political types on Kirk’s team, Cowhey brings some heavyweight international trade credentials to his new job.

A USTR spokeswoman declines to say how Cowhey, who apparently was not associated with the Obama presidential campaign before he was tapped to serve on the incoming administration’s transition team, was tapped for a top administration job. But it would appear that Cowhey’s main connection was Reed Hundt, a key player on the Obama transition team for international trade and economic agencies. During the Clinton administration, Hundt served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

From March, 1997 until he stepped down on August 11, 1997, Cowhey worked for Hundt as chief of the FCC’s international bureau. At the FCC, Cowhey oversaw “many important international proceedings including the Commission’s recent action lowering international telephone settlement rates,” the commission’s press release noted upon his departure. “He also guided new proposals on how to implement the WTO agreement on basic telecommunications services by changes in the Commission’s rules governing foreign investment and service to the U.S. market by foreign communications satellites.” As Hundt put it: “Peter was the architect of the FCC’s participation in the WTO negotiations on telecommunications, as well as the settlement rate benchmarks policies adopted last week by the Commission.”

Cowhey also has been a board member of the renowned Grameen Foundation, which makes micro-credit available to some of the world’s poorest people. The Grameen Foundation was launched in Dhaka, Bangladesh by Muhammad Yunus, the CEO of the Grameen Bank. For his efforts to help impoverished people help themselves climb out of poverty, Yunus and his bank won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

On the foundation’s board, Cowhey worked with such luminaries of the business world as Vikram Gandhi, the managing director of Credite Suisse, and Lucy Billingsley, a Texas-based real estate power and a partner in the Billingsley Company. Billingsley says that she is “a huge fan” of both Kirk and Cowhey, although she had not known of Cowhey’s newest job until this reporter contacted her.

Cowhey’s Grameen connection is interesting because of a key policy issue it brings to mind. Nobel laureate Yunus has been quite outspoken in pointing out the inequities associated with high U.S. tariffs on clothing and shoes that adversely affect poor women in his native country. “The vast majority of Bangladesh’s exports consist of apparel,” the Grameen founder told the Senate Finance Committee on May 16, 2007. “Far from receiving duty-free treatment in its access to the U.S. market, Bangladesh is actually subject to the fourth-highest average tariff rates among all U.S. trading partners. The denial of duty-free access to major exports from Bangladesh to the U.S. market is a constraint on the socio-economic development of Bangladesh.”

This is a very important issue, although politicians from George W. Bush and John McCain to Barack Obama have long ignored it, for the obvious domestic political reasons associated with the special pleaders in the entrenched U.S. textile lobby. Will Cowhey agree that one of the most important steps that the Obama administration could take to elevate America’s moral standing in international trade circles would be to support legislation to get rid of these terrible tariffs? And will he lift a finger by way of making that happen? Stay tuned.

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Tim Reif is Kirk’s new general counsel. The good news about Reif — who earned his law degree from Columbia University and his BA and Master of Public Affairs degrees from Princeton — is his intelligence, dedication, and strong background in international trade law and negotiations. The bad news is that, as the chief international trade counsel for the Ways and Means Committee, where he worked for Michigan Democrat Sander Levin, Reif has worked the protectionist side of the street. He’s the USTR connection for the protectionists in the auto lobby, the textile lobby, the steel lobby, the petitioners’ side of the international trade bar that presses U.S. anti-dumping litigation, Buy American…you name it. To advocates of open markets, Reif is trouble, at least in the view of folks who take a dim view of protectionism — but like his former boss Sandy Levin, whom nobody in Washington, D.C. dislikes personally, trouble with a friendly face.

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The thread that runs through the rest of the new USTR key political appointees is politics.

Myesha Ward, the deputy assistant USWTR for the Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison office, was the Midwest regional political director and deputy director for delegate operations for the Obama for America campaign.

Daniel Sepulveda, the assistant USTR for congressional affairs, worked on trade, immigration, interstate commerce, labor, and ethics reform issues for Sen. Obama from 2004-2008. Before that, Sepulveda advised Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat, on trade. (During the Obama campaign, Sepulveda took the position that there were no votes for his candidate among women from countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh, according to several insiders who asked not to be identified by name.)

Luis Jimenez, the deputy assistant USTR for congressional affairs, is White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s man. Jimenez was the legislative director for the Democratic Caucus when Emanuel chaired the caucus.

Charles Small, a congressional affairs specialist for Kirk, worked as entertainment liaison for the Obama inaugural committee. During last year’s elections, Small helped get out the vote for the Obama for America 2008 campaign. He also is a former Barbara Boxer aide.

Averyl Bailey, the new director of scheduling and advance, is a former advance woman for the Obama for America campaign. She is also a former vice president of public affairs for Frisby & Associates, the public-affairs consultancy headed by former Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Frisby. The firm’s client list includes the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust. Frisby & Associates has also done work for the Maynard institute, which trains “journalists of color for meaningful positions in newsrooms across the country.” Bailey also did advance work for the Kerry-Edwards 2004 presidential campaign, and in Al Gore’s 2000 presidential race. She was a spokeswoman for Rodney Slater, who was Bill Clinton’s secretary of transportation from 1997-2000.

Devorah Adler, who worked on the Ron Kirk for U.S. Senate campaign in 2002, is the new USTR executive secretary. She was the research director for the Obama for America campaign, and was one of the staffers that Sen. Obama hired in January, 2007. Her first assignment, Adler told Politico.com, was to shoot down the now-infamous anonymous e-mails that claimed that Obama was a Muslim who hated America. In 2006, Adler — who has also worked for Nancy Pelosi and Tom Daschle — ran opposition research as the research director of the Democratic National Committee.

Stacy Koo is the confidential assistant to Chief of Staff Julianna Smoot, for whom she worked when Smoot was raising money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. After that, Koo worked as a special assistant for the committee’s chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer. Koo is also the USTR’s associate director of scheduling and advance. She was the finance chief for the Obama presidential inaugural committee.

Brett Rosenthal, the personal assistant to Kirk, is a Texan who was the coordinated campaign director and co-chairman of the Obama 2008 campaign in Tarrant County (the Dallas/Ft. Worth area). Rosenthal seems to be a bright young fellow who worked his way up in the campaign, having started a field organizer during the primary season, then working on managing correspondence during the general election. He’s got a BA in political science from Yale.