A novice at trade, Kantor relies on negotiation to sell NAFTA Fellow Democrats remain the holdouts to agreement

September 12, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Now comes the hard part for U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor: convincing Congress that what will be good for Mexico and Canada also will be good for the United States.

A chorus of critics will try to drown out his Tennessee drawl as he moves this week among Capitol Hill committee rooms, the administration's point man on a daunting campaign -- selling the North American Free Trade Agreement to doubting Democrats.

Mr. Kantor, 54, brings to the job pragmatism, negotiation and salesmanship -- but little background.

When President Clinton chose him to oversee trade policy, Mr. Kantor's personal portfolio was packed mainly with legal and political experience. But his mournful looks and impish sense of humor mask the intense energy he has applied to developing an expertise in trade.

Trade lawyer Jeffrey Lang, who met Mr. Kantor four days after he was nominated, said: "I was astonished that he knew as much as he did. He had much more background and knowledge than you would have expected from a person who had begun thinking about this four days ago."

The reason, says Steve Engelberg, who was Mr. Kantor's chief of staff during his early months as trade representative, is that he studied the issues, held seminars with experts and worked 15 hours a day.

Other trade representatives have learned on the job, too. Mr. Kantor's predecessor in the Bush administration, Carla A. Hills, was a lawyer and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development before she became trade czar. William Brock came to the office from a purely political background in Congress and the Republican Party. And then there was President Jimmy Carter's choice of Robert S. Strauss, the ultimate Democratic wheeler-and-dealer.

All are widely credited with being successful trade representatives. "I really am convinced it is an enormous advantage to have a trade rep who is not mired in the prior politics [of trade]," said Mr. Engelberg, now a partner in the Washington law firm of Keck, Mahin and Cate.

Migrant workers' advocate

Mr. Kantor, whose introduction to business came from watching transactions at his father's furniture store in Nashville, has an unlikely background for promoting international trade. He was an advocate for migrant laborers in Florida and the poor elsewhere before he became a lobbyist for the rich and a friend of the powerful.

During the Carter administration, he served on the Legal Services Corp. from 1978 to 1980. Chairing the group was Hillary Rodham, wife of the newly elected governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

Their friendship led to his post as chairman of Mr. Clinton's presidential campaign. And that reversed a series of unsuccessful political initiatives by Mr. Kantor, who was involved in the presidential runs of Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Walter F. Mondale.

Since 1975 Mr. Kantor has been a partner in the politically well-connected Los Angeles law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor, which represents many powerful companies.

He successfully lobbied against the recall on safety grounds of the Suzuki Motor Corp.'s Samurai model in the late 1980s. His U.S. clients have included Atlantic Richfield Co., Philip Morris Cos., Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Bethesda-based Martin Marietta Corp. (To avoid conflicts in his new job, he excuses himself from considering any case in which a client of the firm has "a unique and special" interest.)

Still, his selection as U.S. trade representative was a complete surprise. As chairman of the Clinton campaign and a seasoned political sage among the yuppies, he seemed destined for a greater political position, perhaps as attorney general.

Policy obscured

Mr. Kantor's lack of trade background initially compounded the confusion among foreign leaders over the administration's policies.

Their alarm and discomfort were understandable. Here was a president, set to reorder international as well as domestic priorities, who had made it clear during the campaign that economics were as important as diplomacy to national security.

When Mr. Clinton laid out his policy, it was simple to the point of bluntness: Be fair to the United States, and the United States will be fair to you. Otherwise -- watch out.

That hard line was not much different from the Bush administration's policy, introduced by Ms. Hills waving a crowbar with which, she said, she would pry open foreign markets. But if the Clinton-Kantor tactics have been less theatrical, they also have been more effective.

It didn't take long for Mr. Kantor to show how it worked. In short order, he:

* Threatened sanctions to force a change in the buy-local procurement policies of European governments.

* Persuaded the South Koreans to accept U.S. telecommunications bids rather than face trade retaliation.

* Threatened Indonesia's trade privileges, worth $650 million a year, unless workers' rights there were improved.

* Squeezed an agreement out of Hungary on protecting U.S. intellectual property rights, including patents, trademarks and copyrights.

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