December 12, 2019
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Politicians have proven their New Balance cred. Now what?

Alex Barber | BDN
Alex Barber | BDN
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman (right) listens about work in the New Balance factory in Norridgewock on Monday. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine (left), and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also listen.

Newly appointed U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman last week visited New Balance’s manufacturing facility in Norridgewock. As is customary with everything involving the footwear manufacturer’s three Maine factories, members of the state’s congressional delegation rushed to claim credit for the visit and prove their New Balance cred.

Independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud accompanied Froman on his tour through the facility. Republican Sen. Susan Collins couldn’t make it, but she sent a letter welcoming Froman to Norridgewock.

“Sen. King successfully secured Mr. Froman’s visit to New Balance by objecting to the Senate proceeding to his nomination in mid-June,” read a joint news release from the trio. “Sen. Collins and Rep. Michaud, who also invited Mr. Froman to Maine, have a long record of supporting America’s domestic rubber footwear industry.”

While every other producer of athletic footwear has abandoned its stateside manufacturing, New Balance continues to make about a quarter of its sneakers in the United States. The Boston-based company employs 900 workers in Maine at its Norridgewock, Norway and Skowhegan facilities.

And those jobs could be at risk as the U.S. negotiates the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement with 10 Pacific Rim nations. As part of those negotiations, Vietnam is demanding that the tariffs the U.S. imposes on Vietnamese-made athletic footwear imports be nixed.

Given its economic significance to Maine, it makes sense for the state’s congressional delegation to fight for New Balance and any policy that makes it viable for the company to continue manufacturing here.

It also makes sense for Maine’s congressional delegation to fight for another of Maine’s legacy industries that employs thousands in the state: paper manufacturing.

A bill pending in the House aimed at combating counterfeit pharmaceuticals would allow drug manufacturers to disclose required patient safety information electronically, rather than through the paper inserts they currently use. The problem is paper mills in Madawaska and Bucksport make those paper inserts. Any shift away from a reliance on paper endangers hundreds of Maine jobs.

Thus, alarm bells for Maine’s congressional delegation.

“While we believe the current system is an effective way to ensure patient safety, we also understand the need to keep up with technological innovations,” Michaud, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and 18 other representatives wrote in a joint letter to the chairmen of the relevant House and Senate committees. “However, the health care industry is not yet equipped with the technology to transition to electronic labeling without impacting patient safety.”

Congress can’t manage to get much of anything done these days. So it’s a worthwhile pursuit anytime one of Maine’s congressional representatives can accomplish something and defend jobs.

But as they devote their energy to sneakers, paper and other Maine legacy industries, that’s energy the state’s congressional representatives aren’t devoting to industries and initiatives that are likely to grow jobs in Maine’s future economy.

While we hope the Maine jobs manufacturing paper and sneakers remain viable in the 21st century, the reality is those industries employ fewer Maine residents today than they did decades, or even five years, ago.

But as their economic importance diminishes, the traditional sectors of Maine’s economy seem to attract more attention from Maine’s congressional delegation — and more headlines — than the up-and-coming sectors and the policies needed to prepare Maine’s workforce for the future economy.

It’s logical to focus on the industries with which voters are most familiar. They employ people we know, and they employ them today. A politician who successfully fights for a policy that protects existing jobs can claim a tangible success. It’s more difficult politically to make the case for an industry that isn’t yet established.

That doesn’t mean, however, that preserving the present is a more important job for our congressional delegation than fighting for the future.

We want to see Maine’s congressional delegation devote just as much energy, if not more, to fighting for businesses that have the potential to grow jobs in Maine in the coming years. The state’s congressional delegation has done important work, for example, to help the University of Maine and Ocean Renewable Power Co. develop, respectively, the offshore wind and tidal energy technologies those entities are now piloting off Maine’s coast.

But we want to see them do more in that arena. We want to see our senators and representatives focus constituents’ attention on the importance of education and infrastructure investments that will pay future dividends. That means we want our congressional delegation to be just as outraged that sequestration has forced Head Start programs to close their doors early as they have been about sequestration’s potential to force flight delays.

From our leaders, we want forward thinking.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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