SKOWHEGAN — U.S. Senate candidate Angus King met with New Balance shoe managers Tuesday, vowing to halt trade talks that could eliminate duties on imported footwear.

“This represents American manufacturing and we just can not let it go without a fight,” King said outside the Skowhegan plant. “I’m telling them that this trade agreement would be a disaster; it would probably spell the end of this facility. The promise is that I’m going to fight this, hard.”

King, 68, is seeking to fill the seat that U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who is leaving after deciding not to seek re-election. He faces Secretary of State Charlie Summers, the Republican nominee, and Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Dill in the November election.

King said he is preparing a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk on the issue of the Transpacific Partnership, a multi-nation trade agreement under negotiation, in theory, to create jobs in the U.S. by increasing exports to the Asia-Pacific region, according to Kirk’s office. Kirk is scheduled to visit the New Balance plant in September.

The agreement also would eliminate some tariffs, or import fees, on goods such as shoes, from those countries.

Negotiating members are the U.S., Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and Brunei. Canada and Mexico have also been invited to join the negotiations.

New Balance employs about 900 people in Maine at three factories in Oxford, Norridgewock and Skowhegan — and 3,000 across the country. The company is concerned about the possibility that the tariff on athletic footwear could be eliminated in a trade agreement with Vietnam, according to King’s campaign.

This step could have dire consequences for New Balance and Maine, King said following his tour of the Skowhegan plant.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me, that in this economy we’re even talking about doing anything that could jeopardize American jobs,” he said. “It’s just unacceptable.”

King said trade discussions should be put on hold until the economy rebounds. He said doing away with the tariffs would level the playing field for other countries to sell their products in the U.S. and hurt jobs in Maine.

“It’s the difference between this plant staying open and not,” he said. “This is really important because these are real people supporting this whole region and there’s no earthly reason they should change this and put these people out of a job.”

King said he has talking to U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-2nd District, about the tariffs and the Berry Amendment, which requires that the Defense Department buy certain products from American companies. New Balance plant manager Patrick Welch said company executives want to make sure the law applies to footwear, along with food, clothing, fabrics, stainless steel and some tools.

Congress first established the domestic purchasing mandate in 1941 and for decades the military complied by issuing American-made uniforms, including athletic footwear, for American troops, Michaud said in a letter last year to President Barack Obama.

In recent years, however, the Defense Department has circumvented the policy by issuing cash allowances to soldiers for their own purchase of training shoes. Welch said company executives want the administration to interpret the amendment in its original meaning.

“The Berry Amendment is the mandate that all our military be dressed head to toe in domestically-sourced product,” Welch said.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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