WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump's pick for commerce secretary said Wednesday that he favors "sensible trade," is pro-union and believes his vast business dealings have given him experience fighting other countries' unfair trade practices.
Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross cited his relationship with the United Steelworkers Union, which has endorsed him for the Cabinet post, as proof that he will work to protect American jobs.
"I'm pro-trade. But I'm pro-sensible trade, not trade that is detrimental to the American worker and to the domestic manufacturing base," Ross told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
"I think I've probably had more direct experience than any prior cabinet nominee has had with unfair trade in the steel business, in the textile business, in the auto parts business and other sectors," Ross said.
Ross has an extensive history in Northwest Indiana. He formed International Steel Group by snapping up distressed steelmakers in the early 2000s, when more than 30 steel companies went bankrupt. He acquired Acme Steel, LTV Steel Corp., Bethlehem Steel and the Gary Plate Mill of U.S. Steel, restarting idled mills in East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Riverdale.
He cut employment, wages and benefits, for instance eliminating about half the jobs at LTV Steel and Bethlehem Steel. Ross also dumped pensions and slashed retiree benefits for more than 190,000 retirees. After getting the companies back in better fiscal shape, he sold the mills to ArcelorMittal precursor Mittal Steel for $4.5 billion, pocketing $300 million in the process.
Nevertheless, Gerard and other USW officials credit Ross with being a square shooter in negotiations to revive the steel mills, which entailed painful concessions, but eventually allowed them to emerge from bankruptcy.
Now worth an estimated $2.9 billion, Ross has extensive business ties around the globe. Supporters say that makes him ideal to represent American business interests abroad.
"I believe his extensive management experience in the private sector, and his understanding of the challenges faced by workers and businesses alike, will equip him well for the job of leading the Department of Commerce," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the committee chairman.
Trump has said Ross will play a big role in American trade policy. Trump's views on trade are at odds with many congressional Republicans. He has pledged to re-negotiate existing trade deals and scrap a pending one with Asian countries.
Ross said the North American Free Trade Agreement, involving the U.S., Canada and Mexico, "is logically the first thing for us to deal with."
"That will be a very, very early topic in this administration," Ross added.
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The commerce secretary has several roles in promoting American business interests in the U.S. and abroad. The department works on trade issues, working to attract foreign investment in the U.S. The department also oversees agencies that manage fisheries, weather forecasting and the Census Bureau, which will conduct a census in 2020.
Ross said he has unique experience at that agency; he was a census-taker while he attended business school.
Unlike the president-elect, Ross has agreed to divorce himself from a vast financial empire.
Ross has signed an ethics agreement with the Office of Government Ethics. In it, he agrees to divest from 40 different businesses and investments within 90 days of being confirmed. He agreed to divest from 40 more within 180 days.
Among the businesses he will separate himself from is WL Ross & Co., the private equity firm he founded in 2000.
Trump has had a run-in with the head of the ethics agency because he says he won't completely divest himself from his business empire. Instead, Trump says he will turn control of his business over to his sons.
Walter Shaub Jr., who directs the office, said Trump's plan is insufficient to avoid conflicts of interest.
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate committee, praised Ross for divesting from most of his personal holdings.
"I believe that's the right thing to do and it tells me you're committed to doing the job the right way by placing the public's interests ahead of your own," Nelson said. "It's my hope that President-elect Trump will follow your lead and the example you set."
Ross' private equity firm buys failing companies and repairs them to make them presentable to investors. The firm then sells the investment through a sale or public offering.
Much of the firm's work is in struggling industries, including textiles, subprime mortgage servicing, steel and coal.
Times reporter Joseph S. Pete contributed to this report.